A timely warning has been issued to the Environmental Protection Agency that could save it from the type of scandal that currently has one of its sister agencies, the Pentagon, embroiled in an investigation and criminal proceedings.

The federal government's watchdog of the purse strings, the General Accounting Office, has warned the EPA that its screening procedures are lax and inadequate in the letting of research and cleanup contracts under its Superfund program.The EPA has agreed, going so far as to say that the procedures are not just lax or inadequate; they are more on the order of nonexistent.

The Superfund is an ongoing national program to identify sources of pollution, such as abandoned chemical and toxic waste dumps, and clean them up. It is funded by a special tax levied on chemical companies.

The Superfund is an $8.5 billion program that in 1988 alone awarded more than $600 million in contracts, up from the $97.5 million let just six years ago. The Superfund effort is growing astronomically as the severity and extent of the nation's toxic dump problem is recognized.

The GAO was warned that unethical firms could be cashing in on those contracts, first earning big bucks by dumping toxic wastes on contract from the manufacturers, then knocking down more, and bigger, bucks by pointing out the dump site to the EPA and cleaning it up.

To protect themselves and the manufacturers, the GAO points out, fudged or incomplete test data on the substances on site can be forwarded by the contractor to the EPA.

The upshot of the GAO report is this: EPA needs to screen its applicants more closely and double-check the way they carry out the contracts. The EPA acknowledges the deficiencies found by the audit but says it is hampered by a shortage of manpower.

Instead of continuing to hand out multimillion-dollar contracts with no safeguards, the EPA needs to use some of that cash to monitor the work being done by these contracting firms.

It will be cheaper in the long run to ensure the work is done correctly and the sites are cleaned up than to find unethical contractors have cheated the agency, and the taxpayers, and left the hazards intact.