Twenty years ago, residents of Love Canal, N.Y., discovered that their homes had been poisoned and their children were being made sick by 20,000 tons of toxic chemical waste dumped by the Hooker Chemical Co. in the 1940s and 1950s. The plight there outraged the American public and led to the passage in 1980 of the Superfund law to find and clean up the nation's worst toxic dumps.

Unfortunately, Love Canal is not an isolated incident. In thousands of communities nationwide, millions of gallons of chemicals, including lead, arsenic, mercury and dioxin, have been dumped in the midst of unsuspecting neighborhoods.Here in Utah we have 14 sites. They are the legacies of decades of irresponsible use and disposal of toxic chemicals by polluters. These sites poison the land, contaminate drinking water sources and potentially cause cancer, birth defects, nerve damage and other health effects.

The central principle of the Superfund law is that polluters - those responsible for creating the mess - not taxpayers - should pay to clean up these deadly toxic waste sites. In addition to providing funding for the cleanups (and ensuring that taxpayers don't get stuck footing the bill), the "polluter pays" principle creates a powerful disincentive against the reckless dumping of toxic wastes.

Ever since Superfund was created, insurance companies and polluters like DuPont, General Electric and Union Carbide have lobbied Congress to roll back the "polluter pays" principle and weaken cleanup standards at the nation's worst toxic waste sites. In addition, these groups have fought efforts to expand the public's right to know about toxic chemicals used in the workplace, consumer products and communities. Over the past seven years, they have contributed more than $96 million to congressional candidates to make sure their views are heard.

Now, on the 20th anniversary of Love Canal, at least three major bills that would achieve industry's goals are moving through Congress. In the House, Reps. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, and Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., have introduced bills that would let polluters off the hook, weaken cleanup standards and fail to expand the public's right to know about toxic chemical use in their communities. And in the Senate, Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., Bob Smith, R-N.H., and John Chafee, R-R.I., have introduced SB8, a similar Superfund rollback bill.

The Boehlert bill, HR2727, was already approved in a key subcommittee and could be taken up by the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee at any time. SB8 was already voted out of the Senate Environment Committee in March and could be brought to a Senate vote at any time.

The tax on the chemical and oil industries that pays for Superfund cleanups expired in December 1995. Major Super-fund polluters and their allies in Congress refuse to restore the cleanup tax until one of the bills to weaken Superfund is passed, holding the money for cleanups hostage. Every day the tax is not restored, $4 million for cleaning up hazardous waste sites goes uncollected. However, there is a bill in the House, HR3262, sponsored by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., that is supported by the environment and public health community. The Pallone bill would broad-en the "polluter pays" principle, strengthen cleanup standards and expand the public's right to know about toxics in their com-mun-ities.

This summer, across the country, citizens and activists will be remembering the story of Love Canal while they fight battles against toxic wastes in their own neighborhoods and pressure Congress to strengthen, not weaken, our existing environmental protections.

While Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett have cosponsored SB8, a bill that would roll back Superfund, Reps. Chris Cannon, Merrill Cook and Jim Hansen have not yet taken a position on the "polluter pays" principle.

On the 20th anniversary of Love Canal, our laws to clean up toxic waste should be strengthened, not weakened. Congress should restore the hazardous waste cleanup tax on polluting industries and reject all efforts to roll back Superfund and other environmental laws.