Guess who the worst polluters in the country are.

Probably some big businesses whose executives think they can get away with violating laws designed to protect the environment just because of the many jobs their firms create and the hefty political contributions they make. Right?Well, not exactly.

Instead, it seems that the worst polluters are to be found within the ranks of the federal government even though Washington is supposed to be the leading protector of the environment.

This embarrassing disclosure comes from this week's report from the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee. The report notes that of 16 military bases and weapons-production facilities cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for violations, 12 installations took an average of two years from the detection of the violations until they would even agree to steps to correct them.

Imagine what would happen to a private polluter that dragged its feet so long.

Anyway, the report prompted Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, chairman of the House subcommittee, to acknowledge that Department of Defense installations and the Department of Energy's weapons-production facilities constitute the nation's "worst violators" of hazardous waste laws.

The attitude of the two departments, Dingell admits, ranges from "reluctant compliance to active disregard for the law."

Part of the problem is with the law, which is reasonably explicit when it comes to authorizing the EPA to get tough with private polluters but does not spell out the agency's power of enforcement against federal agencies. By all means, the law should be tightened and clarified. Even so, there's no excuse for some federal officials' indifference to the law and the environment.

As long as any federal facilities remain among the worst offenders, this situation is bound to erode public respect and invite others to ignore laws against hazardous wastes. If Washington is to do a better job of protecting the environment, it must begin by putting its own house in better order.