Late on April 21—ironically, the eve of Earth Day—24,000 barrels of illegally stored chemicals and toxic wastes exploded in Elizabeth, N.J., sending a 200-foot fireball into the night sky. Corrosive smoke and ash spewed over a 15-square-mile area; schools in Elizabeth and nearby Staten Island were closed and residents told to stay inside for 10 hours. Shocked by the accident, a U.S. House subcommittee passed a long-delayed $600 million toxic waste cleanup bill a week later. The explosion in Elizabeth did not surprise Michael H. Brown, 28, the author of Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals, due out this week. As a reporter for the Niagara Falls (N. Y.J Gazette in 1977, Brown wrote the first story on Love Canal, the Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corp. dump site where leaking poisons apparently caused disease and death among local residents. Brown's findings led authorities to close an elementary school near the site, relocate 239 families and file lawsuits against Hooker totaling $625 million. Last week Brown returned to the still-smoldering Chemical Control Company warehouse in Elizabeth—which he had studied for his book—to discuss the toxic waste hazard with Richard K. Rein of PEOPLE.

In the wake of the explosion, has the danger passed in the Elizabeth area?

No. It's potentially as dangerous as Three Mile Island. That dump contained nitroglycerine, TNT, PCBs—which may cause birth defects—and compounds that could explode on contact with air and water. Tests showed only slight levels of poisonous wastes in the air, but dioxin, a highly poisonous substance used in the Vietnam defoliant Agent Orange, might have been present—and no easy test can detect it. Officials called the alert off too soon. No one really knew what was there.

Are there other Elizabeths waiting to happen?

Definitely. The Environmental Protection Agency says there are at least 51,000 dump sites in the country. I feel that thousands of these are toxic time bombs.

Is an explosion the worst thing that can happen at these storage sites?

Fire and explosion are an imminent danger, but the biggest threat is to underground water. A toxic waste landfill of 17 acres can contaminate a billion gallons of subterranean water in a decade.

What harm can this cause?

Birth defects. Near Love Canal the streets had signs warning motorists of deaf children. Some children grew up with no tooth enamel. In most places, it is the women who stand up against these dumps. They are the ones who have miscarriages, deformed babies and kids who get sick.

Doesn't the government regulate dump sites?

According to federal procedures, dump sites are supposed to be dug in "impermeable" clay, the pit lined with a tough plastic, and the barrels covered with clay and grass to prevent erosion. Just last week the Environmental Protection Agency issued an additional set of regulations for dump sites, but Elizabeth was not a dump site to begin with. It was technically a "recycling center."

How safe are the approved dump sites?

Two years ago the EPA tested 50 sites with no known problems. They found that chemicals from 47 of them had contaminated the ground water. No one has ever proved that so-called "secure" landfills will be secure after 10 years. Industry often cuts corners—and the corners it cuts are important. The best alternative is high-temperature incineration—at least 2,000° F.

Who controls the toxic waste disposal industry?

Nobody doubts that organized crime is involved to some degree. Some people who have created unsafe situations have arrest records for things like gambling and possession of stolen goods. Some of these waste haulers are said to be in the business because it's a good way to smuggle drugs across the Canadian border to American dump sites. No Customs agent in his right mind is going to stick his hand in a barrel marked "PCB."

Can waste disposal be regulated?

Not right now. How can you check every drum going into a disposal plant? The Resources Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 sets standards for active landfills and may stop a lot of midnight dumping, but it is a limited piece of legislation fraught with loopholes and not yet fully implemented.

What is the long-term solution?

The solution is to use various chemical processes to break down the toxicants into simple molecules that can be released safely into the environment. The only true answer is for industry to spend the research dollars to neutralize these compounds.

Won't these research costs be passed on to the consumer?

People should realize that spending money on this cleanup now will save the country money in the long run. Medical costs will just get higher if they don't.