WITH LOVE CANAL and West Valley in their back yard, Western New Yorkers know firsthand about pollution. They have gotten an unsavory taste of deadly threats to the environment and are sensitive to them -- perhaps more sensitive than residents in other parts of the country.
But as environmental damage has touched the lives and lands of many other Americans, national awareness of the danger has grown. So has the national will to combat problems early and effectively.
That increasing awareness helps explain why President Bush, who had opposed elevation of the Environmental Protection Agency into a full-fledged Department of the Environment, now endorses the change.
His welcome change of heart can be most helpful. The backing that he now promises ought to assure the success in Congress for bipartisan proposals to transform the EPA into the 15th department in the presidential Cabinet.
Such enhanced status is amply justified. There should be an environmental officer in the Cabinet as this new decade begins -- 20 years after President Nixon, responding to public concern over environmental problems, established the EPA through an executive order.
The EPA administers federal environmental laws. Its $5.6 billion annual budget includes the famed Superfund, money reserved to clean up existing hazardous dumps.
Cabinet status would recognize the importance of these duties and of the further efforts that have to be made to reclaim and protect the environment.
Those in the government who handle en
vironmental issues would have greater influence, too, if they were at Cabinet level -- especially as they negotiate with other Cabinet heads and with foreign nations. Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, notes that only two major nations lack environmental ministries: Italy and the United States.
Bush recognized this weakness, too. In his Wednesday news conference, he emphasized that he believed that "Cabinet status will help influence the world's environmental policies."
It is true that this would be the 15th Cabinet department (the last one established, for veterans affairs, was added last March 15). Too many departments could overwhelm a president's managerial reach.
But this is not the policy area that should be cut, trimmed and narrowed. Environmental problems have built up over years of neglect and are now urgent and pervasive.
Pollution from industrial plants in the Midwest kills streams, fish and trees in New York and Canada. An oil tanker running aground off the Alaskan coast wrecks havoc with wildlife, costs millions to clean up and contributes to shortages that push up gasoline prices.
The problem is immense both in its potential dangers and in its possible costs, and it needs to be dealt with before it snowballs further.
Moreover, existing EPA procedures and functions, such as data collection, should be reviewed and upgraded.
Establishing a department of the environment would not solve the environmental problems by itself. But it would help focus and organize the task of restoring this soiled Earth.