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Remember the garbage scow that wandered up and down the East coast last year, vainly looking for a place that would let it dump its foul load?

Remember how that 5,000-mile odyssey focused national attention on the increasingly serious problem that is created as Americans discard 220 million tons of trash a year, making it harder to find places to dispose of it?How many more such episodes must there be before America realizes that more growth means more garbage and we either pay a steep price for getting rid of it or we pay a different but even steeper price by living in it?

That lesson is being taught again by the dirty needles, blood vials, and other infectious hospital waste that washed ashore this summer along the East Coast, forcing several beaches to close temporarily to swimmers.

Slowly and belatedly, Congress finally seems to be learning this lesson. This week the Senate, spurred by public anger over the filth that forced beach closings, approved legislation to stiffen penalties for ocean dumping of medical waste and to end disposal of sewage off the New Jersey coast.

Despite the 97-0 vote in the Senate, House passage of the measure can't be taken for granted. Incredibly, the bill is vigorously opposed by New York City and several other New York and New Jersey communities.

Never mind that some of the medical debris that washed ashore contained AIDS and a highly infectious hepatitis virus. Never mind that the vile medical specimens and bloody syringes are only a small part of the national waste disposal system that is overloaded and broken. Never mind, either, the steep price exacted by this breakdown - among other things, 33 percent of East Coast fishing beds have been degraded or ruined by sludge disposal on the continental shelf.

Instead, the only thing the opponents seem able to see is the price tag on the repair bill - such as the $477 million and 15 years it supposedly would take New York City to build a high-temperature incinerator.

While it's easy to sympathize with the financial plight of the affected communities, surely it's time to act after six decades of unremitting dumping. Federal action is necessary because only a few states have truly comprehensive regulations and even some of those are riddled with loopholes.

As time goes by, the problem is bound to get worse. Though most biomedical waste is now incinerated on-site, increasing state emission control regulations may lead more hospitals to hire waste haulers. That change creates the potential for more transportation hazards and more abuses by contractors trying to save money by dumping the waste in the ocean.

But as the quality of the ocean and other water deteriorates, so does the quality of life. Americans simply cannot afford to keep using their waterways as a garbage can.