BEDFORD, N.H. — Five Democratic presidential candidates, meeting Sunday to debate environmental issues for the first time in the 1988 campaign, blasted Reagan Administration policies and called for a variety of new laws and international summit meetings to control acid rain, nuclear waste, ocean dumping and other problems.
The five Democrats offered little disagreement or sharp criticism of one another in the two-hour televised forum. They joked, politely complimented one another on policies and achievements, and generally avoided the personal and political jabs that marked last week's feisty Republican candidates' debate in Houston.
Water Pollution Law
Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt appeared to speak the most forcefully and with the most detail, particularly about his experiences in Arizona cleaning up an asbestos dump, negotiating with Mexico on air pollution, and establishing what is considered the nation's toughest groundwater pollution law.
Babbitt pledged to fight for the same strict groundwater standards on a national level if elected. "No contamination, no discharges, no degradation of the water," he said.
Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts argued that his state was more successful getting polluters to pay for the cleanup of several hundred hazardous waste dumps than the federal Environmental Protection Agency. He chided both President Reagan and the Democratic Congress for lack of leadership.
"We haven't been able to get the President's attention, and frankly, there's been paralysis in the Congress," Dukakis said.
But several in the audience of about 300 campaign supporters and environmental activists hissed when, in response to a question, Dukakis refused to commit to a five-year ban on municipal incinerators. A political fight over locating such a facility is raging in Boston, and several dozen protesters showed up at the Sheraton Wayfarer Inn, the site of the forum, to demonstrate against incinerators.
Recycling Held Not Enough
"We're running out of landfill space," Dukakis argued. He said recycling was one answer, but not enough. "There's no way we can deal with this without some sort of resource recovery."
Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee aimed several barbs at the "Reagan-Bush Administration." He particularly targeted Vice President George Bush, whose campaign apparently gained after an impressive performance in the Houston debate.
"George Bush has been the principal figure in undermining environmental regulations," by using the budget restraints "to shackle the EPA and the Department of the Interior," Gore said.
Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois argued that states should share the burden of trying to reduce acid rain. Illinois' smoke-stack industries produce some of the pollutants in the acid rain and snow that has devastated broad forest areas in the Northeast.
"We have to move in such a way so as not to penalize one region or state," Simon said.
Asks Acid Rain Summit
"Paul, I don't understand all this equivocating on acid rain," Babbitt quickly responded, in perhaps the sharpest moment. Babbitt said the federal government should set and enforce strict air pollution standards, including shutting down factories, and called for a summit of North American leaders on acid rain.
"We're downwind from Mexico, Canada is downwind from us," he said. "It's our continent, it's our destiny, and it's time for a treaty."
Dukakis reiterated his pledge to stop the opening of the fully constructed nuclear power plant at Seabrook, N.H. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted Thursday to change a rule that Dukakis had used to block the plant. The new ruling allows local utilities to present adequate emergency community evacuation plans even if state and local officials don't approve the plans.
"We're going to do everything we can to stop Seabrook," Dukakis said to loud applause. He did not elaborate.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said a statewide referendum in Maine this Tuesday to close the 15-year-old Maine Yankee nuclear power plant would "send a message as profound" as the civil rights marchers sent in Selma, Ala. in the early 1960s. But Jackson offered few specifics about environmental programs.
'Have Run for Hills'
"The most important thing is Democrats are here and the Republicans have run for the hills," he said.
The sponsors, a public-interest group called Vote Environment, had invited all six Democrats and all six Republicans in the race to participate. Republican Alexander M. Haig Jr. spoke briefly in the conference center's lobby, but quickly departed. None of the other Republican candidates attended.
The sixth Democrat, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, also did not participate. Campaign aides said Gephardt had a longstanding commitment to attend his 9-year-old daughter's horse show at home in Virginia.
The round-table forum was the first time the Democrats have appeared together in New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary Feb. 16. The Democrats will meet again today in New Orleans to debate social policy, and then again Saturday in Des Moines, for another environmental debate.
"It was the broadest based and most important discussion of these issues of any presidential campaign," Jan Hartke, one of the organizers, said afterward. He applauded the candidates' mastery of technical issues, and said the call for international summits "puts the environment on the same footing as arms control."
Environmentalist groups so far have not focused support on any one Democratic candidate. That was unlikely to change after the forum, several activists said.
"There really isn't that great a difference among the candidates," said Jerry Schoen, a Sierra Club activist and computer programmer. "But this is a gift-wrapped issue for the Democrats."