"Sun, Sand and Toxic Waste"

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The cogs turn slowly in the creaky machinery of the European Union, but last week they chinked into a higher gear when, for the first time, the European Court of Justice levied a fine on an E.U. member. Since its ruling last Tuesday, Greece has to pay $19,000 a day until its authorities clean up Kouroupitos, a toxic waste dump in a waterless ravine not far from the tourist beaches of western Crete.

Not before time. It was back in 1987 that European Commission environmental officials first cited the dump as being in breach of European directives on human health and the environment. That led to a Court of Justice ruling in 1992 demanding that Greece clean up the site, which contains tons of industrial, medical and military waste.

But local authorities responsible for the island's waste management resisted state plans to shut the dump and replace it with a high-tech recycling plant closer to an inhabited area. "Every time I move to solve the crisis," says Environment Minister Costas Laliotis, "they bring out the guns and brandish black flags." Even last week, black-clad locals used bulldozers to block state workers from beginning construction of an interim waste storage site.

The rolling fine comes at a bad time for Greece. "It is unacceptable that the government's negligence and tardiness give Greece the image of a rubbish dump country at the start of the tourist season," scolded the Athens daily Kathimerini. Prime Minister Costas Simitis was more philosophical. "A single order cannot change the minds and practices of a nation," he said. "It's a process that takes time."

So does the Brussels legal system, but the pioneer ruling does at least augur tougher action against member states that violate or ignore Community law. It raises the prospect, for example, that France could have to pay in cash for its high-profile defiance of an E.U. decision last autumn allowing the resumption of imports of British beef after the "mad cow" scare.

But when? If the Greek dump decision is any indication, British farmers may have to wait, as the saying goes, until the cows come home.