t's a scenario that's easy to understand, that's certain to provoke fear, and that's guaranteed to meld outraged people into a potent political force.

Government and big business, the scenario goes, are out to save a buck by dumping deadly toxic muck dredged from shipping channels in New York Harbor right off the New Jersey shore, where it will wash up on beaches and poison people. How could they value port jobs over the shore's environment? Why doesn't the government resolve the issue equitably instead of sacrificing the shore for the port?Gripping as the picture is, however, it is grossly inaccurate and highly misleading. And the political controversy it has caused threatens the long-term future of everyone involved - at the Port of New York and New Jersey, at the Jersey shore, and throughout the rest of the country, which will use whatever happens as a precedent.

It's understandable that people on the Jersey shore are protective of their beautiful beaches and suspicious of anything that might threaten them. In the late 1980s, they lived through waves of filth and medical waste washing ashore, ruining their beaches and savaging their tourism industry. They don't want it to happen again. Moreover, as residents of a state marred by the excesses of industry in the days before environmental regulation, they are sensitive to the threat of things like toxic materials and hazardous waste.

But the popular perception of the dredging-disposal issue - clear from the blunt comments collected on a petition to the Corps of Engineers that the circulators posted on the Web ( - overlooks some key facts.

For openers, the material that's dredged from shipping channels in New York and New Jersey and deposited at a federal site several miles off the Jersey shore isn't hazardous material, toxic waste, medical refuse, sewage or garbage. It's mud. Some of it has microscopic traces of contaminants, traces measured in the one-billionths and one-trillionths. But it meets federal safety standards that the shipping industry believes are higher than at any other American port. And it doesn't wash ashore.

The calls for a resolution miss another highly salient fact: The issue, which first hit a fever pitch in the early 1990s, already was resolved. A compromise brokered by Vice President Al Gore was supposed to have laid it to rest three and a half years ago.

The Gore plan - endorsed by federal agencies, the shore activist group that made dredging disposal a cause celebre, and port interests - called for the region's ocean disposal site to be closed in 1997. However, it also called for the cleanest mud - the roughly 25 percent of harbor dredged material that qualifies for a classification called Category 1 - to continue going to the site to cap contamination that existed from the years before disposal was regulated. (The rest goes elsewhere at over five times the cost.)

But the controversy erupted anew last year over dredging permits for two projects on the New York side of the harbor. After extensive testing, federal officials determined the mud involved met the standards for deposit at the ocean site. But the activist group, Clean Ocean Action, disagreed. The Gore agreement notwithstanding, it launched an anti-disposal campaign that continues.

The activists have said they were promised stiffer standards on the mud. But such a promise was not in the so-called Three Party Letter that detailed the Gore plan. Port interests weren't told anything of the kind. And a letter two months ago from Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington to New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman said the latest mud ''meets the spirit and intent'' of the Gore plan.

Federal officials in New York do say that, separate from the Gore plan, they agreed to a scientific peer review of their testing-evaluation process by a dozen scientists not involved in the process. The local EPA region says it expects to finish going over the results of that review this spring. That could provide a basis for progress - if both sides accept what comes out, and if everyone can agree on how to implement it.

Meanwhile, there's another issue that's being overlooked: Capping contamination from the decades of unregulated dumping at the ocean site. If capping material can't come from the port, there will be major problems finding an alternative - and paying for it. Nation'sPort, a new business-labor group, estimates it would cost $400 million for enough clean sand. And the bill would go to the state and federal governments.

To be sure, there's a school of thought that says the old dump site doesn't need to be capped. But if that's true, what has all the controversy been about?

The biggest thing that's being overlooked these days, however, is that the port - which must be dredged in order to function - is vital to the entire region and its 17 million people, not just the port industry. It's important to business, labor and consumers. It's a gateway for the products the region makes and exports, and for the goods the region imports. And trade is increasing steadily.

The port is important to the environment because the economic activity it generates helps support environmental programs and awareness. It also has a direct benefit that isn't obvious now, but would be if didn't exist: Hundreds of thousands of 40-foot containers full of goods that now arrive by ship would have to use a more distant port, then be hauled to the region overland, mostly by truck. That would wreak havoc on air quality that's already under fire for not meeting federal standards, to say nothing of what it would do to traffic congestion and costs.

Ultimately, what the popular perception of the dredging crisis misses is that this isn't a matter of the economy vs. the environment. The economy and the environment are not separate, competing issues; they are interdependent pieces of a whole that's known as quality of life. That's what is at stake in the New York-New Jersey region - and, because of the precedent that whatever happens there will set, in the nation at large.