December 10, 2004
Concerned Citizens scrambles to get tests done at landfill
By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON — A citizens group, believing nuclear waste is buried at the Industrial Excess Landfill in Lake Township, is racing against the clock to get federal approval for independent testing to prove radiation exists at the Superfund site.
Concerned Citizens of Lake Township has a $50,000 grant to pay for the project, but the funding expires at the end of next year.
The group also faces a Jan. 15, grant-imposed deadline to make any changes in its testing plans.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rejected the group’s plans for testing ground water, plans the agency says fall short of federal standards.
“Their goal is to drag this out until we lose the grant,” Chris Borello, group president, said. “They have obfuscated, they have stonewalled us for over two years on a very reasonable request until now we’re about out of time.”
EPA officials responded that Borello’s group has not provided the documentation required for any group to conduct independent testing.
“They haven’t even identified the specific wells that they would like to sample,” said Timothy Fischer, EPA remedial project manager for the site. “They haven’t identified the appropriate equipment that they plan to use, how they plan to transport the samples, chain of custody issues.”
The 30-acre toxic dump south of Uniontown closed in 1980. It’s been the subject of court cases and competing cleanup plans since.
Last year, the EPA began implementing a “monitored natural attenuation” remedy. The agency is planting vegetation at the site to accelerate the natural breakdown of buried chemicals.
EPA officials maintain that the testing of hundreds of samples of ground water, over a span of more than 10 years, has failed to show any evidence of radioactive contamination at the old gravel pit.
Some tests have shown low levels of radiation, but officials believe those findings represent normal worldwide background levels that resulted from global fallout. No further testing for radiation is planned, but the EPA will continue to oversee sampling for other contaminants in the site.
Borello argues, with scientific backing, that the tests conducted so far have not been sensitive enough to distinguish between background radiation and nuclear waste.
Several people have testified that they observed the military delivering radioactive plutonium to the landfill in the 1960s, but a federal judge who investigated the claims said they lacked credibility.
Borello’s group also hired two radiation experts, who reviewed test data. They said the results suggest plutonium was dumped at the site.
Borello has sought help from outside groups and Ohio lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township.
Dr. Helen Caldicott, an anti-nuclear activist and founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, endorsed independent testing last month.
In a letter to Regula, Caldicott said there may be unsafe radiation at IEL and urged the congressman to “advocate for independent testing by independent experts of international renown.”
She issued similar appeals to Ohio’s two senators, George Voinovich and Mike DeWine.
Regula responded to Borello on Dec. 2. He declined to intervene unless asked to do so by the Lake Township trustees, who have endorsed the EPA remedy.
“When multiple citizens and advocacy groups have varying opinions on such a matter, it is the responsibility of all public office holders to obtain the consensus of the citizens and landowners most impacted by this issue,” Regula wrote.
Regula expressed confidence the Lake trustees would act in the best interests of the area. “I will assume that their judgment and direction best reflects the consensus of the community.”
The EPA pledged support for independent testing when Borello’s group first raised the issue. Since then, the agency has found fault with the group’s proposals.
The first plan was authored by Wayne State University geologist Mark Baskaran late in 2002. The EPA rejected the plan and sent the group a three-page list of additional information that was required.
The group sent a revised plan to the agency in April. The EPA did not notify Borello’s group that the revision also was deficient until seven months later on Dec. 2.
After learning from a reporter that the EPA was planning to reject the revised plan, Baskaran recently sent another revision to the agency.
Fischer has yet to review it, but he doubts it will make the grade.
“It appears that it’s only five or six pages long,” he said. “A typical sampling quality assurance plan that we use at Superfund sites are on the order of 100, 200 pages long. They include all kinds of standard operating procedures that are voluminous in and of themselves. So I would say it’s unlikely that it complies.”
The fact that it took the EPA seven months to respond to the first revised plan is proof to Borello that the agency is not acting in good faith.
She also accuses the EPA of an “obscene double standard,” since the agency, she claims, allowed rubber companies responsible for the landfill cleanup to deviate from government rules when they tested the site.
Fischer blames his workload for the long time in responding to the plan.
“It’s just a matter of priorities,” he said. “We’ve been working on implementing the remedy” at the site, as well as a settlement with the companies that are paying for the cleanup. “We were reviewing the proposal but it was not at the top of the list.”
Tim Thurlow, an EPA attorney, expressed frustration with the citizen’s group for not submitting an adequate plan.
“It’s a little hard for us to understand,” he said. “You tell them that this is what they have to do. ... You’ve got to play by the rules. ... And instead you get back another copy of the same thing. I mean it’s kind of like they just want to keep butting their head up against the wall.”
The latest submission appears not to satisfy EPA requirements in at least one respect — it does not specify the wells from which the group plans to draw ground-water samples.
“They have been bugging us for two years to spell out which wells,” Borello said. But she said the group can’t do that yet because it has petitioned the county prosecutor to open one well for testing, and, in the case of another well, the private owner will not allow testing unless he gets an OK from the EPA.
Fischer was noncommittal about whether he would respond before the Jan. 15 deadline to the latest testing proposal.
“That’s tough to say,” he said. “I haven’t looked at their new revisions.”
Borello is unsure where she will turn next if the testing plan fails to win approval.
“We may go to all members of Congress,” she said. “I don’t know.”