December 19, 2003
IEL radiation claims under another review
By PAUL M. KRAWZAK
Copley Washington correspondent
WASHINGTON — An independent arm of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking a fresh look at the possibility of radioactive contamination at the Industrial Excess Landfill in Lake Township, the long-controversial Superfund site.
Acting Ombudsman Paul McKechnie, who serves under EPA Inspector General Nikki L. Tinsley, has hired a radiation expert to review existing test results, which the EPA insists show no evidence of contamination at the former landfill.
Thomas Gesell, an Idaho State University physicist and radiation specialist, has signed a contract with the Inspector General’s office to spend several months evaluating previous testing at the site, he said Thursday.
Gesell never has done any work at the site, which the Inspector General’s office believes will allow him to be a more objective analyst, according to a local official who spoke with McKechnie earlier this week.
Gesell said he has just begun to receive materials he must review and was not ready to discuss his “game plan.”
Community activists such as Chris Borello, president of Concerned Citizens of Lake Township, have long complained that EPA testing has been insufficient to rule out the rumored dumping of radioactive material in the landfill.
“We’re ever hopeful because there is so much at stake,” Borello said of the ombudsman review. She hopes “they will do an in-depth investigation that we have asked for for a decade, at least, and change the course of this.”
Sue Ruley, president of the Lake Township trustees, believes that another ombudsman review is a “waste of time.”
“I just think the site has been tested to death,” said Ruley, who supports EPA plans to cover the landfill with trees and vegetation, which officials say will accelerate the natural breakdown of contaminants.
At the request of Borello and others, former EPA Ombudsman Robert Martin investigated agency cleanup plans at the landfill in 2000 and wrote a preliminary report urging the agency to conduct additional testing at the site.
Conflicts between the EPA and Martin led to a suspension of the probe. Then, last year, Martin resigned in protest over the transfer of the ombudsman function to the Inspector General’s office, which he said destroyed the independence of the position.
In addition to the issue of radioactivity, McKechnie is evaluating whether the EPA cleanup plan at the landfill is appropriate, said Eileen McMahon, spokeswoman for the Inspector General’s office. McKechnie was on vacation and unavailable for an interview.
Rather than building a protective cap over the landfill, the EPA has settled on a plan to plant trees and vegetation over the site.
One advantage of that option is that it would preserve access to the site, allowing the continued testing of ground-water samples, officials said.
Opponents of the plan, including Borello, are seeking to perform their own tests. They also have criticized EPA plans to seal certain wells.
Ruley, who spoke with McKechnie earlier this week, said when the acting ombudsman was asked whether he would block the sealing of wells, he said he has no plans to do so at this time.
The EPA maintains that tests at the landfill over the years never have shown evidence of radiation in excess of normal background levels of fallout from nuclear testing distributed around the planet.
In an unrelated action, EPA workers earlier this week collected soil samples near the landfill, which will be tested for radioactivity.
Officials hope the results will shed light on radiation levels that a group of Ohio State University students said they detected when they began testing using a Geiger counter in 1999.