January 18, 2004
EPA watchdog takes a deeper look at IEL
By PAUL M. KRAWZAK
Copley Washington correspondent
WASHINGTON — An ombudsman review of the Industrial Excess Landfill is focusing on the possibility of radioactive contamination.
That contrasts to an earlier probe that took a broader look at the proposed cleanup of the Superfund toxic dump in Stark County’s Lake Township.
“The issue seems to center around radioactivity,” said Paul McKechnie, acting ombudsman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general office. “Our responsibility is to determine did the agency (EPA) act properly? Did they accumulate and gather the right data to make these decisions?”
McKechnie, who was appointed to the position in June, described his review and provided new details in a recent interview.
Late last year, he resumed a probe begun more than four years ago by former ombudsman Robert Martin. That review went dormant after Martin resigned from the agency and the ombudsman’s office was restructured.
McKechnie said he is focusing on complaints from Concerned Citizens of Lake Township, an area residents’ organization. The group’s president, Chris Borello, contends that the EPA and corporations responsible for the cleanup of the landfill botched radiation testing at the site.
“The concern is that they have not properly characterized the waste at this site, including the radiation,” Borello said. “Therefore the wrong remedy we believe has been selected.”
The EPA maintains that none of the testing has shown radiation readings beyond levels found throughout the world.
As ombudsman, McKechnie can only make recommendations to the EPA. He cannot order any changes. He also would monitor whether the EPA complied with his recommendations, he said.
“Honestly, the only way I feel we can objectively draw any type of a conclusion on the validity of the data that was gathered and the conclusions that resulted from that data ... is to have our own independent evaluation performed of that data,” McKechnie said.
Last month, McKechnie hired Thomas Gesell, an Idaho State University physicist and radiation expert, to review testing data from 2000 and 2001 to determine if it is valid. He also plans to retain a hydrogeologist, an expert in ground-water flow, to work with Gesell, he said.
If radiation were discovered at the landfill, it would likely mean the EPA would have to abandon its current plan to clean up the site.
The agency has adopted a “monitored natural attenuation” plan, which involves planting trees and vegetation at the landfill. The plants are expected to hasten the natural breakdown of buried contaminants, a process that officials say has been occurring for a decade or more.
At one time, the EPA planned to isolate the landfill with a protective cap.
After completing a preliminary review, Martin issued a report in October 2000 that found problems with the EPA’s analysis of the site, including radiation sampling. He urged the EPA to conduct further tests.
McKechnie, in a letter Oct. 15 to regional EPA officials, said one of his objectives was to determine whether the agency had “conducted an efficient and effective cleanup.”
But during an interview last week, he said he was not planning to review issues beyond radiation.
In judging the validity of the radiation testing, McKechnie said he is relying heavily on Gesell, who is expected to complete his report in two to three months.
“If they find that there’s a problem with the testing, data gathering process, he’s going to tell us because he’s contracted with us,” McKechnie said. “I’m pretty confident that what we end up with is going to be defensible.”
McKechnie expects Gesell will examine how the samples were collected and tested, as well as the results. It’s also possible that Gesell would review previous testing during the 1990s along with more recent results.
One thing McKechnie said he won’t do is explore the spectacular claims of Charles M. Kittinger, a former owner of the landfill, who testified that the military deposited plutonium there three decades ago.
“I’ve read those remarks and everything,” he said of the claims, which were investigated by a federal judge who found no evidence for them. “I’m not looking into that.”
He also said he won’t try to delay the EPA’s closure of 33 monitoring wells at the site, which Concerned Citizens of Lake Township requested be kept open at least until the ombudsman review is complete. But he said his investigators might examine whether the decision to close the wells was reasonable.
In a letter to McKechnie, Thomas V. Skinner, an EPA regional administrator, explained that the wells being abandoned are no longer effective or necessary. Five new wells that were drilled earlier this month, combined with 25 remaining wells, will permit continued monitoring of contamination in the aquifer, the EPA said.
Though he has not visited the site and may not ever, McKechnie said his conversations with Lake Township trustees indicate that local officials are satisfied with the cleanup plans.
“They would like to see this end,” he said. “They basically feel this is as clean a site as they could possibly have. Everybody has done just about everything they could possibly do. And I tell them, ‘Thank you very much, it’s nice to hear that. However, we have a responsibility in our function to review it.’ ”