Legislator defends ties to troubled dum |
Wednesday, September 15, 1999
By Randall Edwards
A southeastern Ohio landfill will be covered by a clay cap by year's end, but the effort to contain the hazardous waste has failed to put a lid on the controversy that's seeped out of it.
A $100 million wrongful-death lawsuit filed last month in Cuyahoga County has revived concerns about the Buckeye Reclamation Landfill and could taint the reputation of its former operator, state Sen. James E. Carnes.
He was named in January to head the Senate committee that considers all the major environmental legislation in Ohio.
Carnes, R-St. Clairsville, is not named in the suit. The company he worked for when managing the landfill, Ohio Resources Corp., is a defendant. Cravat Coal Co., for which Carnes is an officer, is one of many corporate partners in a multimillion-dollar federal Superfund cleanup of the site.
The lawsuit was filed in August by the heirs of cancer victims who lived less than 2 miles from the landfill, which is about 4 miles southeast of St. Clairsville in Belmont County. The suit was filed in Cuyahoga County because it is the principal place of business for several of the companies involved.
The suit alleges that pollution from the landfill migrated through the air, water or ground, causing 14 residents of a neighboring mobile home park to develop cancer and die.
Stewart's Trailer Court contained 19 trailers, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit focuses on hazardous industrial liquid wastes and sludges that were dumped at the landfill, which was licensed to accept only residential garbage. According to the U.S.EPA, the landfill improperly accepted 4.7 million gallons of liquid industrial waste and 3,300 tons of industrial sludge.
Carnes said yesterday he does not know much about the lawsuit, but he defended his involvement with the landfill. He rejected claims by environmentalists who said his history with the landfill raises conflict-of-interest questions.
"I am very committed to making sure that the air we breathe and the water we drink is safe,'' Carnes said.
The Buckeye Reclamation Center was licensed in 1971 as a sanitary landfill by the Ohio Department of Health. It was added to the federal Superfund list in 1983 and was closed in 1991.
Buckeye Reclamation was supposed to be a healthful alternative to the numerous unregulated dumps in Belmont County. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency began investigating the dump in the late 1970s after hunters complained that their eyes burned when they went on the property.
When first contacted yesterday, Carnes said he was manager of the landfill from 1988 to '91, and it was his job to get the landfill closed and cleaned up.
"My job was to make sure that any potential threats were alleviated and the desires of the Ohio EPA were met.''
EPA records, however, indicate far more, and earlier, involvement.
Carnes signed a performance bond for the landfill in 1973.
In 1978, after the Ohio EPA had ordered the company to stop accepting industrial waste, Carnes wrote to the agency seeking a permit to accept the waste. In 1979 he wrote a letter to the Belmont County commissioners, asking permission to accept industrial solid waste.
"I have discussed with you before the severe economic blow we encountered with the elimination of the nontoxic, nonhazardous liquid we were receiving,'' Carnes wrote.
In 1980 he wrote to the local health commissioner, saying that the waste pit contained an "oil and water mixture'' and denied that the material was hazardous.
"I do not accept the EPA statement that this material appeared to have poisoned some trees,'' he said.
According to published reports from 1987 contained in the files, Carnes fought EPA involvement in the landfill, defended the landfill's operation and minimized the EPA's concerns about pollution leaching out of the landfill -- even after the U.S. EPA had added Buckeye to the National Priorities list. The list contains properties that qualify for federal Superfund cleanup money.
In a letter to county commissioners in 1986, Carnes complained of "expensive and in my opinion unreasonable demands'' by the U.S. and Ohio EPAs. He blamed the contamination of nearby rivers on illegal dumpers and inadequate sewer systems and said the landfill was "one of the best operations in the state.''
Later investigation determined that the landfill was loaded with industrial chemicals, including asbestos, acetone, benzene, beryllium, chromium, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes. Several of the chemicals are toxic or cancer-causing and some were found in very high concentrations.
The EPA investigation blamed numerous companies for the pollution.
Carnes yesterday said any decisions made before 1988 were made by Michael Puskarich, partial owner of both Cravat Coal and Ohio Resources Corp. Puskarich died in 1988.
"I started at Cravat in 1969, and I was pretty young at the time,'' said Carnes, who was born in 1942. "I absolutely did not have the authority to do anything other than what the bosses told me to do.
"I'd call it I was an errand boy, doing what needs to be done,'' Carnes said. "He (Puskarich) would say, 'Jim, send this letter' or 'Go to this meeting' and that's what I'd do.''
Carnes said the Senate Republican leadership is aware of his ties to the Superfund site.
Bruce Johnson, a member of the Senate leadership, said he was not aware of the landfill controversy, but he defended Carnes.
"I was unaware that he was involved with any kind of Superfund site, but that doesn't change my opinion of him,'' said Johnson, R-Columbus. "Jim's obviously a very capable legislator.''
Johnson said Carnes' background with Buckeye "gives him a breadth and depth of experience'' in environmental legislation.
Environmental groups were less supportive.
"It's really troubling that Mr. Carnes actively and repeatedly challenged the EPA's authority,'' said Jack Shaner, a lobbyist for the Ohio Environmental Council.
"Frankly, the Senate leadership may want to reconsider his objectivity as chair of such an important committee,'' he said. "Four-point- seven million gallons of industrial waste sounds like a serious lapse in oversight to me.''
Jane Forrest of Ohio Citizen Action pointed to Carnes' voting record, which in 1997 had a "zero percent'' rating for voting in the manner that Citizen Action urged on various issues.
She and Shaner offered some support for Carnes' recent performance on the committee.
Carnes has expressed support for legislation that would control the spreading of municipal sewer sludge on fields and supports making cleanup of old hazardous-waste sites a higher priority.
"The appearance of a conflict of interest is there,'' Forrest said. "But we're hoping for a new era.''
Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch