Monday, January 31, 2000

Sen. Wayne Allard, left, and EPA Ombudsman Bob Martin

 

Critics blast EPA
Agency coddling polluters at expense of citizens, witnesses say

By BRIAN HANSEN
Colorado Daily Staff Writer

DENVER -- Dozens of disgruntled citizens from across the country packed a Denver meeting hall on Saturday and angrily accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of failing to adequately protect their communities from a host of industrial and military hazardous waste sites.

The hearing, which was co-hosted by Colo. Sen. Wayne Allard and EPA National Ombudsman Bob Martin, was held in part to disseminate the latest information about the Shattuck Superfund Site in downtown Denver.

But while concerns regarding the EPA's handling of the controversial Shattuck case were once again loudly articulated during Saturday's hearing, criticism of the EPA's activities didn't stop there.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Project On Government Oversight, was one of many people to speak Saturday about the difficulties they say they've encountered in their personal and professional interactions with the EPA.

"Many communities have come to view the EPA as not only unresponsive to their concerns, but as an active partner with the polluters," Brian said. "In fact, it appears that all too often, the EPA has broken the law in its rush to appease the large polluting companies (by) withholding documents, (conducting) secret meetings and lying to members of congress -- while at the same time doing everything they can to stop Bob Martin."

Martin, as the EPA's national hazardous-waste ombudsman, has the authority to investigate complaints and allegations of wrongdoing that pertain to the federal government's so-called "Superfund" program. The ombudsman office has been particularly active under Martin, who, along with his chief investigator Hugh Kaufman, have obtained information that led to the reversal of several EPA decisions that citizens claimed were not made in the best interests of public health and safety -- including the EPA's 1992 plan to "stabilize" Shattuck's radioactive waste by entombing it in a concrete and fly ash monolith.

Allard, who requested that Martin investigate the Shattuck site, has introduced federal legislation designed to protect the ombudsman independence and responsibilities, which have recently come under fire from EPA administrators and others.

But Martin had no shortage of supporters at Saturday's hearing, as citizens from around the nation traveled to Denver to testify in support of Allard's legislation.

Alberton, Mont., resident Rodger Chalmers, who for years has been trying to get the EPA to take further action toward remediating the effects of the massive chemical spill that occurred in his community in 1996, made an emotional appeal to Allard.

"I urge you, senator, to support Bob Martin," Chalmers said. "This country needs Bob Martins -- lots of them. His case-load is astronomical -- he needs lots of help."

But Chalmers had no kind words for EPA regional administrator Bill Yellowtail, whose Denver-based office responded when a freight train derailed near Alberton and spilled 133 tons of chemicals into the environment.

"You're as big of a problem as some of the sites you're supposed to be reviewing," Chalmers said. "I'm appalled -- we don't have to worry about terrorists when we have people like you working for us."

Chalmers, who personally obtained the bills of lading for the train cars that derailed, claims that there were nine different hazardous chemicals aboard the train that the EPA never tested for.

"There were chemicals on that train being shipped illegally -- not accounted for, not recorded. What the hell's wrong with the EPA?" Chalmers said to Yellowtail. "I urge that you help us get the documents that Bob Martin is helping us get."

Bill Smedley, who recounted his struggles to block EPA hazardous waste incinerators in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri, had a similar story.

"If you hear anger in my voice today, it's because I'm absolutely furious that this agency can get away with ... poisoning people, and it can get away with manipulating the truth and outright lying to people," Smedley said. "All of the thousands of citizens who I'm here representing today support the removal of the Shattuck waste from Denver. We don't want to see the mistakes repeated here in Denver."

Other speakers who testified at Saturday's hearing weren't so optimistic that the EPA's "mistakes" could be avoided. Marie Flickinger, co-owner of a community newspaper in Houston, Texas, recounted her experiences with the EPA officials charged with remediating a toxic site in her neighborhood.

"What you are hearing is typical nationwide of all superfund sites," Flickinger testified. "It isn't happening just in Denver."

Flickinger said she initially believed the EPA when it declared that the superfund site located next to her community's elementary school posed no threats of air, water or soil pollution to town residents.

But when Flickinger began to notice foul-smelling tars seeping up in the school's baseball fields, she started asking questions.

"When I asked EPA why it was OK for the children to play baseball on one side of the area while the (EPA) workers were all in protective gear (on the other side), I was told that there's a fence between the two," Flickinger said. "I said, 'but it's a cyclone fence with holes' -- to which (an EPA official) answered, 'Marie, it's not our duty to be the guardian of the children.'"

Frustrated, Flickinger bypassed the EPA and appealed directly to her congressman, who secured federal funds to purchase air and water monitoring equipment.

"Everything (the EPA) said was wrong," Flickinger said. "The monitoring system proved that we were right.

"Lies. Incompetency," Flickinger added. "I have it on tape where they acknowledge lying because they said, quote, 'Maureen, we don't know how else to fight you.'"

Colorado residents concerned with the EPA's management of a host Denver-area superfund sites also testified at Saturday's hearing.

Joan Jacobsen, a member of the restoration advisory board that oversees the remediation of the U.S. Air Force/Lockheed Martin superfund site southwest of Denver, articulated her concerns about that project.

"EPA has failed to enforce environmental laws in our case, and in others in this region," Jacobsen said. "EPA has allowed widespread and deadly contamination from a large volume of hydrazine-based rocket fuel, solvents laced with radioactive wastes and other poisons to be released to a public water supply which served my neighborhood as well as other neighborhoods across the Columbine Valley outside of Littleton."

Jacobsen called on Martin to conduct a full-scale investigation of the EPA, the Air Force, and the Colorado Health Department, which she said also failed to enforce environmental laws.

"We urge that you review the documents from our investigation that we believe to be evidence of criminal acts for possible referral to United States Attorney General Janet Reno, for possible criminal prosecution," Jacobsen said.

Witnesses also testified Saturday about alleged EPA misconduct at the Rocky Flats, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and Lowry Landfill Superfund sites.

The transcript of Saturday's hearing will be reviewed by the U.S. Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, which is considering Allard's bill to protect the independence of the EPA ombudsman.

"The Environmental Protection Agency needs to understand that I'm not going to go away," Allard said. "I'm here to support the people who live and work around the Shattuck waste site, and to make sure that the EPA keeps its word."