13 May 2020
New York City nonprofits are using a cloud-based service from the start-up Temboo that helps monitor storm-water runoff and other environmental factors.
Climate change puts over half the world's population at risk of mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever, and bats may be able to help.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will host open public meetings at Glen Jean later this month to discuss results of PCB soil and water samples taken around Minden and Fayetteville in May and June, Acting Regional EPA Director Cecil Rodrigues said Thursday.
Officials of the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health and federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) will be at the meeting to answer health-related questions, and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) agents will also attend, said Rodrigues, an attorney who currently heads up the EPA Region 3 Office in Philadelphia.
"Our desire is to get the information out to as much of the public as we can and to be available to answer any specific questions they have, especially health concerns," Rodrigues said.
Current test results show that, of 98 samples taken in Minden, four showed PCB contamination that is above the level of one part per million (1 ppm) that requires EPA action, agency officials said Thursday.
Of those samples, two were soil samples taken at private residences and measured 1.2 ppm and 1.3 ppm, while two sediment samples taken from Arbuckle Creek showed 50 ppm and 6.2 ppm. EPA agents conducted 41 soil samples and 25 sediment samples in Minden, along with water samples of Arbuckle Creek, agents reported Thursday.
Water samples showed no levels that present a risk, according to Rodrigues.
EPA agents shared results with property owners earlier this week.
Rodrigues said the contaminated Minden properties are rated as residential clean-up level, which triggers more investigation.
"Our next step is to do additional sampling to determine the extent of that contamination and to confirm the results of the sampling," he said. "Then, after we have done that, we'll determine what further steps need to be done."
An EPA clean-up such as removal of the soil and contaminated sediment is a possible solution, he said.
Agents plan to take additional soil samples within the next month but EPA agent Melissa Linden said that, due to winter approaching, there is not a definitive time line for the samplings.
A Court Street property near Fayetteville showed PCB contamination that does not require action by EPA, Rodrigues said.
Contracted EPA agents conducted a ground-penetrating radar at Fayetteville after residents reported a possible buried tanker. Rodrigues said the GPR showed a "septic-like" structure and that soil testing showed non-actionable low levels of PCB.
The type of Aroclor, or PCB, detected at the Court Street site was a different type than PCB from the Shaffer's site, he said.
The ppm EPA action standard for all types of PCB is the same.
Rodrigues said the EPA is finished at Court Street.
"For our purposes, it is closed," Rodrigues said. "We've referred the data to WVDEP, and if they want to take some follow-up action, they obviously can."
EPA agents are still taking samples of the soil at a former landfill site in Concho. Initial testing has shown low concentrations of PCBs, pesticides and dioxin in the sediment adjacent to the landfill but not further downstream of an unnamed tributary.
Metal contaminants such as lead have also been detected, but surface water was not impacted, EPA Region 3 Communications Officer Roy Seneca published in a press release Thursday.
Rodrigues said EPA is still collecting information on the Concho site. According to tax documents, the property is owned by Concho Land Co., which shared an officer with ACE Resort-owned properties.
ACE is the only major business in Minden and hosts a 1,500-acre resort at Concho, a cliffside area above Minden.
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Ten of the Minden samples were above actionable WVDEP levels, according to an EPA report.
Minden resident Annetta Coffman, 42, said she and her neighbors welcome EPA to return to Minden for additional testing.
"The two (contaminated) yards were several feet apart, and the houses in between tested negative," Coffman said. "I am certain that when they come back, we will have more exact levels.
"At least now we know that our suspicions were correct about the PCBs."
Residents had requested that EPA officials conduct the latest round of PCB testing. EPA was at Minden in the 1980s and 1990s, botching at least one clean-up effort. Residents allege that storage tanks of PCB were refused by a landfill in Raleigh County after the first EPA clean-up effort and were then shipped via train to Alabama, where clerks at the destination dump site also refused them.
According to residents, one of the tankers was buried at the Court Street site.
An EPA official said Tuesday that, based on its own record-keeping system, EPA would not have kept records of where the tankers had been shipped.
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Fayette Commission appointed Charleston attorney Mike Callaghan late last month to investigate illegal dumping in the county, naming Callaghan a special assistant prosecutor to Fayette Prosecuting Attorney Larry Harrah.
Callaghan, who is working on a contingency basis, plans to identify companies which polluted the county and to create a trust for cleanup by suing the insurance companies of responsible parties, Harrah said.
Rodrigues said that the EPA investigation did not uncover solid evidence of illegal dumping at Fayetteville.
"We did some interviews of the people who said there may have been disposal there, or illegal disposal there, and there really wasn't any information we found that would lead us to any conclusions," Rodrigues sad. "We have not found any concrete information that there was some kind of illegal disposal there.
"It seems to be a septic-like tank, but we're not sure."
Rodrigues said that some owners of contaminated properties are responsible for cleanup. If the contamination came from another source, the responsible party would be liable.
Regarding Shaffer's, he added, "Since the parties we're dealing with are all bankrupt or don't exist anymore, the agency will be funding whatever cleanup is necessary, if a cleanup is necessary."
EPA officials have suspicions that the current PCB contamination may not be coming from Shaffer's.
According to Linden, EPA agents were notified that an act of vandalism in 1997 had caused a fire at a portion of the site. After assessing the site, which is an EPA Superfund site but is not on the National Priority List (NPL), EPA conducted an assessment and asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a cap to cover one acre of the six-acre plot.
Linden reported that the Corps completed the cap in 2002. EPA officials said when they examined the cap over the summer, it appeared to have been effective in limiting the spread of PCB.
The most recent Minden samples, however, show that the highest contamination level is about a half-mile from Shaffer Equipment.
EPA agents will be investigating if there is another contributing contamination site in Minden, Linden said.
It's not the first time that EPA agents have questioned the source of PCB contamination in Fayette County.
Following two clean-up efforts and removal of contaminated soils from Shaffer's in the 1980s, EPA returned to Minden in 1989 after citizens reported that they did not believe EPA agents had fully cleaned the contaminants.
In May 1990, EPA agents took 70 samples from Shaffer's. Sixteen samples showed that seven additional sites hosted PCBs above the human safety limit.
In September 1990, EPA agents reported that the contaminated soil had been on the site for less than one year. In October 1990, EPA officially launched a criminal investigation to determine the source of the new PCB contamination.
No further information on the 1990 criminal investigation was available Thursday evening.
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The environmental citizens' group Headwaters Defense launched a petition last week to stop the planned construction of upgrades to Arbuckle Public Service District on the grounds that EPA testing isn't finished in Minden and that construction could disrupt PCBs.
Rodrigues said he did not want to speculate about the Arbuckle property but added that EPA has an established protocol for working with developers of a contaminated site.
Typically, developers conduct environmental assessments to ensure they are not causing the contamination to spread or be carried downstream.
"Developers do sampling and clean-ups as part of their development process, but if someone is interested in developing the property and it's where we're doing to be doing some sampling, we usually work hand in hand with state and local governments and the developer to make sure they have relevant information to make prudent choices," said Rodrigues.
The type of development is also a factor, he added.
"As it applies to the actual Shaffer site, if they're planning on running a sewer line through the property or near the property, usually we work very closely with whoever is doing that work to make sure it doesn't in any way impact the cleanup or the threaten the cleanup we've done," Rodrigues said. "If the plan is for somehow to cross the property line, then we'll work with them to make sure whatever they're doing is protective or work with them to suggest an alternative place to put the line, if what they're doing will impact the cleanup.
"Until they actually contact us and give us concrete plans about what they're doing, we can't comment on whether it is prudent or not."
A spokeswoman for Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., confirmed Thursday that Jenkins has expressed interested in the Arbuckle PSD project.
"The congressman is monitoring this issue and is receiving regular updates from stakeholdres and agencies," Evans' spokeswoman, Rebecca Neal reported.
Rodrigues expressed a desire to make sure Minden residents have all information available to them. He urged property owners to attend two open house sessions at the National Guard Armory, 409 Wood Mountain Road in Glen Jean.
The first session is set for Oct. 27 from 6 to 8 p.m. and the second will run from 9 a.m. to noon on Oct. 28.
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Almost 2/3 of environmental surveys since 2008 have revealed high pollution in water and soil
A Seoul city worker puts contaminated groundwater from under the wall of Camp Kim in the Yongsan District of Seoul into a container for further sampling on Oct. 6. After oil contamination was discovered in 2006, the city has spent over 10 years purifying the groundwater, but contamination levels of petroleum hydrocarbons remain is 500 times higher than safety standards allow. (by Kim Tae-hyung, staff photographer)
Contamination sources have been detected in six out of ten environmental surveys on former US military bases returned to South Korea. Democratic Party lawmaker and National Assembly National Policy Committee member Park Chan-dae received a Ministry of Environment report on basic environmental studies for USFK-granted areas on Oct. 12 by way of the USFK base relocation support team in the Office for Government Policy Coordination. The report showed a total of 110 environment surveys on returned US bases between 2008 and 2017, with 66 of them confirming soil and/or underground water contamination.
The largest number of contamination sources were detected near Camp Market in Incheon’s Bupyeong district, where total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH), xylene, copper, lead, zinc, and nickel were found in the ground and TPH and lead in underground water. TPH, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene were also detected in the ground near Camp Howes in Paju, Gyeonggi province, along with TPH in underground water.
In some cases, additional surveys uncovered new contamination sources. Studies at Camp Kyle in Uijeongbu and Camp Castle, Camp Casey, and Camp Hovey in Dongducheon showed new sources that had not been discovered during earlier relocation surveys. Many are now questioning whether the previous surveys were not properly conducted.
Over 210 billion won (US$185 million) has been spent to date on US base cleanup efforts, with estimates putting the total at around 1 trillion won (US$883 million) for remediation efforts for additional US bases that are returned.
“It’s time for us to talk about dividing up environmental remediation costs for returned US bases in a way that does not harm the South Korea-US alliance,” Park Chan-dae said.
“The different government agencies need to organize the different claims, establish a consensus, and demand indemnity rights from the US,” he added.
By Choi Hyun-june, staff reporter
Please direct questions or comments to
Warming soils are releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than previously thought, suggesting a potentially disastrous feedback mechanism whereby increases in global temperatures will trigger massive new carbon releases in a cycle that may be impossible to break.
The increased production of carbon comes from the microbes within soils, according to a report in the peer-review journal Science, published on Friday.
The 26-year study is one of the biggest of its kind, and is a groundbreaking addition to our scant knowledge of exactly how warming will affect natural systems.
Potential feedback loops, or tipping points, have long been suspected to exist by scientists, and there is some evidence for them in the geological record. What appears to happen is that once warming reaches a certain point, these natural biological factors kick in and can lead to a runaway, and potentially unstoppable, increase in warming.
Slow-freezing Alaska soil driving surge in carbon dioxide emissions
Other tipping points posited by scientists include the disappearance of ice in the Arctic, which creates areas of dark water that absorb more heat, and the release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from thawing permafrost.
In the Science study, researchers examined plots of soil in the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts, a mixed hardwood forest in the US. They experimented by heating some of the plots with underground cables to 5C above normal levels, leaving others as a control.
The long-term study revealed that in the first 10 years there was a strong increase in the carbon released from the heated plots, then a period of about seven years when the carbon release abated. But after this second calmer period, which the scientists attribute to the adjustment of the soil microbes to the warmer conditions, the release of carbon resumed its upward path.
In the last three years, the release of carbon has once again dropped back, which scientists attribute to another reorganisation of the microbes present. They suggest an increase in the number of microbes that can feast on the hard-to-digest organic matter, such as plant-based lignin, which gives clues to the possible cyclical nature of the process.
From 1991, when the experiment began, the plots subjected to 5C warming lost about 17% of the carbon that had been stored in the top 60cm of the soil, where the greatest concentration of organic matter is to be found.
Scientific understanding of the complexities of soil microbial activity is still limited, but the long-term nature of the study provides valuable insights into what might be happening, and is likely to happen in future, to vast swaths of forest soils across the world.
While deforestation has been the focus of most research into forests’ effects on climate change, with a recent study suggesting tropical forests are turning into carbon sources rather than carbon stores as a result, the impact of warming soils has remained much of a mystery. Soils are one of the world’s biggest natural carbon sinks, along with trees and the oceans.
Daniel Metcalfe, of Sweden’s Lund University, said: “If these findings hold more widely across major terrestrial ecosystems, then a much greater portion of the global soil carbon store could be vulnerable to decomposition and release of carbon dioxide under global warming than previously thought.”
Ultimate bogs: how saving peatlands could help save the planet
The study was carried out by scientists at the US Marine Biological Laboratory, led by Jerry Melillo, with contributions from the universities of Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Melillo, who holds the position of distinguished scientist at the MBL, said: “Each year, mostly from fossil fuel burning, we are releasing about 10bn metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere. The world’s soils contain about 3,500bn tons of carbon. If a significant amount of that is added to the atmosphere, due to microbial activity, that will accelerate the global warming process. Once this self-reinforcing feedback begins, there is no easy way to turn it off. There is no switch to flip.”
He added: “The future is warmer. How much warmer is the issue.” While emissions from fossil fuels can be cut back, the reactions of the natural world to a warming climate may be impossible to control.
Some recent work has suggested that the warming of the globe may be progressing at a slightly slower rate than the upper range of previous studies estimated. However, feedback loops and tipping points have the potential to create sudden disruptions that are hard to take account of in standard climate modelling, and these could mean much greater changes and far higher rates of warming in the future.
Separately, research from Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and other institutions, published in the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, and Global Change Biology, called for more work on how soil could be used as a carbon store. When agricultural soils are well-managed, they can store more carbon than they emit, which would allow them to be used as potential carbon sinks.
But the scientists warn that “we still don’t have a strong understanding of the interactions among biological, chemical and physical processes regulating carbon in soils”. They say much more research is needed, particularly as there are dangers in soils in Siberia that are rapidly warning, and could release vast quantities of carbon. They also warn that there may be 25-30% less organic matter in some soils than previously estimated.
“Soil has changed under our feet,” said Jennifer Harden, a visiting scholar at Stanford. “We can’t use the soil maps made 80 years ago and expect to find the same answers.”
Scott Fallon, Staff Writer, @NewsFallon
A Superfund site in the Meadowlands dubbed "Oil Lake," which is home to tons of contaminated soil from a shuttered petroleum plant, is slated to receive its most comprehensive cleanup under a $24 million plan approved Tuesday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Almost 40 years after the 30-acre Diamond Head Oil Refinery in Kearny closed, the plan calls for taking out thousands of truckloads of polluted soil.
But it does not address contaminated groundwater, which the EPA said will be covered in a future cleanup.
And it is unclear who will pay for the cleanup.
EPA documents say the agency identified several parties in April as potentially liable for the pollution. A spokesman did not immediately return a phone call.
The pollution dates back to at least 1946, when the plant began recycling waste oil, which it did until 1979.
Workers routinely dumped oil into storage pits, onto adjacent properties and in wetlands to create an "oil lake," according to the EPA.
Soil, surface water and groundwater have been contaminated with a cornucopia of pollutants including PCBs, dioxin and volatile organic compounds. The former oil lake was estimated in 1977 to cover an area of 6 to 7 acres in the southern section of the site near Route 280.
“Removing contaminated soil and sediment from this site will remove a threat to this community,” Catherine McCabe, EPA acting regional administrator, said in a release. “We will continue our work at this site until it no longer poses a potential long-term risk to the public."
State authorities removed 10 million gallons of oil and other waste along with 230,000 cubic yards of oily sludge from the site in the 1970s and 1980s.
The plant was dismantled more than 25 years ago, but it wasn't put on the federal Superfund list of the nation's worst toxic sites until 2002, after the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection requested it.
The EPA performed a human health risk assessment and determined that contaminants posed an unacceptable potential risk to site maintenance workers, trespassers, highway workers and others. It also posed an unacceptable risk to the environment.
It wasn't until 2009 that the EPA chose a cleanup plan to dispose of some material and use microorganisms to break down other pollution. The latter plan, called bioremediation, did not work sufficiently to provide long-term protection.
The EPA went back to the drawing board for eight years and unveiled a cleanup plan in June. It was finalized on Tuesday.
The first stage of the cleanup calls for enough contaminated soil to fill 4,900 dump trucks to be dug up in the area of the former oil lake and disposed of offsite. It will cost about $14 million.
The $10 million second stage calls for 2 feet of contaminated soil in wetland areas to be removed from the site. Clean fill will then cover the remaining contamination at the site. Wetland areas would also be excavated to a depth of 2 feet to accommodate the soil cover. About 18 inches of sediment in the drainage ditch along Route 280 would be excavated.
Charleston attorney and former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Callaghan plans to establish a trust fund and to sue insurance companies of entities responsible for dumping PCB in Fayette County illegally, including at Minden and Fayetteville, Fayette Prosecuting Attorney Larry Harrah said Tuesday.
The leader of a local citizen's environmental rights group sharply criticized the plan on Tuesday, citing a similar strategy that failed and led to multi-million fees for the California city of Lodi. The Lodi case was executed by Michael Donovan, an attorney who is Callaghan's co-counsel on two legal cases.
The Fayette County Commission appointed Callaghan as special assistant prosecuting attorney and created the Environmental Public Health and Protection Division (EHPD) on Friday to oversee the removal of toxic substances from watersheds to improve the health of the systems. Harrah will oversee the division.
"There's lots of pollution in this county," Harrah said Tuesday. "We just kind of hide it and cover it up and don't think about it sometimes.
"Because of tourism, we don't want it out there."
Home of the New River Gorge, the New River and the Gauley River, Fayette County is a premier tourist destination spot in the state.
Harrah said that in addition to fracking waste pollution at Lochgelly and EPA reports of PCB contamination in Minden and Fayetteville, his office is investigating citizens' complaints of additional sites of possible PCB contamination in the county, including a site at Scarbro.
EPA officials tested for PCB contamination in Fayetteville in June. Results of the testing showed traces of PCB contamination at 3279 Court Street on property owned by Appalachian Whitewater founder Imre Szilagyi.
According to Harrah, Callaghan is hired on a contingency basis and will pursue actions against the insurance companies of the companies responsible for polluting the environment with PCB and possible other contaminants.
"The goal is to create a trust," Harrah said. "Once we go after these insurance companies and are able to recover, and you're talking some of these insurance companies have pretty good policies out there that we can, hopefully, go after, we would then create a trust for clean-up and/or once we design the trust, whatever falls within the parameters of that trust."
He said that if the responsible companies don't have insurance, an alternative strategy will be developed.
"We're going to have to figure out a way to work with other agencies to try to address the problem," he said, adding that county officials are aware that Minden residents distrust the EPA and DEP.
Minden hosts an EPA Superfund site, Shaffer's Equipment, where PCB was improperly stored and poured onto the ground, both at Shaffer's and at other places in the community, according to Minden residents and former Shaffer employees.
Residents have reported a high number of cancer cases in the community and attribute it to exposure to PCB, which all major world health organizations list as a probable carcinogen. Neither state nor federal health authorities have investigated their claims.
Minden residents say that county officials refused their requests in 2002 to dredge nearby Arbuckle Creek, which federal officials had identified as a pathway for PCB in 1992. The creek regularly floods, they added, carrying PCB into their yards.
Recent EPA testing of Minden properties along Arbuckle showed PCB contamination at both state and EPA actionable levels.
Brandon Richardson, founder of the environmental group Headwaters Defense which successfully pushed the latest round of EPA testing in Minden and the testing at the Fayetteville site, had criticized county officials for responding to trace amounts of PCB contamination at Fayetteville while ignoring Minden for decades â€” a charge Harrah denied Tuesday.
"My grandparents lived in Minden," Harrah said. "My grandma was the cook at Minden Elementary School for years and years.
"I used to spend nights down there all the time. I'm 38 years old. This problem is older than me.
"It's taken me a little while to get up to speed on it."
He said negotiations with Callaghan started before the Fayetteville PCB soil sample results had been made available in September under a Freedom of Information Act request.
"I didn't know anything about contamination at Fayetteville," Harrah said. "I knew they were testing out there. I didn't think they would find anything."
Harrah said Tuesday that county officials have been corresponding with Callaghan since July, after local businessman Gene Kistler, Dave Arnold of Adventures on the Gorge and others began talks with Callaghan about cleaning up pollution in the county.
"He had met with some folks around here, Gene Kistler, and Dave Arnold, and had been talking about ways to clean up polluted sites in Fayette County, Lochgelly being one of the most interesting," Harrah said. "When he mentioned Lochgelly, I mentioned Shaffer Equipment in Minden, about how can we really address this problem and get this stuff cleaned up.
"So he got in touch with me," Harrah reported. "I had an initial meeting with him, and it just went from there about how can we really clean these places up, instead of putting Band-Aids on them all the time."
Callaghan served as DEP secretary beginning in 2001 under Gov. Bob Wise and is a former Assistant United States Attorney.
Lodi officials told The Register-Herald Tuesday that the city hired Michael Donovan to fund a clean-up of PCE, a dry cleaning chemical, that had been flushed into the Lodi sanitation system. Under federal environmental laws, Lodi was legally liable for the pollution.Â
Donovan is an attorney who has worked with Callaghan to fund clean-up of the chemical MCHM in Putnam County and who serves as Callaghan's co-counsel on two current lawsuits, as a special prosecutor.Â
The City of Lodi created its own body for the purpose of prosecuting an environmental clean-up, gaining permission from the California state environmental authority to take over the clean-up effort.Â
Lodi officials said that the town council passed an ordinance at Donovan's suggestion and sued insurance companies under the ordinance to pay for the clean-up effort. Donovan was not working on a contingency basis, and the city ran through $4 million to $6 million in its water fund to support Donovan's strategy, according to statements by Lodi officials.
At Donovan's suggestion, city officials then borrowed $15 million at 20 percent interest, plus the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), which was an additional 8 percent, according to Lodi officials.
One Lodi official said that much of the money was paid to Donovan and environmental consultants.
The City of Lodi ultimately settled with most parties, including Donovan, who later sued the city.
Lodi city attorney Steve Schwabauer remarked, "The City of Lodi's relationship with (Donovan's firm) did not go well."
Schwabauer said that he had been contacted recently by a Fayette County representative regarding Donovan's work in Lodi.
Harrah said he had been aware of Callaghan's association with Donovan.
"If this thing doesn't go the way we want it to, the county has the ability under the contract to get rid of him (Callaghan)Â at any time at no cost to the county."
Late Tuesday evening, Richardson said that his group, Headwaters Defense, does not support the county strategy to work with Callaghan.
"I fear that big chunks of this clean-up money, or relocation money, are going to go to this firm," Richardson said. "The strategy that he is mentioning is not coming from the community of Minden or Lochgelly.
"It is not even a strategy that anyone there is considering."
Richardson said those in Minden want to be relocated. A clean-up of the environment after relocation of the people there would be preferable, he said.
He said that his group does not back Callaghan's work in Minden. He added that Callaghan's association with Donovan is a concern, along with the strategy itself.
COMMUNITY activists say they predicted more than two years ago a “strong probability” of a “major debacle” over authorities’ “inaction” on lead contamination in north Lake Macquarie.
Boolaroo Action Group spokesman Jim Sullivan said the community was “fed up with bureaucratic bungling” and “finger pointing” from politicians, the Environment Protection Authority, Lake Macquarie City Council and the state government.
Mr Sullivan was responding to a Fairfax Media report on Tuesday detailing how residents still have no place to dump lead-contaminated soil in the Hunter.
Boolaroo resident Mark Hambier has tonnes of contaminated dirt sitting uncovered in his yard after Newcastle City Council refused to accept it at Summerhill tip.
Mr Hambier’s renovation and subdivision works have been hampered by delays since the EPA announced last year that residents would be able to take lead-laden soil to Summerhill in February, then August and now some time in October.
Mr Sullivan said the community asked for three things from the eight-member North Lake Macquarie Community Lead Reference Group when it was established in early 2015.
“We wanted blood testing of children, a future fund to deal with the pollution and a place to dump contaminated soil,” he said.
“We got the blood testing and that was it. Now it’s down to all of the authorities pointing fingers at each other and no-one wants to accept responsibility.”
Long-term Boolaroo resident and action group member Allan Craig said he was at a loss to explain why it was “so hard” to get things right.
“It’s crazy, just crazy the mess residents have been left in,” he said.
“Pasminco left this mess and now residents are burdened with having to clean it up and pay for the privilege.”
Residents were able to dump lead-contaminated soil free in a containment cell on the former Pasminco Cockle Creek smelter site.
It was capped in 2015, leaving residents with nowhere in the Hunter to take the toxic dirt.
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It was practical considerations that led Dawn and Brian Chapman to Maryland Heights, a modest suburb of St. Louis bound by two interstate highways, several strip malls, an international airport, and the Missouri River. They found a three-bedroom, one-bathroom, 1,000-square-foot home near good public schools and parks, and a reasonable drive to her parents, for $146,000. By 2012, after seven years there, the Chapmans had three kids with special needs, and Dawn had given up teaching preschool to stay home with them.
That was when the stench overcame their neighborhood. It wasn’t the usual methane smell from Bridgeton Landfill, about 2 miles away, that sometimes wafted through. “It was like rotten dead bodies, and there was a kerosene, chemical odor, too,” says Dawn. “People were gagging.”
That fall the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the odors were coming from a fire that had been burning 80 feet to 120 feet below ground at the landfill for almost two years and was likely to smolder for many more. The heat from the fire was accelerating the decomposition of trash, and the pumps and gas flares that normally remove toxic leachate and limit odors from dumps couldn’t keep up. Republic Services Inc., the company that owns the landfill, told the paper its staff was working to tame the “subsurface smoldering reaction”—an industry term of art for combustion that has no oxygen fueling it or flames rising from it.
When Chapman’s family and neighbors began experiencing headaches, nosebleeds, and breathing problems that winter, she contacted the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which regulates the state’s landfills. She learned that Bridgeton Landfill was only one part of a 200-acre dumping ground that had been classified as a Superfund site because another part of it, an old landfill known as West Lake, contained radioactive waste from the earliest days of the Atomic Age. One of the two radiation-riddled areas was contiguous with the Bridgeton section. No one knew how the fire had started in the Bridgeton Landfill or when it would end, but it was slowly moving north, toward the contaminated area.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which called the whole sprawling dump the West Lake Landfill complex, had placed it on the National Priorities List in 1990 and announced a remedy in 2008. The plan was to cover the “radiological-impacted material” with several feet of topsoil, clay, and crushed rock and concrete. But the Missouri Coalition for the Environment argued to the agency that it was reckless to leave this particular element—thorium, a byproduct of uranium’s decay chain that becomes more radioactive over centuries—in an unlined landfill that sits in a developed area on a flood plain prone to tornadoes. An EPA review board also challenged the decision. Absent consensus, nothing was done. Officials were overseeing studies of other possible solutions when the landfill fire began.
Many people living near the site didn’t even know it was there, and most who did gave it scant attention. “We had no reason to look into the Superfund site before the smell, since it wasn’t a nuisance,” says Harvey Ferdman, a former volunteer policy adviser to Bridgeton’s state representative who now serves as an official, unpaid liaison between the community and the EPA. When he and Chapman first spoke in early 2013, she’d been poring through records dating to the 1970s collected by a lifelong antinuclear activist named Kay Drey. “Dawn told me about the illegally dumped nuclear waste, that there had been instances where it had gone off-site, which were documented, that when West Lake was unregulated it had received all kinds of toxic chemicals, including paint and jet fuel,” says Ferdman. “I told her, ‘No offense, but I’m going to be fact-based and objective. If 25 percent of what you’ve told me is true, we have a big problem.’ And unfortunately it all turned out to be true.”
In the spring of 2013, Chapman and a neighbor, Karen Nickel, formed Just Moms STL to advocate for the removal of the radioactive waste. Since then, the Moms, as they’re known, have held monthly community meetings, appeared at all of the EPA’s public sessions, kept watch on the Bridgeton Landfill fire, and become regulars at the state Capitol.
At the center of the swirling unease are the unknowable consequences of possible exposure to low-level radiation. With the initial recommendation to cap the waste, “the EPA has already established the fact that there’s a risk to human health if they don’t take action,” says Ed Smith, policy director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. His group wants some, if not all, of the waste removed from West Lake. But the EPA says that since no one is being exposed to the dangerous particles, there’s no current health risk. Republic argues that the agency’s recommendation to cover the waste is still the safest, quickest, and easiest remedy. At an estimated cost of $67 million, it’s also the least expensive; removing the contaminated soil could require nearly 10 times that amount.
Now, in a twist few would have anticipated, Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, wants West Lake to be a showcase of Trump-style environmentalism: dismissing climate change, deregulating industry, but taking action on toxic sites. Pruitt told a St. Louis radio host in April, “We’re going to get things done at West Lake. The days of talking are over.” A few months later, Pruitt said the agency was drawing up a list of the top 10 Superfund sites. West Lake is expected to be No. 1.
This would be great news in Bridgeton, but Trump’s proposed federal budget includes cuts to the Superfund program, and Pruitt has also promised to seek more cost-efficient remedies for the sites. “A million red lights went off when Pruitt talked about West Lake,” Chapman says. “There is no cost-effective solution for the site, only for Republic.”
As World War II raged, the U.S. sent spies on a top-secret mission to secure some of the world’s purest uranium from the Shinkolobwe mine in the Belgian Congo. It was shipped directly to Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis, which developed techniques for purifying large quantities of the metal. Over the years the company chemically processed tens of thousands of tons of uranium, including the fissile material for the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima.
Mallinckrodt also produced about 2 million cubic yards of contaminated waste, some of which was transported hastily and carelessly in uncovered trucks to the St. Louis countryside in the late 1950s and ’60s, according to documents from the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. From there, selected residue that still had some value was sold by the AEC; Cotter Corp., another uranium processor, eventually acquired about 100,000 tons.
After it stripped out copper, nickel, and cobalt from the waste, Cotter was supposed to dispose of what was left and decontaminate its storage facility in Hazelwood, northwest of St. Louis, by October 1973. As the deadline approached, things went awry. Cotter couldn’t figure out how to get rid of 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate, which contained 7 tons of unprocessed uranium, and the commission didn’t have any suggestions. A contractor mixed the powdery white substance with 39,000 tons of dirt from the site—later also found to be contaminated with radiation— and, over three months, dumped it at the West Lake Landfill.
In the late 1970s the government began an assessment of the damage caused by the nuclear program, which ultimately led the Department of Energy to put Cotter’s Hazelwood site and Mallinckrodt’s St. Louis processing facilities, as well as two other storage sites, on its list of the country’s most radioactive areas. By 1990 estimates for the cost of cleaning up around St. Louis—which included the removal of tons of soil by the Army Corps of Engineers—had reached $1.5 billion.
When it came to West Lake, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission argued that oversight should fall to the EPA and its Superfund program, since the radioactive material had been dumped without governmental approval and mixed with other industrial waste. The program, which today includes some 1,300 sites, operates on the principle that polluters, if the EPA can find them, should pay to assess contamination and clean it up. At West Lake, the EPA named three so-called potentially responsible parties: the landfills’ owners (now Republic Services’ subsidiaries in Bridgeton); Cotter (whose liability passed on to Exelon Corp.); and the DOE. Identifying who should pay, though, is more a signal to queue up lawyers and consultants than the start of remediation.
“Follow the garbage trucks,” says Russ Knocke, Republic’s vice president for communications and public affairs, by way of directions from my hotel to the Bridgeton Landfill. The facility no longer accepts trash but does have a revenue-generating transfer station, which accounts for the truck traffic. At the entrance there’s a small, faded Republic Services sign, but nothing about a Superfund site. Knocke was press secretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during Hurricane Katrina and joined Republic in mid-2013, as its handling of the fire was being questioned. He works from the company’s headquarters in Phoenix but has come to Bridgeton to meet me. He’s 43, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt; his hard hat is out, his presentation ready. With him are three of Republic’s experts on the landfill. “All the best in their fields, with years of experience,” he says.
When Republic took over the Bridgeton and West Lake landfills in mid-2008, following a $6 billion merger with Allied Waste, the transaction made Republic the second-biggest company in the industry by revenue. In the years since, Bill Gates’s money management firm, Cascade Investment Group Inc., has increased its stake to 32 percent. The Superfund cleanup was considered a footnote to the merger: Under the assumption they’d only have to follow the EPA’s requirement to cap the radioactive material, Republic expected to pay about $15 million, one-third of the estimated cost then. There had been at least one small fire at the landfill in 1992, but monitoring at Bridgeton was supposed to be routine. “Basically, we mow the grass,” says Knocke of the company’s other closed landfills. “A manager can oversee five of them at a time.”
At Bridgeton, Republic instead employs a full-time staff of 15, and twice as many consultants. The company has spent more than $200 million to monitor and contain the fire and estimates the total could reach $400 million. In 2014, Republic agreed to pay almost $6.9 million to settle a class action brought by residents who lived within a mile of the landfill over the odors emanating from it. The former Missouri attorney general also brought a suit against the company for allegedly violating state environmental regulations at the trash dump; a trial date has been set for next March.
The Bridgeton Landfill takes up about a quarter of the 200-acre Superfund site. It was created out of an old limestone pit and consists of the North and South Quarries, connected by a narrow area called the Neck. Just beyond the North Quarry is West Lake Landfill, where radioactive particles lurk below the surface, sometimes near it. We drive past a 6-foot chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. A yellow sign stamped with the symbol for radiation warns not to enter. The soil is covered in vegetation: green grass, dandelions, a few early summer wildflowers.
Bridgeton, in contrast, looks like a botched science experiment. Republic first reported evidence of a problem in its South Quarry—elevated temperatures and carbon monoxide levels—in late 2010. But the state’s Department of Natural Resources didn’t make the information public, and no one told the fire department until 2012. By then it was hard to hide: A 40-foot section of ground had collapsed as the heat consumed buried trash. “I wanted to give the company the benefit of the doubt,” Matt LaVanchy, the assistant fire chief, told me of his first meeting with Republic to assess the situation. “I brought up the fact that there’s a smoldering event in your landfill and a rad-waste dump that’s also on your property.” When he asked how they would keep the fire from the radioactive waste, “they said it was geologically impossible to reach the rad material because there is a natural barrier.” LaVanchy, though, says the trash spills over the quarry wall.
The fire’s origins are controversial. Republic’s experts say it began spontaneously, while two consultants hired by the state say the company may have inadvertently allowed oxygen to enter the ground through its methane wells or improperly maintained soil cover. Everyone agrees that extinguishing it isn’t possible.
Republic tried to cool the hottest spots in 2013, but the heat began moving toward the radioactive material at a faster pace; in June of that year a representative of the Department of Natural Resources said the heat might reach the waste in 400 days. One landfill consultant’s worst-case scenario was a release of radioactive particles similar to a dirty bomb. In a report for the Missouri attorney general’s office, another expert brought up the possibility of superheated steam carrying radionuclides, which happened at the nuclear plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan. As fallout fears spread, the Moms put a countdown clock on their Facebook page and brought a child-size coffin and a petition calling for a state of emergency, signed by 13,000 people, to the governor’s office in Jefferson City. The expert who’d invoked Fukushima later said in a deposition that he hadn’t meant to alarm residents.
“We’ve been the only adult in the room for a long time,” Knocke says. “It’s been this spin-up of noise and fear and anxiety, and we generally feel like we’ve been the only ones that have been trying to say, ‘Guys, here’s the science.’ ”
“You might see the ground dry up a little bit; you might see cracks; you might see radon emitted into the air,” he says. “That’s the what-happens-if. Not St. Louis goes boom.” The Moms, he says, have shown “a complete disregard for science and distrust of institutions” and have scared the community.
Yet in the spring of 2014 the EPA’s Office of Research and Development concluded that, although a fire in the radioactive zone wouldn’t cause an explosion, it could present long-term risks, including the escape of radon gas into the air “at levels of concern.” A few months later the St. Louis County Office of Emergency Management devised a “catastrophic event” plan that instructed those far enough from West Lake to evacuate and those closest to shelter in place. (Republic takes issue with the radon data the EPA used in its calculations.)
Concern intensified in October 2015 when residents noticed a plume of smoke rising from West Lake, prompting panicked calls to LaVanchy. The smoke came from a brushfire about 390 feet from the nearest known location of contaminated soil. The fire department extinguished it within 20 minutes. The EPA later ordered Republic and the other responsible parties to put a noncombustible cover over areas where the radioactivity is close to the surface as a temporary measure.
Below ground, the spread of the heat was slowing and shifting direction away from the Neck. The most intense heat is now deep in the South Quarry, and Republic expects the reaction to wear itself out in seven or so years. “The threat of immediate concern about the fire is lower now,” LaVanchy says. “But I’ll feel a lot better when the temperatures everywhere start dropping and stay there. It’s not a stable situation. The fire is like a hostile animal.”
Erin Fanning, the chipper, 35-year-old division manager at Bridgeton Landfill, says that since the reaction began, Republic has installed 57 probes capable of recording temperatures to a depth of 150 feet, more than 200 gas extraction points, 28 cooling wells, and 51,000 feet of piping. Everything has to be kept working amid shifting ground. The cover—made from thin layers of the polymer resin ethylene vinyl alcohol, designed to keep in noxious fumes—requires constant maintenance. “A single fracture or tear could cause an odor,” Fanning says. A new waste treatment plant continuously processes the hundreds of thousands of gallons of hazardous leachate created every week by the trash as it decomposes rapidly from the heat.
Knocke casts Republic’s investments as evidence that it’s been a good neighbor. “We could have just walked away and said, ‘Catch me if you can.’ Now, without question, the state of the landfill today is as optimal as it’s ever been,” he says.
“When we hear this,” Chapman says, “Karen and I look at each other and we’re like, ‘You spent $200 million because this is a pretty goddamn big deal,’ ” and not something Republic could have run from. “We always say they bought a lemon,” Nickel says.
In the midst of Republic’s firefighting, the EPA made a discovery that further eroded the community’s trust in the company and the agency. Scientists found radioactive material 640 feet beyond where they thought it ended, in ground that had been considered part of the North Quarry of Bridgeton. Republic and the EPA said that even though they hadn’t known it was there they weren’t surprised to find it, and that since the waste wasn’t close to the surface it wasn’t a risk. “They’re confident they have found the extent of the contamination, and we don’t have the same confidence,” says Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, which wants the rest of the North Quarry tested. The EPA says that’s not necessary. But the agency has opened an investigation of the groundwater below West Lake after earlier tests detected radium.
This spring, Republic opposed a state bill that would have created a $12 million relocation fund for residents of Spanish Village and Terrisan Reste, a mobile home park, both of which are closer to the Superfund site than Nickel’s and Chapman’s houses. The company contended that it was unnecessary and would hurt the local economy. “Actually, Republic was lobbying against the precedent. It would be the first time a legislative body acknowledged there is a problem,” says Mark Matthiesen, the Republican state representative for the area, who shepherded the failed bill. “Every time we have some positive momentum, Republic starts working hard and putting more money to fight against it.”
Matthiesen has watched in frustration as Republic’s lobbyists have attempted to convince lawmakers that rural communities would be jeopardized if the EPA forced the company to remove the radioactive soil and an accident occurred during transportation. But the Army Corps of Engineers confirms that tons of such soil have already been moved through the state, accident-free, as the Corps and DOE clean up other contaminated sites in St. Louis County. Republic’s argument, Matthiesen says, “just isn’t right.”
Republic funds its own citizens’ group, the Coalition to Keep Us Safe, which seeks to assure Bridgeton residents that all is well and the real danger is in removal. The coalition has a Mom, too: Spokeswoman Molly Teichman, who lives several hours’ drive from Bridgeton, calls herself the Mommentator, and once tweeted, “Dear mombots of #westlakelandfill, your reality TV show is over. Go home and hangout with your kids—they miss you.”
The day after I tour the landfill, I visit Chapman and Nickel. They’re sitting at Nickel’s kitchen table in their usual chairs, wearing their usual summer clothes. Nickel is in a T-shirt and jeans; Chapman, a T-shirt and shorts. Nickel, who’s 54 and has three adult children and a teenage daughter, is sick with lupus, psoriatic arthritis, and fibromyalgia. She grew up next to Cold Water Creek, an area about 12 miles from Bridgeton that’s among those the Corps of Engineers is decontaminating. The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is now assessing public-health risks from any possible exposure.
Nickel worked as an accounting associate at a pharmacy company until it left town; now she cares for a few neighborhood kids after school. “I’m physically strong, but she’s the emotional anchor,” says Chapman, who’s 37. “I’m an analyzer and a processor,” says Nickel. “Dawn’s more of a jump off the bridge—”
“Jump off the bridge on fire,” Chapman interjects, before Nickel continues: “I’ve got to catch her by her feet and pull her back up and say, ‘Hold on. Let’s think about this.’ But it’s worked.”
They were in the midst of sorting through thousands of EPA documents that the Environmental Archives, a free digital library, had obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. In one email, an EPA representative remarked on a newspaper report that the activist Erin Brockovich was planning to meet with Chapman and Nickel: “SIX MORE MONTHS!!!!!.....AHHHHHHHHHH.” (In a statement, the EPA said the representative had been looking forward to retirement after a long career.) In another, employees discussed not using email.
“The EPA has spent more time handling the people in this community than worrying about what’s at that site and how it could harm the people of this community,” Nickel says. As we talk, she and Chapman receive a text from another activist, Robbin Dailey, who says she’d just missed the EPA officials walking around her Spanish Village neighborhood to placate residents, as they occasionally do. “I was going to lay into the EPA today,” Dailey says when I visit her and her husband later that afternoon. “They’re just mocking us.”
She and her husband, Michael, are retirees in their 60s, and he’s in poor health. They’ve lived up the hill from the Superfund site since 1999, in a home they bought for $110,000. For the past few years they’ve suspected it could be contaminated. About 18 months ago, attorneys at New York City-based Hausfeld, known for their fen-phen litigation, got in touch with them, proposing to investigate possible contamination in their subdivision. “I said, ‘Finally. We’ve got somebody that knows what the hell they’re talking about and agrees with us that we’re not crazy,’ ” Robbin says.
Scientists hired by the firm used a microanalytical method and said they discovered radioactive particles of Thorium-230 at concentrations 200 times higher than background levels. According to these experts, the thorium has the fingerprint of the uranium that was processed at Mallinckrodt. It was found in “archival dust” behind a loose floorboard in the kitchen where Robbin once hid the family’s valuables, as well as along the ledges of their basement windows and in a few spots in their backyard.
Last November, the Daileys, who chose not to accept the early class-action suit most residents signed up for because it would have limited other legal action, filed their own lawsuit against Republic, Cotter, and Mallinckrodt seeking compensation for property damage and the provision of remediation and medical monitoring. They want the companies to admit that radioactive material has already spread beyond West Lake—which the companies deny—and to pay them for their home, which they say they can’t, in good conscience, sell. (Knocke says that all neutral experts have deemed the community safe, and, in filings, all three companies deny the allegations.)
The family’s lawyers say there is evidence of Thorium-230 and other particles from West Lake in multiple houses in Spanish Village. But when scientists for the EPA tested two other homes near the Daileys using a more standard method, they didn’t find anything.
That didn’t necessarily surprise Marco Kaltofen, a civil engineer who devised the microanalytical approach and is principal investigator at consulting firm Boston Chemical Data. He used the same method to conduct a study, funded by Drey, the activist who provided Chapman and Ferdman with archival documents, that was peer-reviewed and published last year. He found radioactive lead, another decay product of the Mallinckrodt waste, in a roughly 75-square-mile area around West Lake and Cold Water Creek. The lead was at levels that were within EPA guidelines but exceeded the more stringent Department of Energy standards.
Tom Mahler, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator, emphasizes that the agency has been testing outside the Superfund site for the past five years and hasn’t found anything of concern. “Is it there?” he asks. “I cannot speak to whether something occurred if I don’t have data for it.”
Living near West Lake means living with uncertainty. It’s difficult to measure exposure to a chronic, low-level presence of unstable material, and it’s hard, in an uncontrolled environment, to link it definitively with disease that can emerge years later. Lupus, for example, is an autoimmune disease that’s been associated with uranium radiation. Is this what caused Nickel’s illness? Right now, no one can say for sure. Science can help establish baselines for health risks, but those don’t map to every human body, and it takes only one cell mutation to cause cancer.
A 2014 Missouri health survey found higher-than-expected incidences of leukemia, colon, prostate, bladder, kidney, and breast cancer in communities near contaminated areas in north St. Louis County, especially Cold Water Creek, and a significantly higher-than-expected number of children with brain cancer in Maryland Heights. But the study didn’t assess exposure to radiation, noting that obesity, smoking, and diabetes can contribute to some of these cancers. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded in 2015 that given the data from the EPA, other agencies, and the responsible parties, those living near the site aren’t facing any health risks from it.
While Faisal Khan, director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, accepts that finding, he also says that “the preponderance of anecdotal evidence supports Dawn’s conclusions of long-term, low-level exposure.” There’s no science to directly connect that to certain diseases, he adds, but no one should dismiss the community’s fears. “Their health concerns are valid,” he says, “and the level of anxiety related to the landfill and the entire toxic legacy is a huge disadvantage to their mental health.” Khan would like West Lake to be fully excavated.
“We expect the EPA to acknowledge that there has been some exposure at the low level,” says Chapman, “so that people can be proactive if they find a lump or feel sick.” When I ask Mary Peterson, head of the Superfund division that oversees West Lake, about this persistent worry, she replies: “I want people to have faith in government. Yet I know sometimes the answers we find in science, no matter how concrete, do not overcome people’s concerns.”
A few days after I leave Bridgeton, Chapman and Nickel travel to Washington with Smith and Matthiesen for the premiere of Atomic Homefront, a documentary about West Lake and Cold Water Creek that HBO will air early next year. Then they meet with Patrick Davis, a former Trump fundraiser who’s a political deputy at the EPA, and Albert Kelly, a former banker from Oklahoma who’s now in charge of streamlining the Superfund program, to press their case for getting at least some of the radioactive waste removed and helping to relocate those in Spanish Village and the mobile home park who want to leave. “They gave us their personal cell phone numbers,” Chapman says afterward. “That’s when I thought: We’re being played. When you’re helpless, anything that gives you a little sense of power helps. But now we see that’s BS. Every lobbyist has their numbers, too.”
Chapman and Nickel worry that Pruitt will side with Republic. “I suppose that’s a possibility,” Kelly says. “The opposite is a possibility as well. I’m sure somebody is going to be unhappy.”
Within months, they may know who. “After all these years, the decision will come down to one man,” Chapman says, sighing. “There’s no appeal.” Republic, Exelon, and the DOE, though, will have options if they don’t like the verdict. Superfund communities can’t legally challenge an EPA decision, but companies can. And if the EPA selects a remedy other than the cap, Knocke says, there would very likely be litigation before anyone lifted a shovel.
WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator who has aggressively pushed to dismantle regulations and downsize the organization, is threatening to reach outside his agency and undermine the Justice Department’s work enforcing antipollution laws, documents and interviews show.
Under Mr. Pruitt, the E.P.A. has quietly said it may cut off a major funding source for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. Its lawyers handle litigation on behalf of the E.P.A.’s Superfund program seeking to force polluters to pay for cleaning up sites they left contaminated with hazardous waste. The E.P.A. reimburses the Justice Department for that work, paying more than $20 million annually in recent years, or enough for 115 full-time employees, budget documents show.
But Mr. Pruitt has signaled that he wants to end those payments, potentially carving a major hole in the division’s budget, in a little-noticed line in the E.P.A.’s budget proposal in the spring. No decision will be made until Congress passes an E.P.A. budget for the fiscal year that begins in October, officials at both agencies said, although the payments were created by the executive branch, not Congress, so Mr. Pruitt may be able to act on his own. Congress hopes to pass a spending plan before a stopgap measure expires in mid-December.
Mr. Pruitt, a former attorney general of Oklahoma with strong ties to the fossil fuel industry who frequently sued the E.P.A. before President Trump placed him in charge of it, has made no secret of his ambition to unwind its regulations and shrink its work force to curtail what he sees as federal overreach in protecting the environment and public health.
The prospect of Mr. Pruitt expanding his efforts to the Justice Department has raised worries among employees in the Environment and Natural Resources Division about potential layoffs or furloughs and significant reductions in their work to fight pollution in the nation’s waterways, soil and air.
Because they would continue to be responsible for pursuing Superfund cases, cutbacks would likely be spread across the division’s workload, which also includes suing oil companies, power plants and other corporations when they violate such antipollution laws as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act.
Managers in the division have expressed hope that Justice Department leaders may come up enough offsetting funds to forestall drastic measures.
The funding arrangement, which dates to the Reagan administration, is not created by statute. Instead, the E.P.A. pays the Justice Department under an agreement reached by earlier leaders of the two agencies, and which Mr. Pruitt is now considering abandoning.
The funding has allowed the division to expand its work beyond what its congressional appropriation alone would permit. Between 1987 and 2016, the E.P.A.’s reimbursements provided over $810 million to the division, amounting to 27 percent of its budget, according to a recent audit.
Congressional appropriations aides in both parties said that skepticism has emerged on Capitol Hill over Mr. Pruitt’s idea. Still, the extent to which the Republican-controlled Congress would tie his hands remains to be seen.
Asked how the Justice Department would deal with the shortfall if Mr. Pruitt follows through, Wyn Hornbuckle, a department spokesman, did not directly answer the question.
“While the environment division continues to examine areas to achieve efficiencies and cost savings, we anticipate adequate funding to continue our core mission in safeguarding clean air, clean land and clean water for all Americans, including the important work on the nation’s Superfund sites,” he said in a statement.
He did not say which parts of the division’s work the Trump administration considers part of its core mission as opposed to inefficiencies ripe for cost savings.
Under Mr. Pruitt, the E.P.A. proposed cutting one-third of its $8 billion budget, including slashing its Superfund program by $327 million, or about 30 percent. As part of that reduction, it proposed cutting enforcement — efforts to identify the parties responsible for leaving sites contaminated and to try to make them pay for cleanup — by $67 million.
Amid expectations that enforcement resources would be diminished, the E.P.A. made its little-noticed announcement in its budget proposal that it intended to no longer reimburse the Justice Department for Superfund litigation costs, meaning the department would have to start paying for that work out of its own funds.
By contrast, the proposal submitted by the Justice Department anticipated that the Environment and Natural Resources Division would receive $25.97 million in E.P.A. reimbursements. It was not clear why the Trump administration submitted conflicting proposals.
In a statement, Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman for Mr. Pruitt, called this article “yet another conspiracy theory by The New York Times to draw space in the administration that doesn’t exist,” while saying said that a final decision would come after Congress passes a 2018 budget.
“The budget process continues to play out,” she said. “E.P.A. has not threatened D.O.J. with anything. We value the contributions made by E.N.R.D. attorneys over the years to E.P.A.’s work, continue to value that relationship and acknowledge that final funding decisions will be made once Congress acts.”
But Environment and Natural Resources Division supervisors have been discussing for months what to do if Mr. Pruitt withdraws the funding, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations. Among other things, they have asked whether it might be possible to shrink the gap using money from a fund that takes a cut of proceeds from civil debt collection litigation, an internal document shows.
Although the Senate has not taken up a 2018 budget bill for the E.P.A., the House of Representatives passed its version this month. While it would cut the E.P.A.’s overall budget by about $500 million — less than Mr. Pruitt wanted — it would also slightly increase the $1.1 billion Superfund program, and an accompanying appropriations committee report says the program’s activities should generally continue.
However, the report also instructs the E.P.A. to trim spending on Superfund enforcement by $12 million without saying how. A Democratic appropriations staff member said the legislation is ambiguous enough that Mr. Pruitt could take advantage of it to curtail reimbursements to the Justice Department.
The House Appropriations Committee does not support cutting off the Justice Department reimbursements, a spokeswoman for the Republican staff said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss legislation whose details are still in flux, as did the Democratic aide.
The Republican aide acknowledged that the current bill would leave the E.P.A. with discretion to decide where to cut its enforcement spending, but suggested that a final spending bill may provide more detailed instructions.
Ms. Bowman, the spokeswoman for the E.P.A., did not respond to follow-up questions, including whether Mr. Pruitt believed the current legislation would tie his hands.
Follow Charlie Savage on Twitter @charlie_savage.
Samples taken along Arbuckle Creek in Minden show elevated levels of PCB contamination, a report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows.
Minden is home to what was once the Shaffer Equipment Company, which EPA agents declared a Superfund site in need of clean-up in 1992 after PCB contamination was discovered there in 1985.
According to the report, 10 samples collected from properties along the creek show levels of PCB that could require action from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP). Two samples showed contamination at higher levels that would merit EPA action, including one taken at the Shaffer site.
PCB is an industrial chemical that the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) lists as a probable cancer-causing agent.
"There are, in fact, dangerous levels of PCBs in Minden," Headwaters Defense founder Brandon Richardson said Tuesday. "This news comes after years of local suspicion that EPA did not clean up the toxic chemicals from the Shaffer Equipment Company, a historic Superfund site."
The EPA report on Arbuckle testing was made available by Headwaters Defense, which obtained it from WVDEP through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Richardson's group pushed for the EPA sampling in Minden.
Richardson pointed out that the EPA report shows one sample contained 50 parts-per-million of PCBs, which is 150 times the WVDEP action level and 10 times higher than the actionable standard set by the EPA.
"What goes through my mind is, they're just going to have to do something for these people," Richardson said. "They're going to have to give Minden exactly what Minden wants.
"It's just a shame that all those agencies have let them fall down like that, and I think it's time they find a way to make it right."
Of around 60 samples total, EPA agents took only one from the predominantly African-American neighborhood that is situated closest to the Superfund site.
"That's the way it is when it pertains to this part of Minden," said Eddie Fruit, whose family property is next to the Shaffer site. "The part I live on, we always get the short end of the stick."
The Minden situation has captured the attention of Lois Gibbs, an internationally-recognized environmental rights leader who founded the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
"These results are outrageous," Gibbs said in a press release. "It's time for the state of West Virginia and the EPA to take action to protect the people of Minden, who have been living with this contamination for decades.
"The EPA should relocate the people who wish to leave and, finally, clean up the contamination from this highly toxic chemical."
• • •
For years, Minden residents have told federal, state and local officials that their community hosts a carcinogen. Warrenetta "Carol" Hester of Raleigh County, a former Minden resident who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, told The Register-Herald in July that of 60 former neighbors in the African-American neighborhood in Minden a third have died of cancers.
Others in Minden have reported that multiple family members have died or been diagnosed with cancers, as have pets. The late Dr. Hassan Amjad, a local physician who was conducting a health survey of Minden residents prior to his Aug. 29 death, told The Register-Herald that PCB exposure had led to an increased cancer death rate in Minden.
Amjad was collecting information to study the impact of PCB on residents' health and told The Register-Herald that he had seen a higher number of small cell myeloma cancer deaths among residents, along with what appeared to be a very invasive form of lymphoma. He was still researching the data at the time of his death.
Dr. Ayne Amjad has taken over the health registry work of her late father. Amjad is offering a free health clinic to Minden residents once a month. More information is available by calling 304-252-5900.
• • •
Residents say a botched EPA cleanup in the 1980s created community distrust of the EPA in Minden, a once-thriving coal camp town now dotted with abandoned and burned-down houses. EPA agents discovered PCB stored in drums and containers at Shaffer, and sample testing showed PCB contamination.
The lead on-site EPA coordination Robert Carron led a failed $1 million clean-up effort to extract PCB from the soil using methanol.
After the cleansing effort failed, EPA crews removed around 4.8 tons of contaminated soil to a hazardous waste dump in Alabama. In an effort that required over 200 truckloads, according to EPA documents, crews also removed 23 drums of capacitors, 24 drums of transformer fluid, 32 drums of transformer flush and 31 transformers.
Th EPA restored the Shaffer office building and site, destroyed cleanup facilities and backfilled and graded excavations, completing the cleanup in December 1987. The total cost was over $5 million, according to court documents.
EPA agents took soil samples and told Minden residents that the site no longer posed a health risk.
When residents pushed for additional testing, EPA agents initially refused. After national environmental groups got involved at the request of the local citizens' group Concerned Citizens to Save Fayette County (CCSFC) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) took note of the Minden situation, EPA returned to Minden in 1990 and found additional soil contamination at Shaffer and 21 more contaminated barrels.
EPA crews began another cleanup effort, evacuating about 200 yards of contaminated soil in 1991. They tore down part of the Shaffer building and declared it a Superfund site by 1992. They placed a cap over one part of the site, sealing it.
Richardson said EPA has not investigated community reports that thousands of gallons of EPA oil were dumped into nearby mines at Minden.
Stephen Lester, science director for Center for Health, Environment & Justice, A Project of People's Action Institute of Falls Church, Va., urged action.
"These results support an issue that people in the community have been raising for decades — that PCBs remain at the site and potentially everywhere in Minden," he said. "This is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Additional testing for PCBs needs to be done.
"The question remains, how far have the PCBs spread and what levels have people who live in the community been exposed to?
"It's past time for the state and US EPA to finally address the contamination in this community."
Fishtown residents, city halt smelter demolition until safeguards in place
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Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
A former lead smelter in Fishtown, at Gordon and Gaul Streets, is being torn down and replaced with eight townhouses.
by Barbara Laker & Wendy Ruderman - Staff Writers
It was around 8:30 Friday morning when heavy machinery ripped into the roof of a former lead smelter in Fishtown, sending plumes of dust through a tightly packed neighborhood of rowhouses.
Toxic City: The series, reactions and opinions
Many neighbors were incensed. They knew that the city required that those living near the demolition at Gordon and Gaul Streets be notified 10 days before the demolition, that the structure be dismantled by hand tools, and that the debris be wet down to protect residents from dust that could contain hazardous materials, including lead.
None of that happened.
“It was horrible,” said Betty Ann Decky, who has lived across the street from the site since 1971. “They never notified any of the neighbors. … No water was sprayed.”
A day-care center sits directly across the street. “And on this block alone, there’s 10 children,” she said. “That’s my biggest worry. They could be exposed to lead, and it’s very harmful for children.”
Many residents of Fishtown, Kensington, and Port Richmond became more attuned to the dangers of lead-tainted soil after an Inquirer and Daily News investigation found hazardous levels of lead contamination in more than 80 locations in those neighborhoods, including parks, playgrounds, and yards.
Residents formed a Facebook group, Get the Lead Out, to educate others about the issue. They complain to the city Department of Public Health’s Air Management Services when they spot airborne dust from demolition and construction sites.
Camera icon FACEBOOK
A Facebook comment last week roiled Fishtown neighbors.
On Friday morning, Fishtown resident Rachel Kaminski alerted Licenses and Inspections Commissioner David Perri about the faulty demolition, and by noon his department had issued a 10-day stop-work order.
That evening, Danny McCarthy, who lives at Belgrade and Gordon Streets, just a few feet from the former Car-Mor Metal Co. smelter, sat on his front steps with his three children, ages 3, 4 and 8. He looked across at the partly collapsed structure and pointed out the fresh coating of dust on his car.
“We are all for building it. Just do it right,” McCarthy said. “If they are building houses, that’s one thing, but if the ground is contaminated, that’s another. They need to clean it up.”
At a community zoning meeting in February, the developer, Gaul Street Partners, told Fishtown residents of its plans for the former smelter site: Eight single-family homes, with a listing price of about $560,000 each. Ori Feibush of OCF Realty is the real estate broker.
When one of the residents at the meeting asked about potential lead contamination, the audience was told that any environmental hazards would be remediated before construction.
Marty Schortye, who attended the meeting, said: “The building had sat forever, and then, boom, they put the fence up, and they just showed up and started doing their thing. Nobody said anything. They just rushed in.”
Camera icon WENDY RUDERMAN
Last week’s partial demolition of a former lead smelter in Fishtown
Feibush is something of a lightning rod in the city’s Point Breeze neighborhood, where some residents credit him for helping to rid the area of blight, while others say his brand of gentrification is pricing out minority residents.
Ian Wilson, president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association, invited Feibush to join the heated discussion about the project on the Get the Lead Out Facebook group. Feibush, who says he has no ownership in the Gaul Street project, weighed in: “I’m embarrassed and frustrated that you didn’t have proper notice of the demolition and do realize that starts us all off on the wrong foot.”
The back-and-forth between Facebook members and Feibush quickly escalated. “There has been little to no transparency in terms of development in this neighborhood and I find it absurd that neighbors are having to continually advocate for established rules to be followed,” resident Allison Dean wrote.
On Tuesday afternoon, Jim Robertson, vice president of Gaul Street Partners, went door to door to apologize to residents and assure them the work would be done safely. Robertson also works for OCF as an agent.
The demolition permit, issued by the city in July, says the structure must be “demolished by hand and handheld tools only. Use of mechanical equipment limited to the removal of debris and below-grade demolition.”
Gaul Street Partners contracted with Mr. Clean Demo. James DiBartolo, owner of Mr. Clean Demo, said Robertson was supposed to give neighbors 10 days’ notice of the demolition. Robertson said DiBartolo was responsible for notifying neighbors.
DiBartolo said he placed demolition notices in neighbors’ mailboxes Monday. Mr. Clean Demo cannot resume the teardown until Oct. 5.
“We will take the walls down brick by brick with sledgehammers,” he said, a job expected to take at least 15 days.
Robertson said he planned to hire an environmental firm to research the site’s history and determine whether lead or any other contaminants might lurk in the ground after demolition.
“We’ll evaluate what we have underground and take steps to remediate,” he said.
Since June 18, Air Management Services has handled more than 50 complaints about construction in the river wards. Health officials have promised residents that complaints will be investigated within an hour.
Also since June 18, the Department of Licenses and Inspections has inspected 132 sites in the river wards and issued seven stop-work orders for not adhering to dust-control measures.
Residents who want to take measures into their own hands can have their soil tested for lead free and learn if their children have elevated lead levels in their blood. On Saturday, a Lead Exposure Resource Fair and testing event will provide free testing between 1 and 4 p.m. at Beacon Church, 2364 E. Cumberland St.
By Steffan Messenger
BBC Wales Environment Correspondent
25 September 2017
From the section Wales comments Share
Plans to dredge 300,000 tonnes of mud from near a disused nuclear plant and dump it off Cardiff Bay have been criticised.
A marine pollution expert claims the mud from near Hinkley Point in Somerset could expose people to radioactivity.
EDF Energy, the company behind the plans, said the work was not harmful to humans or the environment.
The Welsh Government said all applications were considered in line with legal requirements.
Dredging is proposed in Bridgewater Bay near the decommissioned Hinkley Point A and B as part of construction work for the new £19.6bn Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.
Welsh ministers granted permission in 2013 for developers to dispose of the sediment at a site know as Cardiff Grounds, previously used to deposit waste from Cardiff and Newport docks.
But independent marine pollution consultant Tim Deere-Jones, who specialises in marine radioactivity, claimed sampling of the mud to check for potentially harmful contaminants had been "inadequate".
He told BBC Wales low level waste from the nuclear plant had entered the site for more than 50 years and there was a lack of knowledge about the potential harm of moving the mud.
"Rather than being relatively stable at the Hinkley site it is being churned up and brought over here to be dumped," he said.
"Radioactive and non-radioactive pollutants will inevitably enter inshore waters and coastal environments.
"Several studies have shown that wastes dumped into the sea transfer to the land in sea spray and episodes of coastal flooding.
"As a result Welsh coastal populations could be exposed to doses of marine radioactivity."
South Wales Central AM Neil McEvoy said the licence should be revoked until a full environmental impact assessment had been carried out.
"No dose of radiation is acceptable for human health so it beggars belief that the Welsh Government would allow material from a nuclear site to be dumped in Welsh waters," he said.
The UK government approved the new nuclear power station in September 2016.
The dredging is part of the work to construct waste discharge pipes and cooling water intakes for the new power station.
A marine licence allowing the company to dispose of the dredged mud in Welsh waters was granted during a period when responsibility for environmental regulation was being transferred from the former Environment Agency Wales to its successor body, Natural Resources Wales (NRW).
It means the application was handled by Welsh Government officials and BBC Wales understands they retain control over enforcing the terms of the licence.
NRW said protecting people and the environment was a "fundamental concern" and further sampling would be required before any sediment was disposed off the south Wales coast.
An EDF spokesman said: "We consulted a number of stakeholders for more than 12 months before making an application to the Welsh Government Marine Consents Unit for a marine licence to deposit this material at the Cardiff Grounds licensed disposal site."
"We have undertaken a number of assessments as part of this application which concluded the activities pose no threat to human health or the environment."
Environment Secretary Lesley Griffiths said she was unable to comment on a process that had been carried out "some time ago", but added: "All marine applications are considered in line with legal requirements.
"I understand a valid marine licence is in place and there are conditions that need to be complied with by the licence holder before any disposal can take place."
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