TAKING A NEW STACK

An interim EPA report recommends a new stack-emissions test at the Times Beach dioxin incinerator but mutes its call for a shutdown

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Nov. 27, 1996

On Nov. 20, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) interim report recommended that a stack-emissions test at the Times Beach dioxin incinerator may need to be redone to restore public confidence in the project. Such a retest would require snuffing the flames at the incinerator at least temporarily (“Why the Times Beach Incinerator Should be Shut Down, RFT, Nov. 20).

Despite the recommendation, the EPA had by late last Friday taken no action to address the potential public health hazard posed by the incinerator emissions.

“I have absolutely no idea what is going to take place. We have not met on this subject. I am not in any position to comment in any way,” says Rowena Michaels, a spokeswoman for EPA Region VII in Kansas City. Region VII and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are responsible for overseeing the dioxin cleanup in Eastern Missouri, including Times Beach. The results from last year’s flawed test were used as a basis for the DNR to grant a permit for the incinerator to operate.

EPA national ombudsman Robert J. Martin submitted the interim report to Elliott P. Laws, assistant administrator for the agency’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER) in Washington, D.C. As ombudsman, Martin was assigned in May to represent the interests of citizens opposed to the Times Beach incinerator. His final report on the subject is now tentatively scheduled for completion by Dec. 9.

As it stands, Martin’s interim report recommends “establishing a panel of technical and legal experts to consult with the national ombudsman on how to address the issues raised in this case in a final report.” But no such panel has been formed as of yet by the EPA. Moreover, Martin, now speculates that the panel won’t be formed before he completes his findings next month.

“I don’t have the ability to convene the panel,” Martin told The Riverfront Times in a phone interview last Friday. “I have no decision making power. I only have the power to recommend. So whether this panel happens is up to the agency. The agency hasn’t said whether they’ll do it or not.”

Martin’s interim report to Laws concludes that “another dioxin stack test may be essential to restore public confidence in the project.” The report supports that position by citing gross errors in last year’s stack test. “There are salient inconsistencies in the chain-of-custody (of test samples) along with multiple alterations in the supporting documents,” according the EPA interim report. Assistant administrator Laws has not responded to repeated requests by the RFT for an interview.

Martin told the RFT that he is concerned about his inability to put his hands on a copy of the project’s work plans, which lay out the protocols supposedly used during the now unreliable stack test. I have not seen the plans. Apparently, a lot of people have not,” says Martin. “The real question (then) becomes what in fact did they use for a chain-of custody-procedure. We don’t know the answer to that question until we get the work plans. To date, I’ve seen abstracts from the documents, but not the documents in their entirety.

However, the integrity of the interim report itself is now being questioned. Environmental opponents of the incinerator had anticipated that Martin’s review would more strongly advocate a shut down pending a retest.

“It is obvious that the ombudsman lost the courage of his convictions sometime after submitting his report to Elliott Laws for review,” says Steve Taylor of the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG). “We believe that the recommendations in his report were softened. The release of this report is completely inconsistent with the guidance given to us by the national ombudsman.”

As recently as the first week of November, Taylor says Martin told him that the long-awaited interim report would call for a direct and unqualified shut down of the incinerator, pending a retest. Taylor has provided the RFT with taped-recorded telephone conversations to back up his claims. In one conversation, a voice that sounds like Martin’s can be heard saying: “Whatever they need to do to do in the way of a shut down to accommodate a retest is what they should do.”

When confronted with Taylor’s allegations, Martin responded indirectly by saying that his call for a shut down and retest must now be predicated on a loss of “public confidence and not one of legal impropriety.” Taylor contends Martin has waffled on this point, too. In another tape-recorded telephone conversation, a voice presumed to be Martin’s says: “I got to tell you that it wasn’t until this week, going through these documents and then having these discussions with you that I’ve moved from `we have problems’ to `we have potential criminal activities.'”

In the phone conversation, the presumed voice of the ombudsman ruminates over difficulties that his inquiry may soon encounter because of a parallel investigation by the DNR. “The state is likely going to weigh in and say, `no problem,” says the voice on the other end of the line. Then you get into double-jeopardy kinds of issues. I may talk to the FBI. …”

Last week, during his interview with the RFT, Martin denied knowledge of information contained in a key document that is allegedly already in his the possession, according to Taylor. The content of the document, of which Martin now says he is unaware, includes a “Chronology of Events” prepared by the incinerator operator. The chronology indicates that five sample tubes disappeared from the site shortly after the stack test was completed last year. Martin also denied knowledge of a custody sheet from an analytical laboratory showing that sample seals were absent upon arrival. Taylor alleges that he had discussed that issue with the ombudsman as well.

With the release of the watered-down interim report, Taylor has become even more distrustful of the EPA. “It is shocking that the ombudsman had asked the TBAG to sit on information of potential criminal activity pending the release of his interim report,” says Taylor. “In our conversations, Bob Martin gave specific guidance to me to withhold evidence of possible fraud to better facilitate future criminal investigations.”

 

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