Ombudsman Probes EPA Remedy for Contaminated Battery Site

By Brian Hansen

THROOP, Pennsylvania, December 15, 2000 (ENS) - A federal ombudsman has been asked to review the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's controversial plan to remediate a hazardous waste site in northeastern Pennsylvania by entombing more than 500,000 tons of lead tainted soils under a 10 acre clay and cement cap.

U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, has asked that EPA national hazardous waste ombudsman Robert Martin launch an "expedited review" of the EPA's newly proposed plan to remediate the Marjol Battery Site in Throop, Pennsylvania.

In a letter obtained by ENS, Specter declared that the EPA took "unexpected unilateral action" last week when it unveiled its proposed Marjol site cleanup plan, which the Senator noted is teeming with "lingering health and environmental concerns."

Specter

Senator Arlen Specter (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
From 1963 to 1981, Marjol ran a battery processing facility on 44 acres. Operations involved battery crushing, lead reclamation, and on-site disposal of spent battery casings. The ground at the site became contaminated with lead. Lead in dust and in on-site soils was carried off-site by winds. Storm water runoff carried lead contaminated soil into adjacent waterways including the Lackawanna River.

"There are very professional people at EPA, for the most part," said Andy Wallace, director of Specter's northeastern Pennsylvania office. "But where this decision went wrong, or why it came down the way it did, we just don't know."

Wallace said the process by which the EPA unveiled its proposed remedy for the Marjol Battery site was "totally out of nature" from the way the agency has operated in the past.

"That's why we and so many people are so upset, because [the EPA proposal] leaves so many questions unanswered," Wallace said.

Specter's call for an ombudsman investigation into the EPA's plan for the Marjol site was prompted by scores of concerned Throop residents, including the Borough's Mayor, Stanley Lukowski. Lukowski called the EPA's plan "an affront to all the citizens of the area."

Martin, whose job entails investigating complaints lodged against EPA, has agreed to look into the Marjol matter. In a letter addressed to Specter and other Pennsylvania lawmakers, Martin said his investigation would consist of "on the record interviews, requests for production of documents, interrogatories, public hearing, findings of fact, and recommendations."

Martin drew up a list of all of the parties he plans to question in the case. Topping the list is Bradley Campbell, director of the EPA's Region III division.

Also on the list is Michael Veysey, senior vice president of Gould Electronics. In May 1980, Gould purchased the Marjol Battery and Equipment Company and subsequently shut down plant operations in April 1982.

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Marjol Battery Site (Photo courtesy Advanced GeoServices Corp.)
Ombudsman Martin has informed parties involved with the Marjol matter that unless the EPA rescinds its proposed remedy for the site, he will begin his investigation no later than January 8.

EPA Region III spokeswoman Ruth Wuenschel told ENS that the agency is currently considering its options.

"We're kind of in a holding pattern right now," Wuenschel said. It hasn't been decided what will be done, but things may get held up. We'll just have to wait and see."

The pending ombudsman's investigation is the latest development in the EPA's effort to clean up the Marjol Battery site, where more than 100 million automobile batteries were broken apart decades ago in order to recover their lead plates. The site, which is adjacent to homes, a playground and the Lackawanna River, is contaminated with more than 500,000 tons of lead tainted soils and battery wastes.

Last October, the EPA unveiled a proposed remedy that called for a significant fraction of the wastes to be excavated and removed from the site. Though the removal plan would likely cost the Gould Electronics company some $85 million, it afforded the most "long term" public health and environmental protections of the various remediation alternatives available, according to EPA documents.

Throop residents and local officials were largely supportive of the EPA's initial proposal, saying they wanted the wastes permanently removed from their neighborhood.

But the EPA drastically deviated from its original recommendation last week, when it unveiled its final cleanup proposal from the site. The agency's new proposal - which could cost Gould as little as $14 million - calls for most of the lead wastes to be "stabilized" on site beneath a 10-acre cap constructed of clay, cement and other treated soils.

Campbell, in a written statement, called the capping remedy the "most protective of human health and the environment."

"I recognize the deep level of concern regarding this cleanup shown by residents and community officials," Campbell said in his statement. "But I believe that this decision, with strong science as its backbone, is the safest and most permanent solution for protecting the health and safety of all people living in or around Throop."

Campbell did not respond to ENS queries about why the EPA deviated from its original excavation and removal remedy. But Wuenschel, the agency's spokeswoman, said it would be "less protective" to initiate the removal option, which the EPA originally proposed with the backing of the community.

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Lackawanna River (Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)
Wuenschel said that excavating the wastes would "stir up" the lead contaminants and loft them into the air. As much as three tons of lead could be scattered around the community under the removal option, which would require that some 39,000 truckloads of contaminated soils be transported through the neighborhood over a three to four year period, Wuenschel said.

By contrast, only 400 to 1,100 pounds of lead would be stirred up into the air under the capping plan, Wuenschel said. Moreover, the capping plan would take only seven months to complete, she added.

"We'll get the same level of protection - if not better - with this [capping] remedy than we would have with the complete removal option," Wuenschel said. "Doing a complete excavation and removal would stir up all the dust from the site, and leave it open to blowing around."

Some community residents have charged that the EPA backed off its original $85 million removal plan because it feared getting sued by Gould, the responsible party at the site. An EPA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told ENS that Gould "has made it clear that if we attempt a removal option, they will take it to court and tie it up forever, so [the removal option] is not going to happen anyway."

Wuenschel, asked if Gould threatened to block the agency from implementing its original cleanup plan, said, "All I can say is going to court would be a possibility."

Still, the EPA maintains that the capping the lead contaminants on site is the best way to protect public health and the environment, Wuenschel said.

That is troubling for Wallace, who has attended "literally 100 meetings" pertaining to the Marjol matter on behalf of Senator Specter.

"Our perception is that it's a site that endangers the public welfare, and it has to be cleaned, and we advocate removal of the onsite lead," Wallace said.

Wallace said that there have been a number of malformed babies born in the vicinity of the site, and a number of people in the area have been diagnosed with learning disabilities. Both of those medical affects are consistent with lead exposure.

"We're talking about peoples lives, health and welfare," Wallace said. "We have no idea what's in store 20, 30, 50 or 100 years from now. That's what concerns us. We're not challenging the intent of the EPA - we're just concerned with the welfare of the people over the long run."

In his letter to Martin, Specter said that the EPA did not provide him and other lawmakers with "advance courtesy notice" of its decision to deviate from the original excavation and removal plan. Wallace said he learned about the change in plans when he "I read about it in the newspaper the next morning."

"They never gave us notice, and that's totally unusual," Wallace said. "That's what's so troubling to us."

Wuenschel balked at that assertion, saying that Specter and the other lawmakers "were well aware of our schedule and our timing."

"I don't know where the disconnect was, because we notified the community, the congressional staff and the media all in the same day," Wuenschel said. "Maybe they expected to know about it a day ahead of time or something like that."

Wuenschel said that EPA officials felt something akin to "pressure" to release the decision, but she acknowledged that Specter and the other lawmakers may not have been briefed on the "details" of the plan.

Martin's investigation into the Marjol Battery site in Pennsylvania is in some ways similar to a case he examined recently in Denver, Colorado. Martin intervened into that case at the request of Colorado Senator Wayne Allard, who was troubled by the EPA's plan to entomb radioactive wastes under a massive concrete and fly ash monolith near downtown Denver. Martin's investigation revealed that the EPA knew that the radioactive wastes would eventually leak from the cap, placing public health and the environment at risk.

As a result of Martin's investigation, the EPA has now agreed to break up the monolith and remove the wastes to an off-site hazardous waste disposal facility.