2020 hindsight brings corrupted radiation testing into focus at the EPA – Part 2

A 1986 Akron Beacon Journal story depicts a worker in a hazmat suit at the Industrial Excess Landfill.

What happened at the Industrial Excess Landfill (IEL) in Ohio wasn’t unique. The handling of the controversial Superfund site in the ‘90s became a turning point in the EPA’s de-evolution from theoretical environmental protector to enabler of polluters, aka “regulatory capture.” Fatally flawed cleanups due to shoddy field work and substandard testing became cover-ups that could happen all over the country – such as at Hunters Point in San Francisco – while citizens were left to live with the toxic consequences. 

by Greg M. Schwartz

Citizens living near Superfund sites in the early 1990s found themselves forced to become frontline activists, as they increasingly witnessed the EPA seemingly acting as more of a defender of polluters than as a protector of environmental health. 

Activists like Chris Borello from Concerned Citizens of Lake Township (CCLT) near Canton found allies in the two US senators from Ohio. These were former astronaut John Glenn, a Democrat first elected in 1974, and Howard Metzenbaum, a pro-labor Democrat elected in 1976. Metzenbaum toured the IEL site and then pushed for evacuation of the site’s border residents, as well as helping to ensure that they received a fair market price for their properties. He also used his political power to urge the EPA to do more comprehensive testing at the site.

Glenn chaired the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs from 1987 to 1995, a position from which he led investigations into problems at facilities where nuclear weapons were produced. This included a 1992 hearing on “Radiological Contamination in the United States.” 

Glenn’s ongoing efforts featured investigations of four facilities that generated large quantities of nuclear waste. These were RMI Co.’s uranium extrusion plant in Ashtabula; the Mound National Laboratory in Miamisburg that developed radioactive isotopes for weapons and nuclear power; the Fernald Feed Materials Production Center adjacent to the Great Miami River aquifer near Cincinnati; and the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant managed by Goodyear Atomic that enriched uranium for the Department of Energy near Piketon. 

Glenn’s office questioned the EPA on why it wouldn’t order core samples of soils at IEL to be tested for radioactivity, since the agency had already agreed to have PRC/Tetra Tech drill exploratory boreholes into the landfill in 1991 to further investigate locations that had demonstrated “high soil gas VOC (volatile organic compounds) concentrations”

Yet while the senator and the public were told core samples could not feasibly be taken to examine for specific radiation, the work plan revealed that PRC/Tetra Tech did in fact collect soils from the boreholes for further characterization of the site. “Soil samples from on- and off-site exploratory boreholes will be collected at 5-foot intervals and classified in the field by a geologist,” PRC/Tetra Tech wrote in their work plan.

In response to the questioning from Glenn’s office on the EPA’s refusal to do core sampling, the EPA’s Region 5 administrator Valdas Adamkus argued that soil core sampling would be too expensive and impractical. He cited an EPA-commissioned study titled “Probability computations for soil sampling at the IEL site in Uniontown, OH,” which had calculated that “the probability of locating the radioactive waste for the first time with 50,000 boreholes is only 22%.” 

How the technical report put together by UNLV/ERC in Las Vegas came up with this number was nebulous – the EPA’s own scientific advisory board would later call out Adamkus’ logic: 

“The technical assumptions of this calculation are wholly inappropriate for a real core sampling program, and the estimate is thus flawed.” 

Adamkus utilized the technical report from UNLV/ERC as well as a second technical report authored by PRC/Tetra Tech that he sent to Glenn three months later to argue that “the risk to on-site health and safety from intrusive drilling, the associated schedule delays, and the cost of this enormous sampling and analysis effort are significant barriers to comprehensive waste characterization.” He instead asserted that “the likelihood of detecting radioactive compounds, if present, was much greater through analysis of groundwater, where these compounds would have dispersed.” 

Here Adamkus cited the study by PRC/Tetra Tech titled “Final Report on the Probability of Detection of Hypothetical Radiochemical Contamination of Groundwater at the Industrial Excess Landfill, Uniontown, Ohio.” The study included more than 70 pages of complex data, maps and analysis to allege that testing the groundwater would be more likely to detect hypothetical sources of “low-level” isotopes of radioactive cesium, tritium and uranium than would soil-core sampling. 

Independent scientists retained by CCLT were dismayed by the PRC/Tetra Tech report’s failure to note that groundwater testing might detect a radioactive isotope like tritium, which is soluble in water, but not necessarily an isotope like plutonium, which can migrate in groundwater under certain conditions. Both of these technical reports that Adamkus used to dismiss concerns from Glenn, Metzenbaum and other elected officials would later have their validity called into question by the EPA’s own Scientific Advisory Board in 1994 (as detailed below).

EPA had PRC/Tetra Tech collect two rounds of groundwater samples in August and December of 1990. The August round was sent to a commercial lab in Florida. A team from D.C., Chicago (Region 5’s headquarters), and the EPA’s National Radiation Lab (NAREL) at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama then descended on Uniontown to explain why the testing had been declared invalid. 

Several hundred residents gathered to hear the EPA admit that the Florida lab had reported eight radioactive isotopes in excess of “background” levels. But the EPA threw out the results, citing various errors and omissions, including that PRC/Tetra Tech had used plastic jars instead of glass to gather water for analysis. This went against NAREL protocols because isotopes such as tritium might cling to the plastic and not appear in the water, therefore compromising the results. 

CCLT’s scientific advisers later pointed out the irony that this would mean potentially even more radiation in the water than the Florida lab found, not less. 

Yet instead of firing PRC/Tetra Tech for this mistake, the EPA discredited the Florida lab and sent the second round of samples to a different lab in New Mexico with PRC/Tetra Tech still collecting the samples in the field. Then the public learned in August 1991 that tritium in samples collected from off-site private wells during the second round exceeded federal drinking water limits.

The EPA accused the New Mexico lab of improprieties but this time the lab pushed back, arguing that the EPA had ordered a non-standard testing procedure (known as the alcohol ignition method) that caused the suspended solids in the IEL samples to “spew” in the lab (which can bias the results for plutonium bound to those particles). CCLT understood from EPA that this non-standard method had been derived from PRC/Tetra Tech’s specifications, since they had authored the Quality Assurance Project Plan.

“We were right and they were wrong,” the president of the New Mexico lab insisted. “They [EPA and Tetra Tech] gave us the methods they wanted us to use, and we didn’t agree, but did it anyway. They weren’t approved EPA methods … and so we put a disclaimer on it, and then got blamed when they said the results weren’t right, because we found positive test results [of both tritium and plutonium].”

At the mercy of the EPA and getting nowhere with its Region 5 managers, a Stark County coalition composed of citizens, elected officials and technical experts appealed to EPA Administrator William Reilly in 1991. Troubled by what he heard, Reilly appointed independent investigator Thomas Grumbly, who was president of Clean Sites Inc., an organization that specialized in removal of hazardous waste from abandoned dump sites.

At Grumbly’s recommendation, EPA’s Region 5 put together a Science Advisory Board (SAB) panel to look into the radiation questions at the IEL. The controversy forced Reilly to assign Grumbly to look into the two rounds of botched tests conducted by PRC/Tetra Tech. When the EPA released data from the second round per Grumbly’s recommendation, the public learned of the man-made plutonium isotopes that had been detected in addition to the high levels of tritium reported the year before. 

. . . these tritium levels were akin to “citizens drinking wastewater from a power plant.”

Ohio EPA then decided to test a few offsite wells that US EPA and Tetra Tech had ignored. A sample collected in March 1991 from a shallow drinking-water well southwest of the IEL showed 280 pico-curies per liter (pCi/L) of total Beta radiation – high-speed electrons generated by an isotope. A sample drawn in June 1991 from a different shallow drinking-water well southeast of the site showed over a million pCi/L of tritium – about 50 times higher than federal limits. 

Borello says one of the Ohio EPA officials working on the case told her that these tritium levels were akin to “citizens drinking wastewater from a power plant.” That sample was collected from a sod farm during a dry period, but the high levels did not re-appear in the same well during record breaking rainfall in 1992. 

“Was this an example of the EPA using dilution as the solution to the pollution?” Borello asked at one of the town meetings, citing longtime Cleveland TV weatherman Dick Goddard’s reporting that had characterized the rainfall as one of the wettest months in Ohio history.

However, even discounting that outlier, the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reported that mean levels of tritium in ensuing samples from the monitoring wells were approximately 2,000 pCi/L – way above “background.” But instead of resampling the private wells, the EPA delayed groundwater sampling and sent PRC/Tetra Tech to drill the “exploratory boreholes” for gases at the IEL in the fall of 1991. 

Then someone anonymously sent aerial photos to the Ohio EPA of a suspected disposal area in the landfill’s northeast corner. Ohio EPA sent a letter to Region 5 in October of 1991 requesting an expanded investigation of the northeast corner of the site:

“To reiterate, OEPA feels strongly that the aerial photograph given to NEDO [Northeast District Office] on May 25, 1991, indicates the potential for buried drums and/or liquid disposal in the northeast corner of IEL.”

Ohio EPA further reiterated that it was ready to use its own contractor to pursue such an investigation “in the event USEPA was unwilling or unable to undertake these investigatory activities,” with site coordinator Bob Princic requesting a formal response. Princic would be re-assigned in midstream to another site in Cleveland in 1992, after collecting unfiltered groundwater samples at the IEL that revealed high levels of gross alpha and beta radiation. 

Under pressure from the Ohio EPA, the US EPA directed PRC/Tetra Tech to drill an additional borehole down to bedrock in the northeast corner in January 1992 along with the ones drilled in fall of 1991. Sure enough, data from these boreholes suggested the presence of both Pu 238 and Pu 239, two of the most dangerous and long-lasting plutonium isotopes. 

The renewed outcry forced the US EPA to finally begin groundwater sampling for radiation with PRC/Tetra Tech conducting quarterly rounds between May 1992 and March 1993. But technical experts hired by CCLT said that PRC/Tetra Tech had improperly “field-filtered” the water before testing, a process that could grossly underestimate the actual levels of plutonium by removing contaminated particles in the field before samples were sent to the lab for analysis. 

Citing the “elevated radiation levels found in 21 wells around the landfill” and expressing “grave concerns … that man-made Plutonium 241 may be present,” Sen. Glenn urged EPA Administrator Reilly “to direct EPA to provide an alternate water supply to residents who request it.” 

But the EPA repeated a familiar rationale – the suspect sample “appeared to be from natural sources and not related to any potential waste material present at the IEL site.” While 20 of the 21 wells sampled by PRC/Tetra Tech “had radioactivity far below the current drinking water standard … no radiation levels of concern have ever been detected in any drinking water wells in Uniontown. In addition, the landfill monitoring wells have not been found to contain radiation in concentrations which require corrective action. Therefore, EPA has no scientific basis or authority under Superfund to provide alternate water to citizens simply because they request it.”

Glenn deemed the EPA’s denial to be “inadequate, especially in light of recent renewed allegations of the presence of radioactive materials in the landfill, possibly dumped there illegally from the Mound facility in southern Ohio.” 

This was the first official acknowledgement in the public record that the IEL may have received waste materials from part of the nuclear weapons complex regulated by the Department of Energy (DOE). 

The Clinton-Gore era: high hopes, little change

The EPA’s stubborn refusal to overrule its contractor – PRC/Tetra Tech – and order a comprehensive testing program continued to baffle the citizens and their representatives in Congress. But Reilly was soon out of the picture and the IEL’s fate would fall to a new Democratic administration’s EPA.

When Bill Clinton and Al Gore took office in the White House in January 1993, local activists and environmentalists across the nation took new hope for an end to the era of corporate cronyism at the EPA. But there was little in the way of genuine change. 

By the time new US EPA chief Carol Browner took over the agency, the regional fiefdoms set up by Reagan, George H.W. Bush and their corporate allies were firmly established in the bureaucracy. In some cases, the regional headquarters reportedly had more power than the D.C.-based headquarters and would act independently. 

The EPA’s scientific staff was still hamstrung by the prior political appointees. Browner replaced all of the regional bosses save for one – Region 5’s Valdas Adamkus, who therefore continued to oversee the IEL. 

A critical chapter in the landfill’s controversial saga occurred in 1993-94 when the EPA’s own “blue ribbon” SAB panel review included a condemnation of the PRC/Tetra Tech study – along with the related UNLV/ERC study – that had been the primary basis for Adamkus’ dubious refusal to order core sampling: 

“Both of these reports include technical flaws and provide no clear evidence that groundwater monitoring is more sensitive in detecting the presence of radioactive material in the landfill than would be a soil-core sampling program.”

The SAB challenged Adamkus and PRC/Tetra Tech’s claims that “the extensive groundwater and soil-gas testing that is planned at IEL will identify any contamination that may exist at levels of concern.”

“The studies show no such thing … It certainly does not follow that the network of wells would detect the radiation with high probability if enough waste had been dumped to cause a threat to human health.”

“The reports themselves have serious problems,” the SAB continued, noting multiple errors:

“(B)oth of these reports are based on a large number of assumptions that have not been validated for the IEL site … In summary, the studies EPA carried out to support groundwater monitoring rather than coring are poorly done and should not be used as models for future studies.”

A close reading of that SAB report additionally reveals another significant problem. The report expressed serious concern regarding the two lone background monitoring wells labeled MW12 and MW20, noting that they weren’t adequate to reliably characterize the background conditions for comparison with wells that did have contaminants.

“Even if the groundwater flow patterns at the landfill were simple and predominantly from east to west, these two wells, alone, would not be adequate to characterize the mean and variability of background radionuclide concentrations for estimating the ‘no-landfill’ condition … Given the complex, partly radial nature of groundwater flow at the IEL site as described in the recent USGS report … the two wells are clearly inadequate for characterizing background. Data from MW20 are particularly suspect, given the site flow patterns and immediate proximity of the well to the site.”

Monitoring Well 20 had curiously been drilled close to the stream called “Metzger’s Ditch” that bordered the entire eastern side of the landfill. This stream or ditch was downgradient from the large unlined chemical lagoons that had been utilized to receive huge amounts of discharged liquid contaminants from polluters’ tankers. 

An aerial photo of the Industrial Excess Landfill taken June 8, 1972, with interpretive code

CCLT and their scientific advisors had long pointed to this issue of bogus “background” wells – questioned by the SAB itself – as an inherent part of the cover-up. Borello notes that the EPA had suspiciously claimed that these so-called background wells had not been impacted by contamination from the site, which could result in “fatally flawed” decisions regarding the cleanup.

“In our case, we believe these crooked comparisons of data directly aided EPA in doing away with the entire cleanup,” Borello says of the data from these alleged background wells. “When you’ve got levels that are erroneously being dismissed as naturally occurring from local geology, it can taint the decisions made on other contaminant results.”

The D.C.-based watchdog group called the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) would later issue an extensive report on the IEL which noted numerous problems, including how the EPA didn’t even follow its own experts’ recommendations:

“These recommendations included increasing the number of background wells and testing for radiation at least once a quarter until successive quarterly samples produce a constant level of gross alpha and beta radiation that is close to background. The EPA followed none of SAB’s recommendations … yet the EPA continues to claim that the SAB supports its groundwater program.”

The EPA cherry-picked the SAB report to publicize the parts that re-enforced their flawed procedures, while largely ignoring the panel’s criticisms.

“On the one hand, the SAB threw us some crumbs that were conveniently never acted upon. However, the SAB blew it entirely when it came to their main task of whether the radiation test methods used at IEL were appropriate for IEL as well as other Superfund sites,” Borello says of the SAB’s critiques. “The SAB pandered to the agency by rubber-stamping the continued usage of the Finished Drinking Water Methods 900 Series that the US EPA R&D staffers said was never meant for screening raw, untreated toxic wastewater at Superfund sites.”

“The SAB not only threw Uniontown and other sites under the bus by way of condoning the EPA 900 Methods, they also contrived to cover their collective rear-ends with other recommendations for improving testing for the presence of radiation in future review of other sites while failing to apply those same suggestions for the case directly in front of them at IEL,” Borello adds.

A case in point is seen in the report where the SAB panel cited a significant flaw in the sampling field work conducted by PRC/Tetra Tech: “The failure to record the volume of water passed through the filter and the dry weight of collected solids at the IEL site was such that a full accounting of the dissolved and particulate concentrations of radioactive constituents could not be made. This should be corrected in the future.”

Did the lack of scientific accountability regarding the EPA’s endorsement of PRC/Tetra Tech’s flawed field work at the IEL ultimately enable the fraud that Tetra Tech was implicated in years later at Hunters Point in San Francisco?

Next, Part 3: Questionable science enables the EPA and their contractors to avoid seeing levels of radioactivity that they don’t want to find at the IEL.

Investigative reporter Greg M. Schwartz has covered public affairs for outlets including the KPFA Evening News, Cleveland Free Times, San Antonio Current, Austin Bulldog and Ecowatch.com. His 2009 “Crime Scene Cleanup” story on San Antonio’s “toxic triangle” area won a Lone Star Award for investigative reporting from the Houston Press Club. He can be reached at greg.m.schwartz@gmail.com or Twitter.com/gms111.