2020 hindsight brings corrupted radiation testing into focus at the EPA – Part 3

Industrial-Excess-Landfill-substance-sign-from-Scene-2002, 2020 hindsight brings corrupted radiation testing into focus at the EPA – Part 3, News & Views
A sign at the Industrial Excess Landfill in 2002 warns of hazardous substances at the site.

Questionable methodology enables the EPA to avoid observing levels of radioactivity that it prefers not to have to deal with at the IEL – despite flaws pointed out by the agency’s own Science Advisory Board – and Tetra Tech gets rehired despite numerous mistakes spotlighted by the Project on Government Oversight.

by Greg M. Schwartz

For more than a quarter century, the EPA has relied on the 1994 report by the Science Advisory Board (SAB) on the Industrial Excess Landfill (IEL) despite the fact that the SAB rubber stamped the US EPA 900 Method that was never meant for screening of raw untreated wastewater suspected of containing radioactive contamination. The EPA’s own literature indicates the 900 Method is “a screening technique for monitoring drinking water supplies.”

Time and time again, the EPA has referred back to this SAB report as conclusive evidence that concerns at the IEL in Northeast Ohio were sufficiently addressed by top experts. But closer inspection reveals numerous holes in the EPA’s story.

One such hole was how the SAB report admitted that “some of the documentation on procedures presented to the ad hoc panel … is several years old and sometimes does not reflect recent advances.” The SAB report also recommended that the EPA should “remain responsive to advances in radiochemical procedures and analytical technology” regarding the “characterization of hazardous waste sites for radiochemical materials.” The panel additionally suggested that “an interagency approach involving EPA, DOE and possibly the Department of Defense (DOD) might be appropriate.”

Activist Chris Borello from Concerned Citizens of Lake Township (CCLT) recalls how she and a local reporter were patched into a conference call in the early ‘90s involving EPA Region 5 personnel and executive members of the SAB, during which they heard a shocking admission from one of the SAB members that they perceived their mission to be “to bail out and enhance EPA.”

Further investigation revealed that the SAB panel members for the IEL weren’t as eminently expert in radiation issues as the EPA claimed. Upon being queried for a 2006 cover story in the Cleveland Free Times, four of the eight panelists admitted that they were not qualified to comment on radiation testing methods. Of the other four, one was deceased, and another claimed he was only there to review the data that PRC/Tetra Tech and the polluters supplied to the EPA. And, he had “nothing to do with making recommendations” for the report.

CCLT had protested the EPA’s personnel shuffling within the SAB panel, noting that the agency scrapped the original panel of actual radiation experts and replaced them with new panelists from varying scientific disciplines, which had the effect of putting radiation experts in the minority.

After the SAB report was issued in 1994, Borello called panelist Dr. Mitchell Small of Carnegie Mellon University for further insight on the glaring contradictions within the report. Small explained that while each panelist contributed draft notes related to their expertise, the report was ultimately authored by just the chairman and one other person.

Borello and CCLT believe this helped explain the cherry picking and spin doctoring that occurred, as Small indicated that extensive editing had taken place. Small further added that one member was particularly upset when her contribution regarding health concerns was omitted. Borello also recounts how Small suggested to her that the panel threw the citizens a proverbial bone by saying, “Look what we gave you on Page 15,” referencing a specific passage pertaining to potential past disposal of radioactive materials at the site:

“While no other Tritium measurements were above the drinking water standard, there were several other measurements that were somewhat elevated, and while not direct evidence for harmful levels of radiation, could be viewed as past evidence of radioactive contamination.”

EPA Region 5 Senior Attorney Tim Thurlow seized upon the SAB report yet again in an interview for the Cleveland Free Times story to spotlight how the agency’s actions at the IEL had national ramifications when he described the site as “a case in point” for how to handle radioactive wastes nationwide:

“The SAB came to the conclusion that there was no good reason to think that there was any radioactive contamination in the landfill. [It] was a blue-ribbon panel made up of scientists … who are eminent experts. They took that as part of a larger charge, which was to advise the agency about how it should handle radiation problems or issues at Superfund sites in general.”

But the EPA attorney’s conclusion failed to recognize that the agency had changed the SAB’s mandate away from the more site-specific probe that federally appointed investigator Thomas Grumbly had envisioned to a generic review of whether or not the results from the existing, limited and flawed sampling methods commissioned by the EPA – and contractors including PRC/Tetra Tech – were justified. Borello recounts a phone call with Grumbly in which he conveyed how the investigation was altered from “what went on between Region 5 and the labs” to the more general review.

Thurlow was far more involved at the IEL than one might expect for an attorney, as revealed in legal wranglings around the turn of the millennium when Greg Coleridge of the American Friends Service Committee assisted CCLT in the pursuit of relevant documents by filing a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. This effort sought any documents held by government agencies pertaining to radiation at the IEL. The pursuit curiously narrowed down to communications between Thurlow and the Department of the Army.

Greg Coleridge of the American Friends Service Committee assisted CCLT in the pursuit of relevant documents by filing a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. This effort sought any documents held by government agencies pertaining to radiation at the IEL.

Coleridge’s FOIA efforts evolved to include a legal appeal of a ruling in which EPA Region 5 was “apparently withholding documents.” Coleridge was after any communications between Thurlow and the Army during a 30-day period in early 1999 that had been requested by the Office of Regional Council to comply with Coleridge’s earlier request. The appeal notes a conversation between Coleridge and an EPA employee pertaining to a document that “addressed the Army’s response to an earlier FOIA request … concerning possible presence of radiation at the IEL.”

Coleridge was informed that the document was in need of a “release determination” of Army information from the EPA related to the IEL, with that document allegedly having been forwarded to Thurlow. The EPA attorney then claimed he never received it and couldn’t find it. Coleridge was also told that Thurlow possessed a “personal” file on the IEL, in addition to the files that Region 5 had for the site.

This pursuit continued into 2003 with Coleridge’s attorney Warner Mendenhall filing a proposed memorandum and order to Judge David Dowd in US District Court which noted that the lack of materials received by the plaintiff’s FOIA requests contrasted sharply with a prior response that the EPA needed additional time to “search for, collect, and appropriately examine a voluminous amount of separate and distinct records involved in your request.”

The memorandum also honed in on “a Declaration by past EPA Ombudsman Robert Martin,” in which Martin had stated that the EPA Inspector General possessed “bankers boxes” that included “documents specifically discussing the potential for radioactivity in the groundwater underlying the IEL site.”

It was further suggested that the court should rule that “the Defendant Agencies have not made good faith efforts” to locate records responsive to the FOIA request and had not met their obligations under FOIA. Mendenhall proposed that the agencies be given 30 days to “conduct adequate searches and provide responses,” including an order to provide Coleridge with “a copy of EPA Ombudsman Robert Martin’s files held by the EPA Inspector General – the so-called ‘Bankers Boxes.’”

But Coleridge never got the files. Judge Dowd threw out the FOIA request that November, asserting that the EPA, Department of Energy (DOE), and the Army had “conducted an adequate search, reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents pertaining to the alleged radioactive dumping.”

“We have so many indications, through testing and eyewitness reports, that I was absolutely certain that the federal government is holding documents that would verify that,” plaintiff attorney Warner Mendenhall told the Canton Repository. “We have been unable to get those documents released. Specifically, we believe [the defendants] know the source of radioactivity in the landfill, and that they have documents that reflect that. We wanted them to lay out, in a chart, what documents they had, but the judge did not require them to do that.”

Uniontown, Ohio, landfill news clip #24 – containing Grumbly’s comments on Carnac

Playing Carnac

The bungled groundwater testing at the IEL has been at the heart of Uniontown citizens’ doubts that PRC/Tetra Tech and the EPA used the “best available science” for sampling and analysis. Some suspected that the methods used may have been selected in place of options that were more effective, yet also more expensive.

“With NO accountability at the highest levels at EPA, they were able to ignore the problems conveyed in our letters, which documented multiple technical concerns conveyed to us by numerous top US government scientists, as well as independent academics,” CCLT’s Borello says.

The standard adopted at the IEL, known as EPA Method 900, measured gross levels of alpha and beta radiation from a limited number of wells on site. Other scientists argued that the technique was inadequate because water had carried radioactive material and other toxins into the underlying aquifer and offsite:

“[Method 900] contains an inherent bias because it is intended to test drinking water. Therefore, it allows the filtration of sediment from the samples of groundwater [before testing], thereby increasing the likelihood of underestimating, or missing completely, any man-made radiation such as plutonium that tends to adhere to sediment or soil.”

Borello relates a stunning revelation when Dave Huber – a top EPA official involved in setting radiation standards for public water systems – once told her point blank: “They all knew that Method 900 should not be used at Superfund sites like IEL.” Huber added that it was a “policy issue” which CCLT would have to take up with the bureaucrats.

“They were playing the game that Johnny Carson made famous, ‘Carnac’ … when they had the answer before they knew what the question was,” said Thomas Grumbly, the federal appointee overseeing Region 5’s investigation into IEL, in 2001. “They simply made up their mind to quash absolutely what the right assessment was here.”

“They were playing the game that Johnny Carson made famous, ‘Carnac’ … when they had the answer before they knew what the question was,” said Thomas Grumbly, the federal appointee overseeing Region 5’s investigation into IEL, in 2001. “They simply made up their mind to quash absolutely what the right assessment was here.”

Grumbly moved on to run the DOE’s division responsible for nuclear wastes from weapons and power plants. Despite the evidence of radioactivity and eyewitnesses to illegal dumping, Grumbly could not get the DOE or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to re-investigate the site or take over the cleanup because the EPA had jurisdiction.

Grumbly’s successor as reviewer of the EPA’s supervision of Tetra Tech at the IEL, Dr. Toby Clark, explained: “There had been a sample taken that showed plutonium, but instead of going back to test again, the EPA converted that well to a monitoring well so they couldn’t take another sample there.” Clark was in fact referring to the January 1992 borehole, which was converted into a monitoring well from which soil samples could no longer be taken.

When CCLT inquired further with Ohio EPA on Dr. Clark’s concerns about the converted borehole and why there seemed to be such resistance to drilling into the northeast corner of the site, Borello was told by the agency’s Rodney Beals, a former IEL project manager, that if plutonium was found in soils, it could trigger a removal action, i.e. potential excavation at the site.

1997-1999: EPA gives the polluters the keys to their own cleanups

The polluters took over studies in 1997 to purportedly “fine tune the remedy“ at the IEL, as well as the responsibility for collecting groundwater samples for testing. It was here that the EPA let the proverbial foxes take charge of the chicken coop, which many citizens found to be a blatant conflict of interest.

The original containment plan from the 1989 Record of Decision featured a synthetic cap, a groundwater pump-and-treat system, and an expanded active gas control system advocated by ATSDR. Once the polluting corporations took control of the testing, they began making a case that a new plan called “Monitored Natural Attenuation” (MNA) should replace a groundwater pump and treat system. Months later, the polluters further pushed for doing away with the cap. Independent scientists argued that this, in essence, meant the water on the surface would flush through the wastes and into the aquifer below unmitigated.

The EPA literally threw caution to the wind – and rain – by choosing dilution and continued flushing of the site as their remediation strategy.

The EPA literally threw caution to the wind – and rain – by choosing dilution and continued flushing of the site as their remediation strategy.

“This drastic change was precisely the opposite of what the community had been promised many times by the EPA to isolate the waste from coming into contact with the aquifer in perpetuity,” CCLT’s Borello says. “EPA flat out betrayed the trust of the community with this change, which capitulated instead to the wishes of the polluters, thus saving them untold millions of dollars in the process.”

It was during this pivotal time frame in 1998 that the polluting corporations suddenly altered their water collection protocols to a method called “low-flow.” The US EPA had advocated this change, saying if low-flow is done correctly, it should negate the need for the problematic “field filtration” which had actually been banned by the EPA for use at municipal solid waste landfills. This federal ban was referenced in an August 1994 Ohio EPA policy memo drafted for state compliance, which noted that groundwater data “must not be obtained from the analysis of field-filtered groundwater samples.” These policy guidelines then beg the question of why PRC/Tetra Tech used field filtration in their 1992-93 sampling and why the EPA didn’t make them go back to resample without field filtration.

“The public was conveniently kept in the dark regarding these state and federal bans against field filtration, until after the final SAB report had already hit the streets in the fall of ‘94,” Borello relates. “By the time we found out, it was too late for the SAB to act on this critical information.”

The all important proviso on low-flow was the stipulation of “if done correctly.” This meant that the EPA criteria concerning the prepping of the test wells should be carefully established before samples are drawn, including ensuring that adequate purging of the wells is first performed to prevent stagnant water samples from being collected.

Top EPA radiation expert Ron Wilhelm explained to Borello: “If stagnant water samples were improperly collected, the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) could blow off the top of the well casing. Conversely, metals and radiation could fall to the bottom of the well and escape detection, seriously biasing test results.”

Dr. Julie Weatherington-Rice from Ohio State University and the firm Bennett & Williams was the first to raise a red flag on the 1998 change in collection method to low-flow in her 1999 report for Lake Township Trustees.

“Review of the Sharp report, however, indicates that many of these [low-flow] criteria were not satisfied during the September 1998 sampling event,” she wrote in her review. The 1998 sampling included one set of samples from 52 wells collected by Sharp, the PRPs’ contractor, and another set of samples collected by EPA contractor PRC/Tetra Tech from 23 of the same wells.

Note: the Sharp handout put together for the PRPs (Potentially Responsible Parties, the polluters) that was also sent to citizens indicated that PRC/Tetra Tech performed both collection and analysis of their own samples. Disturbed to read this, CCLT contacted Region 5 project manager Ross del Rosario to demand answers. He informed the group that PRC/Tetra Tech had merely collected the samples. The 1998 samples would come up again when the EPA’s Region 5 lab was raided in a DOJ criminal probe, as detailed further below.]

Citizens were shocked to learn the polluters were using the same low-flow data to go to court behind closed doors in the spring of 1998 to open the legal Record of Decision for the cleanup to kill off the groundwater pump-and-treat plan. The citizens cited both the Weatherington-Rice report and an Ohio EPA review on the 1997 data before low-flow was implemented.

“Several metals such as barium, nickel, cadmium, chromium and zinc have shown concentration increases in groundwater at the site since 1993. It has been stated that some inorganics were detected at low concentrations in a few off-site monitoring wells. In fact, metallic contaminants were found at very high concentrations in nearly all of the off-site monitoring wells,” IEL Project Manager Larry Antonelli wrote.

He further noted, “The statement that statistical evaluation shows the metal levels to be similar to background concentrations is equally unsupported … Ohio EPA does not accept claims that dismiss the landfill as a source of significant metallic contamination.”

Antonelli also stated, “We have anything but stability with respect to the releases of heavy metals … Nor does OEPA have any reason to believe that future releases of heavy metals will not occur.”

Ohio EPA additionally voiced concerns regarding organic contaminants increasing and how that relates to the adoption of monitored natural attenuation, revealing a conflict between the state agency and the feds. CCLT notes that these concerns were echoed by top research and development expert Dr. Mary Randolph at US EPA, who cautioned that if the criteria weren’t fully met for both metals and organics, then it may not be an appropriate remedy.

“Because this passive monitoring of groundwater replaced the active cleanup measures – the impermeable cap, the pump-and-treat system, and the gas control system – it was even more imperative that the site be properly characterized for all contaminants according to their own guidelines,” Borello says, pointing to Region 5’s own documentation.

“With the PRPs in charge, EPA went along with putting the cart before the horse when they implemented monitored natural attenuation without having the science to back that decision up,” Borello adds, noting that top experts told her directly that the issue of metals and radiation had fallen through the cracks and not been adequately addressed by the agency (and wouldn’t be until 2015).

“This was another example of how EPA failed to use best available science and screwed us out of a protective cleanup.”

Borello believes the review by Ohio EPA’s Antonelli was a smoking gun because after low-flow was implemented, these contamination levels went down. Armed with the reports from Weatherington-Rice and Ohio EPA, CCLT and the community fought the polluters’ request to use the low-flow data to reopen the cleanup’s Record of Decision to kill off the groundwater pump-and-treat system. But Region 5 again ruled in favor of the polluters.

The community’s distrust of the EPA was further inflamed when news broke of a Justice Department (DOJ) criminal probe into alleged manipulation of scientific evidence in up to 1,000 cases at the EPA’s central Region 5 lab in Chicago. The investigation centered on Superfund sites in the Midwest. Many cleanup cases were frozen, yet the IEL’s was not, despite questions about the 1998 low-flow data.

The community’s distrust of the EPA was further inflamed when news broke of a Justice Department (DOJ) criminal probe into alleged manipulation of scientific evidence in up to 1,000 cases at the EPA’s central Region 5 lab in Chicago.

Given that Chicago Sun Times reporter Charles Nicodemus – who broke the story – told Borello that the criminal probe in fact included “data review,” CCLT felt that this perhaps suggested the lab should have picked up on the stagnant water and other low-flow criteria issues with the all-important 1998 field samples. EPA Region 5 senior attorney Tim Thurlow offered a contradictory assessment when he told the Canton Repository that data validation conducted by the central lab was not part of the investigation.

“It didn’t have anything to do with data validation,” Thurlow told the Canton Repository. Thurlow also asserted that the central lab’s role at the IEL was nearly insignificant, claiming that “the allegations of impropriety are limited to pesticides and PCB analyses.”

Thurlow’s denial about data validation was concerning to CCLT since Chicago Sun Times reporter Nicodemus had been adamant in telling Borello that the probe did in fact include such data review. Perplexed by Thurlow’s statement to the Canton paper, she contacted Steve Gold in the DOJ’s Environmental Enforcement Section to inquire about this contradiction. Gold had been involved as a DOJ attorney on the IEL cost recovery case.

Gold responded by sending a fax to Borello for CCLT’s review that featured a December ‘99 letter from the DOJ to Judge John Manos, who was presiding over the case in which the government was suing the IEL’s PRPs for cost recovery. The letter described the results of the investigation into whether the alleged misconduct at the lab pertained to the IEL. The contents gave CCLT further reason to wonder whether Thurlow had been wrong or even deliberately misleading.

The DOJ reported to Manos that there were 11 IEL data packages where data analysis or validation was conducted at the central lab, with only five of those data sets involving a suspect analyst. The DOJ concluded that “none of the work done by the suspect analysts constituted an indispensable part of EPA’s basis for response actions at the IEL site.”

However, there appeared to be a curious anomaly involving a data package from October ‘98 that in fact did not merely pertain to pesticides and PCB analysis, as Thurlow would claim a few months later.

The October ‘98 data set was listed as “Validated data involving volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds in water sample.” The DOJ reported that “EPA found that a suspect analyst only validated the data of a previous analysis conducted by another non-implicated analyst. The validation confirmed the initial analysis of the sample and had no impact on IEL’s remedy selection.”

Be that judgement as it was, CCLT had even more reason to question Thurlow’s direct quote that the allegations had been limited to pesticides and PCBs – especially since Thurlow had been cc’d on the letter from the DOJ to Manos. This particular October ‘98 data set became all the more suspect in light of how it was part of the 1998 low-flow sampling that was utilized by the polluters to re-open the IEL cleanup’s Record of Decision.

CCLT also obtained a court disclosure document on a related case against Nalco Chemical that was one of the potential 1,000 cases being investigated at Region 5’s central lab. A footnote regarding the work performed by the central lab also appeared to indicate that the EPA had not yet even been able to completely identify all the sites where data validation was an issue.

Borello’s conversation with DOJ attorney Steve Gold regarding Thurlow’s denial of data validation resulted in Gold suggesting that CCLT contact the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility in their criminal division with their concerns. Borello was then advised by that office to forward materials and was told that a case file was opened. CCLT waited a year, only to learn that the case had been dismissed with the DOJ saying their mandate was narrowly defined to review only its own attorneys.

Industrial-Excess-Landfill-site-map, 2020 hindsight brings corrupted radiation testing into focus at the EPA – Part 3, News & Views
Industrial Excess Landfill site map

This was just the beginning of the end of the cleanup at the IEL that had been legally slated in the original 1989 Record of Decision. Further questions regarding the low-flow method came into play in 2000 when the EPA agreed to have the polluters conduct additional sampling for radiation in 2000-01 – for the first time in seven years due to pressure exerted by EPA Ombudsman Robert Martin. These questions included a private letter from Lake Township consultant Tom Shalala to Goodyear, obtained by FOIA, that expressed the township’s ongoing concern about stagnant water samples.

“Clayton and the Township are still concerned about the low-flow sampling methodology that is currently being performed at the site … (A)ccording to the field purging notes … included in the report … it appears that stagnant water was sampled and analyzed from most of the wells,” Shalala wrote, alluding to how stagnant water samples could bias the results, as EPA’s Ron Wilhelm had explained to Borello.

EPA geologist Luanne Vanderpool also raised concerns about inadequate purging in a memo to the Superfund Division, pointing out issues with two particular monitoring wells: “The failure to stabilize turbidity during purging is striking … since these two wells represent the wells with the highest levels of turbidity at sampling.”

Ironically, the 26i offsite monitoring well questioned by Vanderpool for inadequate purging showed evidence of 0.5 picocuries of plutonium according to the PRP lab’s own radionuclide data from a May 2001 sampling event that was declared valid by the US EPA. This well was later slated for abandonment, with the EPA ruling that it was “not representative of the uppermost continuous groundwater unit. Clean +10 yrs.”

CCLT scientific adviser Dr. Mark Baskaran has put this number in context, explaining that plutonium levels in migrating groundwater reported at the Nevada Test Site – home of the government’s original nuclear tests – have ranged from 0.2 to 0.5 picocuries following detonation of over 800 bombs.

Despite technical concerns by independent experts as well as the agency’s own scientists, the EPA continued to sanction PRC/Tetra Tech’s flawed studies as well the questionable methodologies used by the PRPs as evidence that the agency was using the best available science at the IEL. Worse yet, the EPA continued to push the 1994 SAB report as confirmation that radiation issues had been sufficiently addressed despite the fact that the panel deemed the studies by UNLV/ERC and PRC/Tetra Tech as “poorly done.”

Despite technical concerns by independent experts as well as the agency’s own scientists, the EPA continued to sanction PRC/Tetra Tech’s flawed studies.

EPA Acting Assistant Administrator Timothy Fields Jr. insisted (on pages 93-94 of linked PDF) to Sen. Glenn once again that the SAB’s final report found that the groundwater tests alone were “appropriate and adequate to detect the occurrence of radionuclides that might be expected based on experience at sites that are contaminated with the most common radionuclides.” His statement to Sen. Glenn fudged the issue by focusing on “most common radionuclides,” when the SAB report had in fact been quite critical of PRC/Tetra Tech’s technical study on groundwater monitoring.

CCLT has long taken issue with how the EPA and their SAB used the generic categorization of “most common radionuclides” to conveniently overlook man-made nuclear weapons waste. PRP contractor Sharp & Associates would go on to use this same rationale in a revealing letter to the Ohio Department of Radiation Protection (obtained through an open records request by citizens).

“Radiological characterization of water stored on the IEL will be based on the … analyses of a representative sample of that water. This is the method [EPA 900] that is generally accepted for radiological characterization of water samples from sites not known to be impacted by man-made radionuclides,” Sharp wrote in 2000, the year that the polluters were conducting additional radiation testing.

CCLT says this apparent acknowledgement by the PRPs’ own contractor concerning the EPA 900 Method was a stunning admission indicating that they understood it was not appropriate for sites suspected of containing man-made radioactive waste. Borello says this also directly ties into concerns about the SAB rubber stamping the 900 Method for general use on raw untreated wastewater.

The Sharp letter went on to apply the same flawed rationale to the solids stored in drums at the IEL as well. CCLT had good reason to believe that those same drums contained waste material derived from the exploratory boreholes drilled by PRC/Tetra Tech in 1991-92, when valid hits of Pu 238 and Pu 239 were found.

Despite the EPA’s own documentation of numerous mistakes made by the company, the agency’s Region 5 had given Tetra Tech a new, 10-year, $230 million contract in 1997 to manage remediation of dozens of contaminated Superfund sites in the Midwest. With this endorsement, Tetra Tech won ever bigger contracts, raked in hundreds of millions of dollars and went about acquiring competitors to become a global operation.

CCLT would not give up though and sought help from the American Friends Service Committee (which led the FOIA efforts) and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which had issued the scathing critique in 1998 that questioned why the EPA was continuing to use PRC/Tetra Tech at the IEL after the firm had repeatedly botched collection of groundwater samples.

“The EPA’s continued use of the firm PRC/Tetra Tech, which has compromised earlier rounds of testing, goes against all logic and common sense,” POGO lamented at the time. “The question then needs to be asked as to why the EPA is turning to PRC [TetraTech] once again to conduct critical field tests that may be used in court to justify an inadequate cleanup plan?”

Despite having detected radiation in drinking water as early as 1990, the EPA got away with no testing at all for radiation from March 1993 until pressured by US EPA Ombudsman Robert Martin to grudgingly perform additional rounds of rad sampling conducted by the PRPs from August 2000 to May 2001. Questions continued to persist as to whether the agency was using the best available science.

“If the science behind the sampling and testing efforts is corrupt, the conclusions drawn could be just as fraudulent as more overt falsification from substituting clean samples,” Borello notes, pointing to Tetra Tech’s blatant fraud discovered at Hunters Point in San Francisco.

Close scrutiny of EPA’s own records showed how PRC/Tetra Tech failed to sample three of the monitoring wells that should have been tested, one of the many issues at the IEL pointed out by POGO in their extensive 2002 report on the site. Of those that were tested, the contractor failed to follow protocols that called for taking unfiltered samples from private drinking water wells. Instead, PRC/Tetra Tech filtered samples in the field, removing suspended materials before sending them to a laboratory for analysis and potentially skewing the results to show less radiation.

Further complicating the quest for evidence, POGO and independent experts cited “numerous mistakes in the chain-of-custody forms” that PRC/Tetra Tech passed to the EPA while others were lost. This pattern was repeated at Hunters Point, as the Navy and EPA have since admitted. But the EPA transparently attempted to minimize PRC/Tetra Tech’s role in the process.

The company “played a minor role in a collaborative effort … during the comprehensive [sic] 1991 radon testing around the IEL site,” the EPA’s acting Regional Administrator David Ullrich declared. The EPA later accepted the PRPs’ decision to cut the number of wells to be tested for radiation from 50 to seven, including “several that were found to have elevated levels of radiation in the past,” according to POGO.

As Dr. Toby Clark had alluded, this points to the curious matter of how the EPA and their contractors converted the January ‘92 borehole – where a valid hit for plutonium had been found 92 feet down – into a monitoring well that conveniently couldn’t be sampled again for soils.

The EPA and the PRPs also worked to drive a wedge between the residents and local officials. CCLT lost its funding to a rival group backed by the PRPs and the township, in effect ending independent scientists’ analysis of the EPA’s remediation plan. One way that the EPA orchestrated this divisive agenda was by tasking Tetra Tech to prepare a “Community Involvement Plan” (CIP).

POGO again took umbrage at the EPA’s actions. Executive Director Danielle Brian wrote a letter urging Region 5 to reconsider using Tetra Tech’s CIP as a basis for its decision. Brian expressed concern “that there is a conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of one, in having this company involved again at IEL,” citing POGO’s previous 1998 criticism of Tetra Tech’s bungled groundwater tests:

POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian wrote a letter urging Region 5 to reconsider using Tetra Tech’s CIP as a basis for its decision. Brian expressed concern “that there is a conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of one, in having this company involved again at IEL.”

“Now the company, which has an obvious self-interest in discrediting the community group that has criticized the company’s work, has prepared the CIP. Their report seems to indicate that the views of local residents parallel the positions favored by the PRPs … We seriously question the accuracy of this portrayal of local opinion.”

Tetra Tech’s self-serving view of what the community’s opinion might have been would play a role in Region 5 Superfund Director William Muno denying CCLT a third grant to rehire experts who could challenge the EPA on doing away with the cleanup.

Even more offensive was how the EPA’s regional director later admitted the sampling and tests by PRC/Tetra Tech were “poorly done,” yet stuck with the firm’s previous field work and PRP data in its final, amended Record of Decision in 2002. Muno and Region 5 went to great lengths in the 60+ pages of the amended ROD’s Responsiveness Summary section to dismiss every concern that had been raised by POGO, CCLT and other independent scientific experts. But some of the section’s assertions of intellectual authority utilized mental gymnastics that failed to stick the landing.

“POGO criticizes EPA’s decision to look for radiation in groundwater samples, rather than in soil corings removed from the landfill. POGO cites the SAB for support here, but its use of the SAB report is quite misleading,” the EPA argued on page 27 of the Responsiveness Summary. “The SAB did find fault with the studies on ‘which Region 5 relied to support its contention that groundwater sampling was a better way to look for radiation than core sampling. The SAB found those studies poorly done. But the SAB never suggested that there was anything wrong with looking for radiation in groundwater, as opposed to core sampling. The SAB found fault not with groundwater sampling itself, but rather with the fact that the Region oversold the case for groundwater sampling.”

Yet this narrative conveniently fails to acknowledge the context of how Region 5’s overselling of its case for groundwater sampling over core sampling was precisely what opened the door for more of the “poorly done” work by the same contractor – PRC/Tetra Tech – that was responsible for one of the two technical reports utilized in said overselling.

When the EPA allowed the polluters to take charge of their own mess in 1997-98, the rubber companies hired their own contractors to take additional rounds of groundwater samples. But rad testing wasn’t done again until 2000, when the rubber companies also hired their own radiation expert – Dr. John Frazier of Auxier & Associates – to supervise testing and analysis.

CCLT continued to make contacts with radiation experts around the country, including the director of the PRPs’ lab who told her that the work the lab performed depended on what “the client wants to know and find out.” Or what they did not want to know. This only further heightened CCLT’s concerns about crooked science being utilized at the IEL.

Next, Part 4: The EPA & Tetra Tech conclude that there’s no radioactive threat at the IEL … but then eyewitnesses to the secretive military dumping of radioactive waste come forward.

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.