2020 hindsight brings corrupted radiation testing into focus at the EPA – Part 4

A 1988 political cartoon in the Akron Beacon Journal touches on the controversy at the Industrial Excess Landfill.

The EPA and their contractors declare no dangerous levels of plutonium were found in groundwater samples at the IEL despite “a great deal of uncertainty,” but then eyewitnesses to late night military dumping at the landfill come forward leading to a secret probe from the Department of Justice.

by Greg M. Schwartz

EPA Region 5’s Superfund Division Director William E. Muno wrote to CCLT to assert the plutonium issue had been satisfactorily addressed and “Consequently, there is no reason to continue investigating it any further.” He went on to state:

“In reviewing the validated radiation data generated by the responsible parties in 2000 and 2001, EPA has found no evidence to contradict Dr. Frazier’s assessment that the recent plutonium findings are indicative of background levels … As a follow-up, we asked Dr. Frazier for additional information to assist us in interpreting the barely detectable levels of plutonium at MW-01d and MW-01i … (T)he measurement uncertainties tend to be large and reflect a great deal of uncertainty about the presence or absence of a particular radionuclide such as plutonium.”

“There is simply no evidence that plutonium was present in any groundwater sample collected recently,” Muno declared before signing off by saying that CCLT’s “interest on this matter is appreciated.”

Alarmed by the contradiction over the admitted “great deal of uncertainty” and fearing a repetition of the PRC/Tetra Tech debacle, CCLT retained several renowned scientists to dig into the Auxier report done on behalf of the polluters. Dr. Mark Baskaran, a geology professor at Wayne State University, pointed to problems in the PRPs’ sample collection methods, volume size, and a disturbingly short “count time” by the lab’s mass spectrometer, an instrument that measures radiation and determines which isotope is shooting off particles. The lab had also not preserved samples in acid, so plutonium particles could have been lost before they could be identified.

Baskaran’s questions triggered an email exchange between Auxier’s Frazier, the Goodyear-paid spokesperson, and environmental consultant Tom Shalala, working for Lake Township:

“This gentleman [Baskaran] has the potential to create some real problems,” the PRPs’ PR guy wrote to Frazier. “He was very disturbed that all the samples … were only counted for 170 minutes. He said this was unacceptable. He typically counts samples for 2 days to 1 week! I asked him if there was a national protocol for counting and he said that NAREL recommends 30 hours. He said the samples here should have been counted for at least 30 hours.”

Frazier acknowledged that NAREL – EPA’s National Analytical Radiation Environmental Laboratory – “counts samples much longer than commercial radioanalytical laboratories ordinarily count their samples for plutonium.” Frazier admitted that he hadn’t asked the lab to analyze the samples at “ultralow levels” of radiation since he didn’t see “any value in that” because “you get to the point where you can detect the fallout concentrations.”

NAREL’s own chief of monitoring and analytical services, John Griggs, told the EPA: “If the count times … were increased substantially, the measurement uncertainties could be reduced. This would allow for a more meaningful evaluation of the … results.” The email exchange also included Shalala citing Baskaran’s estimate that “there could be a large source of Pu in the overlying soil slowly leaching into the groundwater. (He said half a ton).”

CCLT repeatedly attempted to point out these troubling contradictions to the EPA and the PRPs over the years, but the pleas fell on deaf ears.

“So did they deliberately create conditions knowing, if the filtering and lack of acidification didn’t work to their advantage, then stop the counting at 170 minutes to achieve their desired goal?” Borello wonders.

“It’s all crooked as shit. They’ll say, ‘So what, it’s just global fallout.’”

POGO’s 2002 report on the IEL had also cited Baskaran’s review of the November 2000 results, noting that he “found the concentration of the plutonium in the groundwater at IEL to be about 1,000 times higher than that found in surface waters such as lakes, rivers or oceans, indicating that the plutonium found at IEL is ‘most likely derived from one or more local sources,’ rather than from atmospheric fallout.”

Baskaran also testified about the troubling plutonium levels in a 2003 court case where another deceased cancer victim’s family was suing IEL PRPs for wrongful death. “Based on the observations and reasoning given above, I believe strongly that there is manmade radionuclide waste under the IEL site,” the geochemist concluded.

The EPA enlisted a Canadian geoscientist, Melvyn Gascoyne, to review the methodology the PRPs used for a report from the Office of the Inspector General released in 2004. He concluded that “the tests performed were sufficient” to declare that site groundwater met the requirements of the Finished Drinking Water standards with respect to radioactive isotopes.

But like Baskaran, Gascoyne noted, “A significant deficiency in the IEL study was the short periods for which radioactive isotopes were counted … (T)he more important radionuclides (isotopes of Pu, U and Ra) were only counted for 170 minutes each” and that “for the purposes of the IEL study, it would have been beneficial to have counted key samples for a few days to improve the precision of the results.” The biggest flaw was conceptual:

“These methods are all standard for determining radiological properties of groundwater and for ascertaining the safety of drinking water. They are not necessarily suitable for determining whether the groundwater is contaminated by small amounts of radioactive waste … (T)he results of the radioactivity measurements in groundwater will only detect materials that are exposed to groundwater leaching; they will not identify the presence of sealed, inert containers of radioactive waste.”

Curious about these uncertainties, Borello contacted a DOE radiochemist (who currently prefers to remain anonymous). He spotted something strange in Muno’s October 2001 letter to CCLT:

It had included copies of images recorded by the lab’s alpha radiation spectrometer of a sample from that suspicious well MW- 01i. One of the images showed five lines indicating the presence of plutonium isotopes, but the records showed the lab had stopped counting after only 170 minutes while DOE’s standard is 1,000 minutes (16.67 hours).

“If there was no plutonium at two hours, you might expect one line” to appear on the graph, he explained in an exclusive interview with this reporter. “But you’ve got five. If you count eight times longer than that, you’re going to have a 40 count, which is a statistically positive hit for plutonium 239.”

Typically, he added, the lab would let the machine count overnight because it makes no sense to stop at two to three hours when already spending the resources to do the test in the first place. “It’s not too expensive, because you’re home sleeping,” he explained. “That’s what you do in alpha spectrometry … (Y)ou put it on, you go home, come back and it’s done …

“As a scientist, if I saw that, I’d bet you’re going to see a big spike in the morning … This is awful suspicious… because you can’t say it’s statistically positive until you get over 10 counts or so.”

Stopping the count when they did apparently enabled the PRPs and the EPA to distort the results.

“It’s all crooked as shit. They’ll say, ‘So what, it’s just global fallout.’”

Eyewitnesses to late night military dumping at the IEL come forward

The EPA seemed determined to nail the Industrial Excess Landfill’s coffin shut. But controversy erupted again toward the end of 2001, when front page headlines from local papers reported that the landfill’s former owner Charles Kittinger had come forward to claim that the military had dumped radioactive waste at the site. Kittinger and other witnesses alleged that the Army had secretly dumped nuclear waste at IEL during the late 1960s to early ‘70s.

Kittinger broke a three decade silence when he told a federal court in early 2001 that Army trucks dumped huge, stainless-steel “eggs” that contained cores of plutonium 238, one of the most toxic isotopes known, with a radioactive half-life of 87.7 years. Kittinger testified that he was told:

Former Industrial Excess Landfill owner Charles Kittinger at the landfill in 2002

“Don’t cut into ‘em, don’t remove ‘em, and don’t tell anybody about ‘em.”

Kittinger’s claims led to a secret eight-month internal probe by the EPA and Department of Justice, which the public only learned of in November of 2001 when the Kittinger testimony was first reported in local front page news stories. Magnetic resistivity tests detected oblong, metallic shapes underground, but the EPA labeled the suspicious shapes as “anomalies” because they were some 20 feet deeper and 40 yards distant from where Kittinger recalled having buried them.

Questions about what other facilities could have generated radioactive waste for potential dumping besides the military came to include the nearby Wingfoot Lake, a formerly top secret experimental centrifuge facility that supported the Portsmouth Plant in Piketon, which enriched uranium for nuclear weapons from 1952 to 1991. Ironically, local activist Chris Borello’s own father and uncle worked for Goodyear Aerospace at Wingfoot during the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was investigating Wingfoot in the spring of 1994 as part of its closure and remediation program. Upon learning of the radiation questions surrounding the nearby IEL site, an NRC investigation team contacted Borello to probe her on what her group, Concerned Citizens of Lake Township (CCLT), had uncovered about the landfill. This included questions about what types of radiation had been detected.

A few days later, one of the NRC investigators called Borello back to relate his recommendation for an action memorandum he had written to his superior. The memorandum recommended “that the NRC take the IEL over from EPA” to conduct “full blown field studies” which he elaborated would include taking core samples, testing the gases and investigating the stream next to the dump. But the EPA resisted the bureaucratic poaching of its turf, so the NRC backed off.

Other possible sources of radioactive waste included DOE’s Mound National Laboratory in Miamisburg, Ohio; DOE’s Fernald plant near Dayton; the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base; and the Army’s Ravenna Arsenal in Portage County. One eyewitness account from 1969 that CCLT provided to the EPA even reported seeing tankers with placards indicating radioactive dumping at the IEL that had Georgia license plates.

One eyewitness account from 1969 that CCLT provided to the EPA even reported seeing tankers with placards indicating radioactive dumping at the IEL that had Georgia license plates.

The EPA’s regional brass was skeptical of Kittinger’s federal court testimony, with the D.C.-based investigative group POGO later noting how the agency “failed to seriously investigate his allegations”:

“The government’s conclusions that Mr. Kittinger’s claims are unfounded are partly based on the lack of documentation of the alleged delivery of this nuclear material. However, if such an illegal operation had occurred, the involved parties would not likely be interested in keeping detailed records of their actions. By setting preposterous standards of proof for the investigation, it appears the EPA has ensured that it will not come up with an answer it doesn’t want.”

Kittinger had sold his stake in the landfill in 1971. There was some speculation that he could have had a financial interest in shifting blame for his acceptance of radioactive government waste at the landfill onto the Army. Kittinger could have potentially been held liable for cleanup costs along with the rubber companies, ranging into seven figures. But that suspicion was undercut by the fact that Kittinger rejected an offer from the rubber companies – the main PRPs at the IEL – to pick up his tab before he went public with his story. “I could have been out of this by now … But it wouldn’t have been the right thing,” he explained.

Kittinger also wasn’t the only eyewitness to “suspicious U.S. Army activity at IEL.” Lifelong residents Lizette and Harlan McGregor of Uniontown testified to seeing “many army trucks come into the landfill in the early 1970s … loaded with 50-100 stainless steel canisters on flatbed trucks,” which featured “hazardous markings on tankers [that] would come in all through the night and dump.”

Lizette re-iterated her testimony in a 2004 letter to EPA Region 5’s Tim Fischer in which she wrote of how she witnessed Army trucks go in with stainless steel canisters and come back out without them. She sadly died of cancer that she blamed on the landfill.

Another eyewitness, Rex Shover, told a public hearing in 1999 that during his time as a volunteer fireman he “personally saw tanker trucks carrying radioactive insignia enter the Industrial Excess Landfill late at night after the landfill was closed,” as did his brother Jim, who had worked summers at the IEL. Jim’s expertise included a stint in the Navy:

“During his Navy career, Mr. J. Shover received training in nuclear warfare, industrial radiology, radioactive materials, and associated health problems in humans, and served on the Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical rapid response team, making him uniquely qualified to identify military vehicles and radiation symbols … He identified the trucks as ‘specially-designed double-lined tankers designed to transport liquid radioactive waste material.’”

Dr. Robert Simon, an expert toxicology witness in the Beltz case, testified that he had seen classified documents prior to his deposition indicating that the Army dumped nuclear weapons waste at the IEL and also cited Goodyear Aerospace as a possible source among other military contractors. CCLT and POGO sought to get these court documents unsealed, but were denied. (A transcript was leaked to congressional investigators in 2002 but doesn’t mention the documents Simon saw.)

“NAREL is in my way; trying too hard not to be investigators, they’re trying to be compliance monitors,” Dr. Simon told a reporter regarding the EPA’s environmental lab. “And in my opinion … this is definitely not a site for compliance monitoring.”

This all-important issue of compliance monitoring – and its direct reliance on the EPA 900 screening method intended for finished drinking water – remains at the heart of what many believe to be the radiation coverup at the IEL. The concerns pertaining to scientific accountability at the EPA predated the IEL controversy and are believed by many to have become institutionalized into EPA policy at Superfund sites nationwide. These concerns also pertain to other current radiation testing issues, such as the ongoing controversy regarding fracking.

The concerns pertaining to scientific accountability at the EPA predated the IEL controversy and are believed by many to have become institutionalized into EPA policy at Superfund sites nationwide.

The strategy of compliance monitoring honed in on by Simon enabled the EPA to focus on naturally occurring contaminants that might be found after municipal water treatment – such as uranium and radium from local geology – as opposed to what might be discovered in raw untreated wastewater at a toxic dump site. Once again, the EPA 900 screening method used by the agency at the IEL was geared toward clean water systems not expected to contain man-made radionuclides and/or high levels of solids.

But federal Judge John Manos ultimately dismissed Kittinger’s testimony as lacking credibility. Yet Manos’ own credibility and objectivity were brought into question when a FOIA request yielded a letter from the polluters’ Cleveland-based law firm to insurance companies who stood to lose money if the EPA recovered the costs of remediation from the PRPs.

The 1990 letter described a hearing from six days earlier, in which Manos had invited only the defense counsel to attend. The defense stressed that Manos had directed them to “have no direct communications” with the Justice Department or the US EPA. Manos in effect held an apparently secret meeting with the PRPs’ lawyers where he admitted his bias in their favor:

“He [Manos] stated that it was his perception that the US EPA is normally not responsive to the defendants and the potentially responsible parties and that he was perfectly willing to intercede on our behalf … He offered to be very supportive of private industry who, in his view, are the backbone of America, and must be protected from unreasonable demands by the US EPA.”

Like the EPA, POGO had chosen the IEL as a “case study” due to the many problems at the site and how it had been used as a precedent for radiation testing at Superfund sites nationwide

“The communities affected by these sites had all come to view the EPA not only as unresponsive to their concerns, but as active partners with the polluters,” POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian told a Senate committee in 2002. EPA had been captured by the industries it was supposed to regulate:

“Because the EPA has come to rely so heavily on the PRPs to help develop the cleanup plan for the sites, the system is skewed to favor the cheapest, but not necessarily best, remedy. At the same time, the communities are essentially powerless to protect their interests.”

CCLT’s Borello relates this directly to what happened at Hunters Point in San Francisco:

“The corruption we have witnessed over the years appears to directly correlate to the serious lack of scientific accountability at EPA and other agencies. We were horrified to learn from whistleblowers about high-level political hacks at the agency in essence sabotaging the efforts of good, caring scientists, and worse. We have always believed this subverting of what was known to be best scientific practices was done not only to save big corporations and the government money on remediation, but also to protect them from massive liability. Proper testing is the first line of defense.”

National ramifications of the EPA’s decisions at the IEL

The policy decisions at the IEL have had ongoing nationwide consequences. Practices the EPA accepted at the IEL became a model for the country and Tetra Tech grew into a major player. EPA Ombudsman Robert Martin had already been at odds with the Clinton administration’s EPA boss Carol Browner over the IEL. It wasn’t long before Martin clashed with President George W. Bush’s appointee, Christine Todd Whitman, over cleanup issues at multiple sites.

Their disagreements became so contentious that Whitman reassigned Martin to work under her own inspector general, thereby stripping the ombudsman’s office of its independence. When Martin sued Whitman for wrongful termination and conflict of interest, she sent agents to confiscate his files.

Martin resigned on Earth Day in 2002, effectively ending the challenge to the EPA’s handling of the IEL. His resignation letter highlighted how Whitman had neutered the ombudsman’s role at the expense of democracy:

“I hope you find it in yourself to recognize that by obliterating the independent Ombudsman function, you have deprived the American people and the Congress of a valuable means with [which] to keep the EPA true to its mission of protecting human health and the environment and to be accountable to American communities.”

With Martin out of the picture, acting ombudsman Paul McKechnie (within the EPA’s Inspector General office) exonerated Region 5 and ruled in 2004 that the agency had complied with its legal duty at the IEL regarding the cleanup and testing for radiation. CCLT, POGO and technical experts continued to raise objections to various issues, but the EPA was now intent on permanently closing the book on the controversial site.

“EPA has thoroughly reviewed CCLT’s concerns on these matters many times and considers them to be closed,” wrote Superfund Division Director Richard C. Karl in 2006. The remedies prescribed in the amended 2002 ROD were pronounced to be effective enough that the site would now only receive a cursory review every five years.

“Despite all the evidence to the contrary, US EPA bowed to the wishes of the polluters and killed off the three major components of the cleanup. All that remains is the continued flushing of the site into our area’s sole source aquifer,” Borello says. Those components were a groundwater pump-and-treat system, a clay cap on the landfill to prevent rainfall from entering the site and potentially flushing chemicals outward, and the expanded gas control system.

“Despite all the evidence to the contrary, US EPA bowed to the wishes of the polluters and killed off the three major components of the cleanup. All that remains is the continued flushing of the site into our area’s sole source aquifer,” Borello says.

Independent scientific experts continued to support CCLT’s position that the EPA had failed in its duty to protect Uniontown. “The only thing I can make of it is that they don’t want to know,” CCLT adviser Dr. Michael Ketterer said:

“Plutonium is found in tiny amounts in nature. However, when you find it, it almost always has to do with testing of nukes. It would be extremely unusual to find it in the levels EPA has reported in the groundwater at IEL … This is not just garden-variety technical incompetence on EPA’s part; it is scientific and regulatory fraud.”

Ketterer also worried about findings of Technetium-99 in groundwater in and around the IEL. With a half-life of 211,000 years, the isotope comes from the nuclear fission process and “would almost certainly point to man-made radioactivity.” But no further radiation testing has been conducted at the IEL since 2001.

A curious note from the EPA about the IEL in 2019

Buried several clicks deep in the Health & Environment section of the EPA’s IEL website this past fall, a chart indicated that there was “Insufficient Data” to determine whether “Human Exposure” was under control. After decades of assuring residents that their health was not at risk from the hazardous wastes buried at the IEL, the EPA suddenly found it didn’t have enough information to make a determination:

“As of November 2019, there is not sufficient information available to determine the site-wide Human Exposure Control status at the Industrial Excess Landfill Superfund Site because of a newly identified pathway concerning methane and potential non-methane volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in subsurface soil gas and outdoor air that may pose a risk to nearby residents.”

The EPA says the PRPs launched additional risk assessments including sampling of gas in the soil at monitoring wells, drilling new wells, and weekly methane-monitoring punch bar testing between the wells and nearby houses.

“EPA will review that determination once the vapor intrusion evaluation that is now underway at the site is completed,” an agency spokesperson said by email in response to the question of whether human exposure was under control.

Back in the early ‘90s, an independent expert hired by attorneys reviewed gas data from the EPA and PRC/Tetra Tech and estimated that the landfill generated 150 tons of toxic gases yearly (methane not included). CCLT’s Borello says the discovery of this new gas pathway in 2019 is sadly not surprising, given the EPA’s past capitulations to the polluters.

Back in the early ‘90s, an independent expert hired by attorneys reviewed gas data from the EPA and PRC/Tetra Tech and estimated that the landfill generated 150 tons of toxic gases yearly (methane not included).

“The CDC/ATSDR had valiantly battled to expand upon the IEL’s active gas control system to protect public health from potentially significant quantities of toxic vapors migrating from the site, and thought they had secured this in the legal ROD in 1989,” Borello says. “However, EPA caved to the polluters in 2005 by not only failing to expand upon the system, but by agreeing to kill it off altogether.”

CCLT notes that this reversal on the gas control system is particularly sickening to the citizens who recall a PRC/Tetra Tetra project manager promising them at a public meeting in the early’90s that once the expanded version of the system was built, they would achieve “zero gas readings at the landfill boundary.”

CCLT had multiple communications with US Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office seeking help in learning how the EPA could do away with the gas control system expansion that had been prescribed in the legal ROD, without the due process that was supposed to be afforded to the community under Superfund law.

“The final word from Brown’s D.C. office was that they could not secure a straight answer from EPA as to why the agency allowed the PRPs to do away with the gas control system without convening a public hearing and a written responsiveness EPA summary,” Borello recalls.

The IEL, Hunters Point and the EPA: Repetition of errors and lessons not learned

When the news broke in 2018 about the deeper level of fraud at Hunters Point (that Tetra Tech has attempted to scapegoat on “rogue employees”), CCLT’s Borello was anything but surprised.

“We have always said that if they can get away with what they pulled at Uniontown IEL regarding our radiation testing scandals – a Superfund site EPA deemed a ‘case in point’ for policy recommendations at sites with similar issues – then they can get away with it anywhere … Now you once again see the fruit of their bad labors,” Borello says.

Although the IEL and Hunters Point involve different circumstances, the fact that Tetra Tech has come under fire again for their field work pertaining to radioactivity points to fatal flaws in the EPA’s oversight of their Superfund contractors. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board panel eerily forewarnedof just such an outcome in their 1994 report:

“The Panel heard that there is no mechanism for lessons learned at one site to be widely disseminated to other sites. The obvious outcome will be a repetition of errors whether in approach or interpretation.”

Such warnings from a quarter century ago help to explain why Borello and other concerned citizens have justifiably developed something of a Cassandra complex over the years:

“What both sites illustrate is that there can be substandard procedures from the get-go, at the time of sample collection, going against what is clearly known by our government agencies to be best available science and practice. This utter lack of scientific accountability has emboldened high-level political hacks at EPA and other government agencies to circumvent top radiation scientists and other experts on scientific integrity and best policy…

“We suspect the primary reason for all this deception is the massive liability that the military would be exposed to at both sites and numerous others. It’s way past time for Uncle Sam to own up to the truth and do the right thing, instead of continuing to leave innocent people exposed to cancer-causing radiation.”

But in the upside down world of 2020, the Trump regime’s corrupt EPA has been using the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to loosen restrictions on polluters and let them “self-regulate” during the pandemic crisis. Trump’s EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler is also moving to neuter the agency’s current Science Advisory Board by taking away the board’s ability to collaboratively decide which proposed rules require its scientific expertise.

In the upside down world of 2020, the Trump regime’s corrupt EPA has been using the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to loosen restrictions on polluters and let them “self-regulate” during the pandemic crisis.

Worse yet, Trump’s EPA is also scheming up an Orwellian powerplay to restrict its own staff from even being able to utilize the best available science. All of which makes the struggle for truth and justice at EPA Superfund sites more imperiled than ever.

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.