April 14, 1998
by Frances Dunham
On April 2, EPA met with residents of four Pensacola neighborhoods contaminated by a former woodtreating plant to hear complaints about progress toward their promised relocation and objections to the federal agency's cleanup plans. Two representatives from EPA's Washington, DC, Headquarters and six from Region IV in Atlanta attended a meeting in Pensacola arranged at the request of Citizens Against Toxic Exposure (CATE) and Congressman Joe Scarborough. In the eighteen months since EPA's landmark decision to relocate all 358 families living in the shadow of "Mt. Dioxin," the Escambia Treating Company Superfund site in Pensacola, CATE had previously voiced no public criticism of the agency or its relocation contractor, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE).
Praised nationally as a triumph of environmental justice and health protection, this precedent-setting pilot relocation project is the third largest relocation in EPA history, after Love Canal and Times Beach.
So far, however, the relocation has been proceeding neither equitably nor efficiently, according to many residents. EPA had promised the residents they wouldn't have to take on any increased debt to acquire replacements similar to ("equal to or better than") their previous homes. But buyout offers are so low that many residents are settling for shabby homes in rundown neighborhoods -- or taking on new mortgage debt, according to CATE.
Jim and Ivey Floyd were among the first to be relocated and are often cited by EPA as a relocation success. But CATE President Margaret Williams points out that the Floyds added nearly $30,000 to ACOE's buyout payment for their purchase of an attractive new home on Sarah Drive. "This isn't at all what we were promised," Williams protested. "People were guaranteed replacement homes without financial losses. Why are the comparison homes (on which market appraisals are based) so different from what it takes to replace the homes? And why aren't homeowners allowed to see appraisals of their own property?"
Several participants, including CATE's technical advisor, Dr. Joel Hirschhorn, listed problems in the use of market appraisals to set buyout offers. Even if the appraisals attempt to discount the presence of the Escambia Treating Company Superfund site, they said, the properties are severely impacted by other historical negatives, none the fault of residents: the industrial surroundings which include another Superfund site as well as other toxic sources, the racial segregation, and the condition of some properties. Hirschhorn elaborated on the unfairness of using condition to establish value. "EPA's own data shows high levels of contamination in the yards. Are they actually surprised that some people are ill and unable to maintain their homes and yards?" A related issue is the low valuations which make home improvement loans difficult or impossible to obtain from local banks. CATE members charge that both health and property values have declined steeply since EPA's "emergency" excavation of toxic soil in 1991-93.
Williams expressed outrage that ACOE, whose responsibilities include inspections to be certain that the replacements are "decent, safe, and sanitary," is allowing people to move into houses with plumbing and wiring problems, leaking roofs, and rotten floorboards. A disabled woman has been in a house without needed handicapped access since December. Joe Givhan of Mobile's ACOE office conceded that he "almost didn't close" on the home, but it "looks nice." Givhan promised to fund handicapped access. To Williams' criticism that the ACOE inspections are "too casual to protect home buyers," he agreed to correct missed deficiencies.
ACOE's budget included costs for boarding up vacant houses, yard maintenance, and neighborhood security patrols to discourage crime, yet none of these tasks has been performed, according to Williams and residents. EPA has failed to establish even minimum levels of communication with Escambia County, which recently demolished one house and part of another, unaware that they were in the relocation area. Since the destroyed home had not yet been appraised, ACOE Project Manager Larry Meese said current plans call only for replacement of the lot, not the house.
National Superfund Ombudsman Bob Martin suggested that attorneys for CATE and EPA meet to continue discussions about the relationship between appraisals, relocation benefits, Superfund contamination, and the area's racial segregation.
CATE and Hirschhorn stated serious reservations about technical issues. In the Remedial Investigation / Feasibility Study, (RI/FS) which sets out the cleanup choices for the site, EPA Region IV appears to be setting the stage for selecting the cheapest option by ignoring better but more expensive remedies. "Particularly striking is the charade of EPA's contractor pretending to consider alternatives to an onsite 'containment' landfill," said Hirschhorn. "Even with the possibility that some of the worst contamination may be shipped offsite, an onsite landfill creates threats to safety and to the shallow aquifer. EPA knows that Escambia Treating groundwater contamination has spread well beyond the Agrico Superfund site to the southeast. Pensacola should realize the danger of allowing EPA to settle on another groundwater cleanup decision like the 'natural attenuation' for 70 years in the case of Agrico."
Hirschhorn also objected to what he perceives as EPA's unnecessary haste in starting on a cleanup. "CATE has sad memories of the last Escambia Treating excavation. We are very adamant in our demand that no remediation begin until all residents in the relocation areas are moved."
Dick Green, Region IV Waste Division Director, pointed out that Escambia Treating is a "fund lead" site: EPA has identified no potentially responsible party with the resources to cover the cleanup, so the government will pay for remediation. "That means Escambia Treating is in competition for cleanup money with other Florida Superfund sites." Green did agree to delay any cleanup until all are moved.
Martin promised to complete a comprehensive report requested by Scarborough and the Florida legislative delegation as well as by CATE before a late fall 1998 decision on the RI/FS. "My report will be an overview of EPA headquarters and Region IV actions at the Escambia site. I would expect that the region will consider it."
Hirschhorn also accuses Region IV officials of intentionally concealing information about holes in the plastic cover over "Mt. Dioxin," the excavated wastes remaining on the site. CATE has recently obtained a copy of a 1996 letter from the contractor who installed the cover, alerting EPA Remedial Project Manager Ken Lucas on the need for repairs to a two-foot-diameter hole, a two-foot tear, and several smaller holes in the cover. In December 1997 Lucas had reported to CATE that the holes had been newly created by vandals since his inspection in September 1997. CATE's concerns about the plastic cover, whose five-year guarantee expired with 1997, had been somewhat calmed by Lucas' assurances, even though Hirschhorn and others continued to be apprehensive about the combined effects of Florida sun, severe weather (including two 1995 hurricanes), and heat, plus chemical vapors from the stockpiled materials themselves. "There is no way of knowing whether uncontrolled releases of toxic chemicals into the air may have resulted from the many holes in the cover that were first identified in November 1996 and may have been present before then," Hirschhorn said.
Green agreed to CATE's demands that the cover be inspected by a qualified engineer.