Ten barrels of cyanide are still missing.
They figure into a bizarre tale of suicide, perjury, a high-stakes arrest in the Alaskan bush and 32 other barrels of cyanide, chromic acid and other toxins mysteriously dumped in North Idaho forests.
The contents of the illegally discarded drums - the nastiest collection ever dumped in the Pacific Northwest - were a breath away from mixing and forming a lethal cloud of hydrogen cyanide gas.
Anyone who stumbled upon the barrels, some of which were leaking, could have triggered that tragedy with minimal poking and prodding. That danger lingers with the 10 drums of cyanide solution missing.
Federal investigators haven’t nailed anyone for pitching the 55-gallon drums into the woods. As recently as two weeks ago, the U.S. Attorney’s Office was sure it had the culprit. The case went awry when one witness killed himself and others changed their stories.
And, after three years of mucking through a swamp of lying witnesses, unraveling phony bills of sale and chasing a bogus suspect, authorities are unlikely to learn much more about the dumping. Or find someone to pay the $70,000 cleanup bill.
Investigators almost immediately identified Eugene L. Buffin Sr. as the owner of the chemicals. Buffin had used the caustic brew during the 10 years he ran United Plating near Coeur d’Alene.
Prosecutors thought they could prove Buffin’s half-brother, a 45-year-old felon named Steven K. Leslie, had been the fly-by-night dumper.
Their case disintegrated Nov. 30 when Buffin duct-taped a hose to the exhaust pipe of his pickup and gassed himself the night before he was to testify against Leslie in federal court. After Buffin’s death, his widow Yvonne and others started to change their stories, federal officials say.
As well as crippling the investigation, Buffin’s death meant federal law enforcement likely never will answer several key questions, including how Buffin handled hazardous wastes for at least a decade without the knowledge of environmental regulators.
Perhaps more importantly, they have no idea what happened to 10 other barrels, believed to exist based on witness accounts.
Illegal dumping at business
The beginning of the saga is murky - sometime in 1979 - when Buffin opened United Plating in Coeur d’Alene. There are almost no records of the business. It didn’t have the required permit to dump garbage at the Kootenai County landfill, according to county officials.
Buffin eventually moved the business to Hern Industrial Park outside the city limits, and started a second business in a neighboring building called United Powder Coating. Sand-blasting waste from the coating business that was dumped on the ground at the industrial park caught the attention of a Kootenai County employee in spring 1993.
When Panhandle Health District and Idaho Division of Environmental Quality officials arrived, an employee of park owner John Hern refused to allow them to check out businesses at the industrial park. Hern was illegally housing those businesses in buildings he’d told county officials were storage sheds, according to county records.
After a year of haggling, state and county officials finally obtained a court order and searched the industrial park with police escorts.
By then, United Plating’s building was empty except for a truck, an oven and traces of orange residue typical of metal plating businesses. But vats of cyanide solution - so caustic it reduces zinc to a liquid - as well as chromic acid, methyl chloride and other common metal-plating chemicals were nowhere to be seen.
‘A year to get ready’
In retrospect, no one is surprised inspectors didn’t find United Plating’s hazardous waste. Tenants at the industrial park “had a year to get ready for the inspection and knew the date and time of the inspection,” said Jeff Lawlor of Panhandle Health District, the agency charged with keeping hazardous waste out of the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer - the region’s primary source of drinking water.
“That’s not the way you do environmental compliance inspections.”
Because inspectors were focused on their troubles getting Hern to cooperate, and because Buffin had kept the metal-plating business and toxic ingredients secret, inspectors didn’t make much of the empty building.
They didn’t realize Buffin had operated United Plating for 10 years without notifying state and federal authorities about his hazardous waste. They had no idea how the metal-plating shop disposed of its wastewater.
Inspectors noted the 14 drums next to Buffin’s other business, United Powder Coating, during that first inspection and were told they contained waste powder paint. No one looked inside. Photos and videos of that August 1994 inspection, which might link those drums to the ones dumped in the woods, are missing.
But it wasn’t long before United Plating’s toxic legacy resurfaced.
Blue plastic barrels and metal drums of chemicals were found by a snowmobile-trail groomer near Fernan Lake in January 1995. Another pile was spotted by a road crew near Nine Mile Creek in Shoshone County two months later. Children hunting for antlers found another stash near Kings Ridge, also in Shoshone County, in April. In each case, someone had shoved the containers over steep embankments of mountain roads.
The dumper, however, failed to remove the packing slips and invoices identifying United Plating.
At each of the three sites, barrels of highly concentrated cyanide solution - 12,000 parts per million - were lying next to containers of highly concentrated acid. At two of the three sites, a few barrels had broken open.
Luckily, little of the caustic material leaked. Had the cyanide mixed with the acid, it would have formed hydrogen cyanide gas - the gas used in execution chambers.
Hern, meanwhile, continued to tangle with investigators. A judge fined him $495,000 for refusing to install septic tanks and properly store hazardous chemicals at several buildings, including the buildings housing Buffin’s businesses.
That penalty later was reduced to $20,000 after Kootenai County commissioners decried what they termed unfair treatment of an important local businessman.
The commissioners threatened to reduce Panhandle Health’s budget in retaliation for the fine. A sympathetic District Court judge praised Hern and all but erased the fine.
Bogus bill of sale
Forest Service investigators interviewed Buffin, and his wife Yvonne, soon after the first pile of drums was discovered. The Buffins told investigators they had sold United Plating to Buffin’s half-brother, Leslie.
To prove it, they showed investigators a bogus bill of sale, dated July 1993.
The barrels kept surfacing. A month after the third dump was discovered, Buffin threatened to kill himself, according to Kootenai County sheriff’s records.
Federal investigators, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mike Burnett, spent more than a year looking for Leslie.
When they finally found him in Anchorage, Alaska, last January, he stuck to the story of his purchase of the metal-plating company.
Then he tried to stick a fictitious Canadian with the blame.
With the help of George Johnson - a friend he had met in prison in Oregon, Leslie concocted a story of loading the drums onto a trailer and selling them to a Canadian businessman named Arthur Bealieu. Like the Buffins, Leslie had a bogus bill of sale to prove the transaction.
Investigators spent six months looking for Bealieu, whose last name was chosen, Johnson later confessed, because it matched that of a dead Canadian man, federal investigators said.
Last fall, a federal grand jury in Boise questioned the Buffins and employees of the powder-coating business. The grand jury indicted Leslie for damaging government property and illegal dumping of hazardous waste.
Leslie’s background worried investigators, who were dispatched to find him in the Alaskan outback. Before coming to Coeur d’Alene, Leslie had been in prison in Oregon on a felony weapons conviction.
Leslie had shoved a revolver in the Clatskanie police chief’s face and threatened to kill him. The police chief was trying to help arrest Leslie for allegedly choking his girlfriend at the Pixie Pot Tavern.
With that history in mind, and knowing the federal government generally is unwelcome in rural Alaska, agents cautiously went looking for Leslie in September. By then, Leslie was living in a camper trailer 50 miles outside of Delta Junction, south of Fairbanks. He was scraping out a living with a small sawmill.
Curious as to why federal agents had been to his trailer, Leslie drove to Delta Junction and called Alaska state troopers. Leslie was tricked into staying on the line while troopers tracked him down.
But as Leslie’s Dec. 1 trial neared, Yvonne Buffin grew uncomfortable, according to court records, and urged her 56-year-old husband to tell the truth instead of testifying that he had sold United Plating and the barrels to Leslie.
Instead, Buffin went to United Powder Coating sometime late Nov. 30 or early Dec. 1, rigged a hose from the exhaust pipe of his blue-and-silver Chevy pickup to his passenger-side window, climbed inside and started the engine.
His stepson discovered the body in the pickup early on the morning of Dec. 1. The engine was still running.
The federal government’s case against Leslie quickly unraveled.
Within days of Buffin’s death, it became clear several of the players hadn’t told investigators, or the grand jury, the truth. Two of the government’s main witnesses needed immunity to testify at Leslie’s trial and avoid perjury charges. The trial was delayed, then canceled.
“This thing has been lie after lie after lie,” one federal official said.
New allegations and information emerging in the past seven weeks only add to the conundrum. Buffin - 6 feet 2 inches tall, 250 pounds, one arm decorated with a paratrooper tattoo - is described as an intimidating patriarch by one federal official. He also allegedly had warned his employees not to tell federal investigators anything about United Plating.
There was other trouble. Yvonne Buffin alleges Buffin pointed a 9 mm Luger at her and pulled the trigger several times after they argued about him continually hassling the employees of Buffin’s other business - United Powder Coating, according to a 1996 sheriff’s report. The gun was not loaded and she did not press charges.
Yvonne Buffin refused to be interviewed.
“My husband has only been dead a month,” she explained. “I’ve dealt with enough.”
How did drums get there?
So how did 32 drums of nasty toxic waste end up in wooded North Idaho gullies?
Leslie didn’t dump the chemicals, says his attorney, Ruben Iniguez of the federal public defender’s office in Spokane.
Buffin twice asked Leslie to dispose of the chemicals - once in 1993 and again just before Panhandle Health and DEQ officials visited Hern Industrial Park in August 1994, Iniguez said. Leslie refused both times.
Instead, at Buffin’s request, Leslie rented a U-Haul truck and moved barrels from a residence to United Plating’s building in October 1994 - two months after Hern was forced to allow the inspection.
Someone else - apparently unknown - discarded the drums in the forest, he said.
“I had two people who were going to testify Buffin had offered them money to dump the barrels after October 1994,” Iniguez said.
Two weeks ago, Leslie admitted to a federal judge that he moved barrels of hazardous waste without a permit. He will be sentenced later this spring. Both sides are recommending his jail sentence be three months - time he already spent behind bars awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, Leslie is living with his sister in Bonners Ferry. And the government is still looking for the midnight dumper.
As for the 10 missing barrels?
“If you find them, approach with extreme caution,” EPA’s Burnett says. “And call the authorities.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CHRONOLOGY April 29, 1993 - Panhandle Health notified of suspicious material at Hern Industrial Park. June 23, 1993 - Local and state inspectors denied access to Hern Industrial Park. April 8, 1994 - Panhandle Health receives paperwork from Hern tenants. Eugene Buffin Sr., owner with his wife of United Plating and United Powder Coating, reports he has no chemicals and doesn’t identify his business. May 4, 1994 - Panhandle Health gets its second set of paperwork regarding the Buffins’ businesses. The only chemical he reports having on site is trichloroethylene - a common industrial solvent. Aug. 18, 1994 - With a search warrant and law enforcement escort, inspectors finally gain access to businesses at Hern Industrial Park. The building where United Plating is housed is empty, except for a truck and an oven. Orange residue, typical of metal plating shops, covers parts of the inside of the building. Problems are identified at the Buffins’ other business, United Powder Coating. October 1994 - Stephen K. Leslie moves barrels of hazardous waste from a residence to the empty United Plating building, according to his later testimony in U.S. District Court. January 1995 - Nine barrels of highly toxic chemicals are found dumped north of Fernan Lake in the national forest. Feb. 6, 1995 - Investigators contact Eugene and Yvonne Buffin, owners of United Plating, who claim they sold the business and the chemical to Buffin’s stepbrother, Stephen K. Leslie. March 16, 1995 - Eleven more chemical containers are discovered north of Wallace, near Nine Mile Creek, on Bureau of Land Management Land. April 7, 1995 - A dozen more containers containing toxic waste are found between Murray and Beaver on Forest Service land by children hunting for antlers. August 1995 - Eugene and Yvonne Buffin tell a Boise grand jury that they sold United Plating and the chemicals to Leslie. Sept. 12, 1997 - Leslie is indicted on federal charges of damaging government property and dumping hazardous waste. Dec. 1, 1997 - Eugene Buffin Sr. commits suicide the night before Leslie’s trial is scheduled to begin. Trial is delayed to January 1998. Dec. 31, 1997 - U.S. attorney files memorandum saying Yvonne Buffin admitted to lying to the grand jury. In addition, Yvonne Buffin had encouraged her husband to tell the truth to law enforcement after Leslie was indicted, court documents say. Jan. 13, 1997 - Leslie pleads guilty to transporting hazardous waste without a permit. Government investigators say the case is far from over.
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