Hundreds of tons of soil laced with PCBs were buried illegally in 1996 at a West Plains landfill, a federal investigation has found.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently concluded that the 712 tons of tainted soil should have gone to a special hazardous waste landfill in Oregon or Idaho.
The EPA will decide within a month what legal action to take, said Dan Duncan, the EPA’s regional PCB coordinator in Seattle.
“This is a pretty involved case. We have to determine with our attorneys who is liable, and what the penalties should be,” Duncan said.
The agency can assess fines up to $27,500 per day per violation to the owners of the dirt or the landfill. The EPA also can levy additional penalties against anyone taking an illegal, cheaper shortcut to dispose of the polychlorinated biphenyls, which came from a damaged transformer in North Spokane.
The EPA’s investigation into the buried PCBs reached these conclusions:
Spokane businessman Larry Biggs, who sent the tainted soil to the Graham Road Recycling and Disposal Facility, was told in 1994 by two cleanup consultants that the dirt should go straight to a hazardous waste facility.
Biggs “deliberately circumvented” PCB regulations by sending the soil to Graham Road to save money, according to one of the consultants.
The landfill’s operators may have gotten “misleading information” from Biggs and his cleanup crew on PCB levels in the soil, but they shouldn’t have accepted the dirt under federal regulations.
Biggs’ Spokane attorney, Bryce Wilcox, said Friday he and Biggs hadn’t seen the EPA report and couldn’t comment.
Biggs paid about $25,000 to bury the soil at Graham Road - a savings of approximately $100,000 over an out-of-state hazardous waste dump, cleanup contractor John Bottjer of Roar Tech Inc. said Thursday.
The soil is buried 20 feet deep in the 40-acre Graham Road landfill and its “precise whereabouts cannot be determined,” according to the EPA’s Feb. 17 investigative report.
An attorney for USA Waste Services Inc., the landfill’s Texas-based owners, said the company is investigating the government’s findings.
“If the EPA report is accurate, it appears we were victimized by misleading information. We will consider legal action against anybody that purposely misled us,” Seattle attorney Philip McCune said.
PCBs are colorless, highly toxic liquid compounds that accumulate in the food chain and pose hazards to human health, including liver damage and cancer. They were commonly found in electric transformers, but recently were banned.
The Graham Road landfill isn’t allowed to take hazardous waste, including PCBs. It opened as a disposal site for county construction debris in 1991.
Three years later, the county allowed the landfill to also accept tires, sterilized medical waste and soil polluted with petroleum.
USA Waste Services now is proposing a major expansion, to 292 acres. The landfill’s residential neighbors are fighting the move, saying the wells that supply their drinking water could become contaminated.
The EPA’s report tells a complex tale of legal delays, a maze of rules and bad decisions.
The chemicals originally were inside a large transformer obtained by the former Gene Brower Machinery Company of Spokane and owned by University Equipment Co. of Ohio.
In 1992, two months after the machinery company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, it moved the transformer to a patch of Burlington Northern land at N. 6401 Freya, which it subleased from Biggs’ Raecorp Inc.
In August 1992, someone used an 18-inch wrench to remove a brass fitting on the transformer, causing 700 gallons of PCB-laced oil to soak into the ground, the EPA report says.
Bottjer, the cleanup contractor sent to the site by the bankruptcy trustee, discovered the spill and reported it to Biggs and the other parties.
For two more years, the damaged transformer and the PCB-soaked soil sat on the railroad property, enmeshed in the fight over the assets of the machinery company. Lawyers wrangled for months about who was responsible for cleaning up the mess.
Finally, frustrated by the impasse and worried the contamination would reach ground water, Biggs launched a voluntary cleanup.
In September 1994, he dug up the tainted soil and stockpiled it on the property on plastic sheets surrounded by straw bales and an earth berm. He also fenced the site and attached PCB warning labels.
In May 1996, he shipped the transformer to South Dakota for disposal. In August, he moved the soil to the Graham Road landfill.
The soil, according to a sample taken immediately after the transformer damage, contained 19 parts per million of PCBs - over the federal limit of 10 ppm.
Bottjer and geologist Nancy Lucas both told Biggs in 1994 that using a regular landfill to dump the dirt is illegal, the EPA report says.
Biggs apparently understood this. In September 1994, he filed this written statement in Bankruptcy Court: “… the PCB spill will require that 300 cubic yards of dirt must be removed to a disposal site in Arlington, Ore., or Grandview, Idaho.”
Biggs recently told EPA investigators he felt out-of-state disposal costs for the soil were “excessive.” He also said he didn’t understand the PCB regulations, and didn’t get much help deciphering them from the EPA or Ecology.
“Biggs told the EPA he was sure the contaminated soil had been disposed of properly,” the report notes.
But Bottjer told the EPA a very different story - that Biggs “deliberately circumvented federal regulations.”
“Bottjer said Biggs told him he would be dead by the time EPA or Sanifill (the Graham Road landfill’s former owner) sued him, and that Biggs was counting on being considered naive and having done everything he could do to properly dispose of the contaminated soil,” according to EPA investigators.
“From day one, Nancy and I told him we wouldn’t be a part of this,” Bottjer said.
In May 1996, Graham Road landfill manager Darrel Startin notified Biggs he would accept the soil because Biggs told him the PCB levels appeared to be very low.
That was the wrong call, the EPA’s Duncan says.
PCB levels inside the transformer were 414 parts per million - automatically causing the transformer and the soils to fall under federal Toxic Substances Control Act regulations.
Groundwater under the buried PCBs is protected from the chemicals by a double liner, McCune said.
But according to a recent environmental study for the proposed landfill expansion, the bottom of the landfill is sitting in groundwater and must be continually pumped to keep it dry.
West Plains neighbors should be concerned, Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris said when told Friday about the EPA investigation. His district includes the West Plains.
“This EPA report gives me a greater concern about water quality out there,” Harris said. “People want their water safe. Government hasn’t looked at this closely enough.”
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