UNITED STATES ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
WASHINGTON, D.C. 20460
May 8, 1997
Hon. Carol M. Browner
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Washington, DC 20460
Dear Ms. Browner:
In light of the Inspector General's recent concern over the inappropriate influence of regulated industries on EPA decisions, I would like to call to your attention a situation which I ran across in EPA Region 6. It would appear that EPA has bent over backwards to allow a hazardous waste facility with a terrible record of pollution and violations to continue in operation and may even have gone so far as to reduce the stringency of the standards for protection human health and environmental so as to allow the facility to expand its operations. This has caused considerable suffering over many years to the poor and mostly black residents living nearby.
The facility in Winona, Texas is a hazardous waste treatment and deep well injection operation run by the American Ecology Environmental Services Corp. (AEESC). Several years ago, the facility (then known as Gibraltar) requested a modification to the exemption to the land disposal restrictions in order to open an additional hazardous waste injection well. The request was denied by EPA because the cement casing around the well failed to cover 800 feet of the well. Cement casing is required over the entire length of a hazardous waste injection well to prevent leakage according to EPA regulations cited in 40 CFR section 146.65(c)(2) & (c)(4).
The facility is regulated, under EPA oversight, by the TNRCC (Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission). EPA's decision to deny Gibraltar's request was based not on the EPA regulation but on the TNRCC's regulation, which at the time was identical to the EPA regulation. However, immediately after issuing the denial, EPA began to work with the TNRCC to weaken the TNRCC regulation so as to allow the well to be permitted. Upon re-application by the facility, without any improvement in the well, EPA granted the exemption because it now met the revised less stringent Texas standard. The Agency, while claiming in its decision that "drilling mud is not a replacement for cement" accepted drilling mud as a replacement for the missing 800 feet of cement.
The law requires that a state program approved by EPA shall be conducted in accordance with the federal requirements (40 CFR section 145.1 (f)). Conspiring to reduce the environmental protection below the federal standard in order to promote business interests may be breaking the law and is certainly corrupt, immoral and unethical.
In the public hearing which followed EPA's decision, the aroused citizens came up with lots of reasons why the request should be denied. Among these were many challenges to the competence and integrity of the plant owners. One after another of the citizens gave citations of the dreadful environmental conditions which had prevailed at the plant in the past as well as the bad track record of the current owners, AEESC. In its final decision, EPA did not respond to such charges, arguing that EPA did not have the authority to consider the competence and integrity of the plant owner to operate the well. However the same region had recently denied a permit to another hazardous waste facility on that very basis. (In a private conversation, a Region 6 staff attorney assured me that the competence of AEESC was demonstrated by the fact that they filled out their application correctly!)
This bias in favor of the regulated facilities and the contempt for the poor and disenfranchised who have the temerity to complain about it, is widespread among EPA personnel and is especially strong in Region 6.
This plant has been a horror to its neighbors for years because of frequent emergency evacuations and complaints of smell, burning eyes, headaches and throat ulcers. It has been said that the political influence of its owners has kept it going despite this. I have been told this not only by the neighbors but by knowledgeable EPA personnel as well. After years of struggle, the community no longer believes that the government will protect them. Those who can afford to have moved away, the poor must remain.
The bond of trust between the public and those charged with protecting them, which is necessary in a civil society, has been severed in Winona long ago, so that the government has no credibility. I have worked with troubled communities like Winona for two decades. I have seen this phenomenon in many other communities living in the shadow of dangerous facilities for years with no help from the authorities. The continual stress of living in such an environment is itself the well documented cause of many ailments. So that even if government scientists with their meters and their analysis eventually show that there is no longer any danger from chemical exposure, they are not believed. At that stage it is too late. The only cure for such a community is its extinction or the closure of the facility.
cc: EPA Inspector General
William Sanjour's home page