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EPA staffers cut short discussion of Stauffer

Two agency representatives walk out of a public session on the Stauffer cleanup.

By ED QUIOCO

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 2000


TARPON SPRINGS -- A crowd at Tarpon Springs City Hall booed and jeered Monday after two officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made a brief presentation about the cleanup of the Stauffer Superfund site and abruptly walked out of a public meeting.

The officials said at the start of the two-hour meeting that they would leave after taking 10 minutes of questions, an announcement that angered U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who sponsored the meeting.

"You are wrong as all hell for just wanting to walk out of here after 10 minutes of questions," Bilirakis told Joanne Benante, an EPA official from the Region 4 office in Atlanta and Michelle Staes, an EPA attorney from the same office. "I hope that the audience is not only disappointed but disgusted at that kind of attitude. I'm very disappointed."

But true to their warning, Benante and Staes marched out of the meeting after they made a limited presentation and took a few questions and stinging critiques from Hugh Kaufman, lead investigator for EPA Ombudsman Bob Martin.

As they left, the crowd booed. Someone in the audience made the mocking sounds of a chicken as another yelled, "You should be ashamed of yourself."

After the meeting, Martin, who decided in December to investigate the EPA Region 4 office's activities at Stauffer, said he has held several similar meetings all over the country and has never encountered what the EPA's officials did Monday.

"I need to say this for the record that I was deeply disturbed and offended that they walked out," Martin said toward the end of the meeting. "It was a wrong against this community. This is very serious."

At the heart of the issue on Monday was a federal court document called a consent decree, which essentially details the EPA's cleanup plan for the 130-acre site and calls for piling and capping 300,000 cubic yards of toxic soil on the site, which once held a phosphorus-processing plant.

Benante and Staes said they merely wanted to inform the audience of a handful of changes to the consent decree before fielding questions for 10 minutes. But Kaufman kept pressing them with specific questions and sounded like an attorney questioning witnesses.

Early on, Kaufman even read Benante and Staes the Miranda warning informing them that .hatever they said could be used against them in court.

As he was trying to point out that most of the officials who signed the consent decree were not present at the meeting, he said Benante had suddenly cut him off. Kaufman, who had pointed out earlier that Benante was from New York, replied: "Excuse me, Mrs. Benante, I'm speaking now. This is not New York."

"I take exception to that remark," Benante said. "Your rudeness is uncalled for. Please discontinue it."

"Mrs. Benante, the record will show who is rude and who's not," Kaufman replied.

Kaufman was trying to hammer home the point that EPA officials had admitted in a letter to local resident Mary Mosley, who has been intensely involved in the issue for years, that one of the companies participating in the cleanup underwent a corporate merger and name change after signing the consent decree. In the letter to Mosley, dated a month after the decree was signed in April, EPA officials in Atlanta indicated they were requesting information about the corporate change.

Kaufman questioned why EPA officials would sign a consent decree with a company without knowing specifics about the company and its ability to pay for the cleanup.

Don Harris, environmental manager with the state Department of Environmental Protection, said at the meeting that the state department has been working with the federal EPA on the Stauffer cleanup. He said that the consent decree, as it currently is written, is a step in the right direction but may not go far enough to clean the site.

Kaufman said after the meeting that more studies are needed before the consent decree, which essentially lays out a remedy to the situation, is signed by U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew. He said the studies need to be done before a remedy even is considered and encouraged residents to write Bucklew and urge that she delay signing the consent decree. Kaufman said residents have until June 12 to send their comments to Bucklew.

Heather Malinowski, secretary of PI-PA-TAG, a local citizens watchdog group, said after the meeting that the way Benante and Staes walked out of the meeting as several television cameras rolled showed what residents have gone through for years with that EPA office.

"I feel like they walked out on us years ago," she said. "And now they go and do it again. But now it's on film."

Carlene Hobbs, a Tarpon Springs resident, said the EPA office showed a lack of respect to Bilirakis and the residents.

"It was embarrassing what they did in front of our congressman, but they have done it to us for years," Hobbs said. "There are a lot of sick people in this community and they are sick because of Stauffer."

This was the third public meeting Bilirakis has sponsored. He said things seemed to be working out among all sides of the issue after the two meetings and was somewhat blindsided when Benante and Staes walked out. About 70 people attended the meeting Monday.

Bilirakis also expressed his disappointed that U.S. Department of Justice officials did not attend the meeting. The Department of Justice also is a party in the consent decree.

Kaufman said that Benante and Staes were just following orders which, he theorized, probably came from high-level officials of the EPA and the Department of Justice. After the meeting, he said he was optimistic that the process still would work despite Monday's events.

"Democracy is stronger than any of these petty bureaucrats," he said.

* * *

-- Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or at quioco@sptimes.com.

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