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Group asks EPA to yank Stauffer cleanup plan

By ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


TARPON SPRINGS -- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials might have gotten more than they bargained for when they helped set up a community advisory group for the Stauffer Superfund site Thursday night.

No sooner had the group formed than it boldly requested that EPA yank its mound-and-cap cleanup plan off the table.

Without input into the method of cleanup, a community advisory group would be meaningless, newly named leader Carlene Hobbs said.

In a significant development, EPA project manager John Blanchard said EPA officials are considering just that. The plan is currently on hold as state and EPA officials discuss "technical issues," he said.

"We don't know if it will go forward or if it will be withdrawn," Blanchard said.

The cleanup plan calls for piling 300,000 cubic yards of contaminated, radioactive soil and capping it with a protective plastic layer.

It has already been written into a document, known as a consent decree, that has been signed by EPA and Stauffer and now awaits a federal judge's approval.

Residents, many of whom want the waste hauled off-site, have criticized the mound-and-cap plan because the Stauffer property sits on the Anclote River in an area prone to sinkholes.

Jim McLane of Tarpon Springs set the tone for Thursday's discussion early when he interrupted the feel-good introduction of a marketing representative hired by EPA to "facilitate" the meeting.

"I, for one, am not willing to sit through another meeting where nothing is accomplished," McLane said.

"We know there have been some problems in the past," said Edwin K. Maynard of the Marketing Edge. But he urged residents to move past those differences and "look to the future."

But McLane and other residents weren't willing to forget. McLane noted the community already had one group, the Pinellas-Pasco Technical Advisory Group, whose advice EPA has "completely ignored."

EPA public affairs specialist Angela Leach, reading mostly from a prepared script, said a community advisory group would enable the community to speak with a strong, unified voice.

"I know a remedy has pretty much been selected," Leach said, "but there's so much more to review."

For example, Blanchard said, the cleanup plan calls for conducting several "very substantial tests," such as sinkhole studies and whether salt water could compromise the cap. Should those tests uncover serious problems with the mound-and-cap plan, Blanchard said, "there might be a lot more than tweaking the remedy."

But Hobbs and other residents said if the EPA is truly committed to working with the community, the agency ought to withdraw the controversial mound-and-cap plan, which was unveiled in July 1998.

Tarpon Springs resident Mary Mosley noted that most area residents opposed that plan and had little input into the decision to move forward with it.

"The EPA was in a rush to get the cheapest solution for the polluter," Mosley said.

Mike Flanery, director of the Pinellas County Health Department's environmental engineering division, argued it would not slow the process to withdraw the proposed cleanup plan until all the necessary tests are completed. Once properly studied, he said, the EPA could come up with a solution with the residents.

"If we're going to go on a trip," Flanery said, "let's go on it together."

Blanchard said he could not personally make a decision to withdraw the consent decree, but he promised to send word of the community's wishes to his bosses.

As promised, Blanchard sent a memo Friday to several EPA officials, including Richard Green, director of the Waste Management Division for EPA Region 4. It relayed the community's request to "withdraw the consent decree and re-open the record of decision for the source remedy at the Stauffer site until we have better characterized the site." Blanchard's memo also seeks a meeting to discuss the issue.

Stauffer Property Manager Frank McNeice said after the meeting it didn't matter whether the tests were done before or after the consent decree, because they will be done one way or the other.

"We'd like the process to move forward," McNeice said.

Many residents are concerned signing the consent decree might lock Stauffer's parent companies into a cheaper cleanup price should tests prove a more expensive remedy is warranted.

McNeice said that was incorrect.

"We are obligated to pay for it," McNeice said, "and we will meet our financial responsibilities."

But Hugh Kaufman, lead investigator for the EPA ombudsman's office -- a small watchdog arm of the EPA -- disputed that Friday. His questioning of a state official during a June 5 hearing revealed there are no written assurances Stauffer would be on the hook for a higher-price cleanup once the consent decree is signed, he said.

Kaufman, whose office many residents credit with changing the face of the Stauffer debate, said he was pleased to see the residents formed a community advisory group. He also was glad to see the group's first order of business was to call for halting the consent decree.

"In reality, a community advisory group is useless if the consent decree is signed," Kaufman said. "It gives the appearance of community involvement when there is no community involvement ... no substantive involvement."

But, he said, "If the agency pulls the consent decree and puts the issues back on the table, we have really turned a corner."

The community advisory group plans to hold its first meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Tarpon Springs Library.

-- Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

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