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Denied access to documents, Stauffer sues

A federal watchdog's highly critical report was based on the documents. The agency defends its actions, citing privacy and its internal processes.

By ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2001


A federal watchdog's highly critical report was based on the documents. The agency defends its actions, citing privacy and its internal processes.

TARPON SPRINGS -- The company responsible for cleanup of the Stauffer Superfund site has filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The suit contends that the company was unfairly denied access to documents on which a federal watchdog official based a scathing report about the site.

The 196-page report, issued by Ronnie Wilson, ombudsman for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, criticized public health officials for failing to use all available data when the agency previously downplayed the public health hazards posed by Stauffer.

Among Wilson's conclusions were that the government ought to study the health of former students of the elementary school across the street from the Stauffer Superfund site, as well as the health of former workers at the phosphorus processing plant.

Stauffer Management Co. executives blasted the report as unsubstantiated and alarmist.

"The report contains conclusions and statements that do not and cannot withstand factual and scientific scrutiny," the lawsuit states. "The report lacks credible scientific support, reflects a disturbing degree of superficiality and bias and raises unwarranted concerns about public health and the efforts various entities have undertaken to that date to protect human health."

Shortly after public release of the report in January, Stauffer attorneys requested copies of all of the documents Wilson cited or relied upon in the report.

Of the 229 documents Wilson cited in his report, the suit states, ATSDR has withheld more than 50 of them. Stauffer attorney Michael Kelly said those include notes from interviews with former Stauffer workers and some local residents.

A written response from the ATSDR stated that the agency withheld "predecisional internal communications."

"Release of this type of material would interfere with the agency's deliberative process," wrote Lynn Armstrong of the ATSDR.

Some names, a petition list of citizens' names and other information which, if disclosed, "would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" were deleted from the documents, Armstrong added.

Stauffer appealed ATSDR's decision to withhold the documents but got no answer, Kelly said.

"We thought, if you're going to refer to documents, we ought to be able to see them ourselves," he said.

On Sept. 7, Delaware-based Stauffer Management filed suit in federal district court in Delaware to force release of the documents.

"We didn't want to have litigation against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but they left us no choice," Kelly said.

According to the federal lawsuit, Stauffer Management "strongly disagrees with many of the statements made in the report; believes the report is not supported by credible evidence; has been asked to respond to the report in ensuing public meetings; and believes the public deserves a full and complete analysis of the report, especially in view of the media attention paid to the report's initial release."

Stauffer Management President Brian Spiller called the report "alarming and incorrect on some points." Stauffer would like to see the documents so it can set the record straight, he said. He noted that there is ongoing litigation between the company and some former employees.

"Sound science should govern cleanup and any health investigations," Kelly said.

Wilson could not be reached for comment. ATSDR spokesman Mike Grout declined to comment on the matter because it is in litigation.

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

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