Information about river pollution was kept under lock and key during the administration of Gov. George Allen, which refused to release a database of water contaminants even to federal environmental officials, according to a report by state auditors today.
The Virginia Toxics Database, created in 1984 to track river pollution, was erased from personal computers, and backup tapes were locked in a fireproof box in 1994, the year Allen (R) became governor. Those who asked to see it--including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency--were told it was no longer available.
Information began to flow only a year ago, after Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) and his appointees took over the Department of Environmental Quality.
"People just forgot about it," said Philip A. Leone, director of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which issued the report.
Auditors did not directly blame Allen and said the decision may have been made by a mid-level bureaucrat trying to preserve the information when the office handling the database was disbanded. Auditors also said there was no evidence of health problems caused by the loss of the database.
But critics said such sloppiness was characteristic of Allen's handling of environmental issues, which he emphasized far less than economic development during his years as governor, 1994 to 1998. He is now running for U.S. Senate against Sen. Charles S. Robb (D).
"It's just another example of the evil machinations of the Allen administration on the environment," said Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter. "No data, no pollution, no problem."
Allen could not be reached for comment. Jay Timmons, Allen's former chief of staff and now spokesman for his Senate campaign, said: "At the end of the Allen administration, the water in Virginia was cleaner and the air was cleaner. . . . It's the results that matter, not process and politics."
Virginia created the database to track toxins in several Virginia rivers, including the Potomac and Rappahannock. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary maintained the data until 1993, when the state took it over.
In December 1993, severe budget cuts under Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) forced several of the officials handling the database to be reassigned to other jobs. When Allen became governor the following month, access to the data virtually disappeared, auditors said. EPA officials received only 10 percent of the data they requested in 1994, then none at all in the rest of Allen's administration.
The audit also revealed how information about possible carcinogens in several rivers, including the Potomac and its tributaries, was not widely reported to the public for many years before that. Reports on problems with some Southwest Virginia rivers dated to 1973. A 1993 study, for example, showed high levels of PCBs, possible carcinogens, in fish caught in the Roanoke River, but state officials issued no health advisory to the public until 1998.
"It's a disheartening . . . and embarrassing disclosure of a pretty shoddy job of monitoring conditions that can have an adverse impact on public health," said state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax).
CAPTION: Activists have criticized former governor George Allen, now running for the U.S. Senate, for his record on the environment.