Former Environmental Protection Agency official Rita M. Lavelle, who was ousted earlier this week, suggested last August that her staff consider showing an industry trade group the agency's evidence in a potential legal case involving asbestos contamination in Arizona, according to an EPA memo.
"Rita asked me if we had considered running the evidence we had on the site by the Asbestos Institute. What are your thoughts?" said the memo from Lavelle's director of hazardous waste enforcement, Eugene Lucero, to Debbie Dalton, a scientist on his staff.
Dalton said Lavelle was simply trying to determine whether Arizona officials were using industry-approved methods to measure asbestos at the site.
Lavelle's suggestion, in a case against three asbestos mills that contaminated a mobile home community in Globe, Ariz., goes to the heart of the criticism involving the EPA's hazardous waste cleanup program.
A growing number of critics are questioning whether senior agency officials appointed by the Reagan administration are more intent on cooperating with industrial polluters than with taking them to court.
The latest disclosure involves some documents in the Arizona case that are among those the EPA has refused to disclose under a House subpoena, leading to an unprecedented contempt of Congress citation against EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch.
Asked about Lavelle's reported suggestion yesterday, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee, said that it "raises a serious question of attitude. It says who her primary clients are--it's not the American public, it's the industry. Papers we can't have were seen by part-time employes, 'Kelly' girls, consultants and contractors who may be involved, but we can't see them."
Some residents of Globe, Ariz., where dozens of families had to be evacuated in 1980 after state officials discovered dangerously high levels of asbestos in the soil under their mobile homes, said they considered the memo typical of the EPA's approach to their problems.
About 130 people have returned to the subdivision, but while Arizona has declared the site the state's top hazardous waste priority, the EPA has not agreed to use part of its $1.6 billion "Superfund" to clean up the site. Asbestos has been shown to cause cancer and lung disease, which sometimes cannot be detected for as long as 30 years.
The Arizona case could set a Superfund precedent because it involves mining wastes rather than wastes from petroleum-based chemicals. EPA officials have not decided whether the Superfund should be used to clean up sites contaminated by mining wastes.
This has become increasingly controversial because the Superfund is partially financed by a tax on chemical companies, which have argued that the proceeds should be used only for cleaning up chemical waste disposal sites.
The EPA memo on "Globe Arizona" was sent last Aug. 12.
Lavelle remained unavailable for comment yesterday, and Lucero did not return telephone calls. But Dalton, speaking for Lucero, said that none of the evidence in the Arizona case was supplied to the industry group.
Dalton said that after checking with EPA scientists, two public health agencies and the Asbestos Information Association (which she said Lucero had incorrectly referred to as the Asbestos Institute), she found that the industry uses the same sampling methods as the EPA.
"It was a matter of making sure that those methods were accepted by certain scientists as accurate," Dalton said.
Nick Hluchyj, an Asbestos Information Association official, said he didn't recall discussing this or any other enforcement case with the EPA.
"I'm disappointed," he said. "It never got around to us. When the EPA does something, they generally try to have our comments on it as the industry position. We hope they pay attention."
The case involves a 17-acre subdivision in Globe, about 90 miles east of Phoenix. Cathy Scott, 42, bought a mobile home there four years ago. At the time, she said, she didn't notice the abandoned building with the name "Metate Asbestos Co." on the side.
Unaware that this was a small milling operation for asbestos tailings until it closed in 1974, Scott's son Shawn, then 14, used to play behind the building amid several piles of asbestos tailings.
"That's where the kids used to ride their bikes," she said. "They would play with the stuff, throw it at each other, throw it on their clothes and rub it on their hair like it was snow. We never really thought too much of it."
In late 1979, however, an Arizona health inspector on a routine visit noticed what turned out to be dangerously high concentrations of asbestos in the soil. Subdivision residents got the word at a town meeting.
"That was the worst ride home in my whole life," Scott said. "All these things run through your mind. Nobody, unless they're in the same boat, knows how you feel." Scott said she would like to leave her $27,000 mobile home, "but my conscience wouldn't let me sell it to to anyone else."
After evacuating the site for several months, Arizona health official Phil King said, the state demolished and buried the old asbestos building, cleaned the mobile homes and covered the site with several inches of topsoil. But much of the new soil has eroded, and two other abandoned asbestos mills lie near the site.
King said he had hoped EPA would take emergency action "since these residents are living on top of asbestos tailings and face a potential cancer risk." But under their current policy on mining waste, EPA officials have refused to use the Superfund for the estimated $5 million cleanup until they have tried to force the three asbestos companies to pay damages. The law permits the EPA to pursue both courses simultaneously. The agency has awarded only a limited sum to study the problem.
"To date, EPA has not responded in any effective manner to either abate or contain these public health hazards," Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt (D) wrote Gorsuch last April. "Your unwillingness thus far to acknowledge the gravity of these environmental problems seems to contradict the responsibilities which have been given to you."