Almost six months after Environmental Protection Agency officials announced with great fanfare that they had reached a $2.4 million settlement with more than 100 companies to help clean up a hazardous waste dump at Hamilton, Ohio, not one barrel of toxic chemicals has been moved.
Former EPA hazardous waste chief Rita M. Lavelle and top EPA lawyer Robert M. Perry flew to Ohio last August to promote what they called a precedent-setting agreement to clear the 10-acre Chem-Dyne Corp. site.
"We see dramatic evidence of a new trend" in this settlement, EPA Administrator Anne M. Burford said at the time. "We believe this is being engendered by EPA's approach of a willingness to negotiate, backed with a strong enforcement commitment to litigation where negotiation fails to reach voluntary resolution."
The settling companies have paid their money, but the cleanup has been delayed because of a dispute between the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers over access to the property. The two agencies finally settled the matter yesterday, and bids for the cleanup contract are now scheduled to be opened March 17, a corps official said.
The delay has left the local community upset, EPA officials red-faced and Chem-Dyne an illustration of the complexities of cleaning up the country's hazardous waste sites. As the first major voluntary settlement with industry, the Chem-Dyne settlement has come under scrutiny by members of Congress probing the Reagan administration's handling of the "Superfund" cleanup program.
David Graham, deputy general counsel of Velsicol Chemical Co., who coordinated the negotiations for the settling companies, said he was puzzled by the delay.
"The idea of a settlement is to immediately provide money for cleanup so you don't have a potential environmental hazard there indefinitely," he said.
In contrast, cleanup is under way at another site in Seymour, Ind., where the settling companies, rather than the government, are doing the cleanup.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which will manage the Chem-Dyne cleanup under an agreement with the EPA, said it couldn't open bids on the project until all property owners had given the corps written authorization to enter the site.
EPA officials said the state of Ohio was responsible for getting permission to enter the site, but say they believe they have the authority under the Superfund law to enter the site without agreements.
They decided last week that they would go to court, if necessary, to get approval for that authority, according to Gene Lucero, director of the EPA's office of waste programs enforcement.
Stan Carlock, Superfund coordinator for the corps' Omaha district, said yesterday that the corps received a letter from Superfund director William Hedeman saying that access to the site will be assured. "We're going ahead," he said. "We're trying very hard not to look like an obstacle in the process. We all want to get the site cleaned up."
Contractors visited the Chem-Dyne site on Dec. 2, and bids were scheduled to be opened Jan. 18, when the access problem was discovered. "Our policy is not to send contractors onto a site without written authorization," Carlock said before the Hedeman letter arrived.
Hal Shepherd, who as Hamilton's assistant city manager has been trying to get the Chem-Dyne site cleaned up since 1976, expressed the community's frustration. "We were tremendously enthused last summer when the agreement was announced. We thought, 'It's over. We won.' We're not upset with the agreement, but we're unhappy about the delay."
Jack Garrettson, attorney for the state-appointed receiver who monitored cleanup of more than half the site, said he wants protection from future liability when the corps of engineers takes over the site.
"The last thing we want is anything that would hold up the cleanup," Garrettson said. "We live here, have kids here. I want the red tape cut through. If they EPA officials can run out to Times Beach and flash $30 million on them, what's the problem? We have twice the problem here. We've got 15,000 barrels of who knows what sitting over our water aquifer, and all they're doing is red-taping us."
EPA officials say they have had to negotiate with the corps much as they did with the chemical companies who agreed to last August's settlement. Lucero said, "We said, 'Go do it.' They said, 'We won't.' "
The Chem-Dyne site in downtown Hamilton, 20 miles north of Cincinnati, contains hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic chemical waste, including PCBs, vinyl chloride, benzene and trichloroethylene. It caught fire in 1979, and is still considered a threat to the community, officials agreed.
Once a bid is accepted, it will take about eight months to clean up the site, Carlock said. Even then, there probably will be a second round of negotiations with industry about cleanup of sub-surface soil and ground water, which was not covered by the surface cleanup agreement.