Environmental Protection Agency officials decided not to clean up an asbestos-contaminated trailer park in Arizona and several other mining-waste sites after discussing the issue privately with mining industry executives, members of a House subcommittee charged yesterday.
Despite three years of repeated warnings from government scientists and agency staff members, senior EPA officials said they have not decided whether to relocate 130 persons who live atop an abandoned asbestos mine near Globe, Ariz. The officials said they hope to reach a decision in two to three weeks.
In what subcommittee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) called an example of "bureaucratic gridlock," the Justice Department has not filed a lawsuit in the Globe case, seven months after the EPA referred the case for prosecution as an "imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health."
Dingell's Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee used the Globe case to illustrate the impact of the EPA's refusal to use its Superfund, a $1.6 billion hazardous waste cleanup fund, to remove mining wastes from residential areas.
EPA officials said yesterday that, although they believe there is ample evidence that asbestos causes cancer and lung disease, former hazardous waste cleanup chief Rita M. Lavelle remained unpersuaded. Globe residents blamed Lavelle for blocking a federal cleanup of their town, where asbestos company officials set up a realty firm to sell mobile homes.
"The EPA has probably reduced us all to some statistic," said lab technician Cathy Scott, who broke into tears while telling the subcommitee how her daughter, Stacy, has suffered from mononucleosis and lymph-node infections. "We are living, breathing, thinking people who are being pushed to the breaking point.
"The EPA has dragged its feet for 3 1/2 years . . . . There doesn't seem to be any definite plan, just excuses," she said.
EPA official William N. Hedeman Jr. said that chemical and mining industry officials strongly urged Lavelle last year not to use the Superfund for mining sites.
Last April, agency documents show, Lavelle and former EPA administrator Anne M. Burford dined at the Four Seasons restaurant with officials of the Chemical Manufacturers Association and executives of Dow Chemical Co., DuPont and Monsanto. Lavelle also discussed the issue last June with the counsel of the American Mining Congress.
Soon afterward, Burford declined to sign a decision memo on mining waste, leaving the agency with no clear policy. The memo said a passive stance would save the government money and avoid lawsuits but "may draw negative public reaction."
"Action was taken to follow the industry line," Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) said. "The rest of us were left out in the dark."
Lavelle told Interior Department officials in January that they should relieve EPA of responsibility for the mining sites, Hedeman said, but she warned that federal cleanup efforts could hurt western Republicans running for reelection. Hedeman said he was "uncomfortable" with "the discussion of Republican senatorial races in 1984."
Since the discovery in 1979 of chrysotile asbestos at Globe, 75 miles east of Phoenix, EPA and federal health officials have warned that conditions there "create a high health risk at the site . . . . An emergency condition probably exists . . . . The fact that children may be inhaling and ingesting quantities of asebstos fibers must be of concern to any responsible federal agency."
Hedeman said that, when he agreed to a federal cleanup at Globe last year, Lavelle's office blocked his letter to Arizona officials and later deleted statements about adverse health effects.
"Miss Lavelle had the view that the problem of chrysotile asbestos may not be a problem," Hedeman said.
Hedeman said the law is ambiguous as to whether the EPA must sue responsible mining firms before paying for removal of their waste. Subcommittee members questioned why the EPA launched a $190,000 feasibility study at Globe instead of buying the contaminated homes.