Hazardous Waste:

EPA's Cleanup of the Eagle-Picher Henryetta, Oklahoma, Site

GAO-03-1051R: Published: Sep 5, 2003. Publicly Released: Sep 10, 2003.

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From 1996 to 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a cleanup action on a former zinc smelter operated by Eagle-Picher Mining and Smelting, Inc. and other areas contaminated by materials from this site near Henryetta, Oklahoma. EPA's cleanup focused on removing the immediate health threat posed by lead- and arsenic-contaminated soil transported from the Eagle-Picher site to residential and other highly accessible areas. Cleanup actions on the Eagle-Picher site involved establishing proper drainage on the site, encapsulating the Eagle-Picher site with clay and cover soil, and establishing vegetative cover at the site to protect nearby residents from the recontamination from wind and water erosion of hazardous materials. Since completion of the cleanup, private landowners of a neighboring property have raised concerns about contamination of their property resulting from EPA's cleanup actions. Landowners allege that EPA, through its contractors, transported and negligently disposed of hazardous substances on their property. The landowners also allege that EPA's actions at the site contributed to the migration of contamination from the Eagle-Picher site onto their property. These landowners are currently pursuing litigation against EPA and the city of Henryetta for damages incurred as a result of the cleanup. EPA asserts that the cleanup met its objectives and successfully removed the immediate threat to human health and the environment. Congress asked us to provide information on (1) the environmental cleanup actions EPA conducted at the Eagle-Picher Henryetta site and (2) the actions EPA has taken in response to neighboring landowners' concerns related to the Eagle-Picher cleanup site.

In August 1996, EPA initiated a removal action on the Eagle-Picher site and other locations throughout Henryetta in accordance with CERCLA. EPA determined that the site, including locations where material from the site was used as fill material in construction, presented an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health and the environment because of lead and arsenic contamination in high-access areas. However, because the site did not affect residential drinking water or a large population, it did not qualify for proposal to EPA's list of the nation's most contaminated sites, called the National Priorities List. EPA placed a ceiling of $8 million on EPA's project cost. According to EPA regional and headquarters officials, EPA responded appropriately to the concerns of the landowners, expressed through correspondence, telephone calls, and requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act between October 2000 and March 2001. EPA referred the October 2000 incident report submitted by the landowners to EPA's National Response Center to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, which responded by reviewing the landowners' concerns and contacting the landowners to explain that the levels of contamination present did not warrant action by EPA or Oklahoma. EPA responded to the landowners' written requests for information by advising them of the cost to provide documents, and when the cost proved excessive, providing the documents for landowners' counsel to review at EPA's offices. Although EPA took several months to respond to some requests for information, EPA attributes these delays to the time required to retrieve documents placed in storage, review files to locate appropriate documents, and determine a cost estimate for providing the documents directly to the landowners. The landowners disagree that EPA was responsive to their concerns about contamination on their property and assert that EPA's systematic attitude has impeded their efforts to obtain information about the cleanup. The landowners cited unnecessary delays in providing documents and alleged that EPA attempted to hide the truth about cleanup actions.

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