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Ohio Closes Big Waste Dump as Leak Is Feared

Times Staff Writer

Ohio environmental officials closed one of the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfills Thursday, saying that a geologist’s report indicates the site near Cincinnati is leaking toxic chemicals into underground water supplies.

Simultaneously, the federal Environmental Protection Agency ordered a ban on hazardous waste dumping in a newly opened section of the landfill. But an EPA spokesman in Chicago said the federal order does not allege leaks and is unrelated to the Ohio action.

The dump, run by the Cecos International unit of Houston-based Browning-Ferris Inc., is one of 58 commercial landfills paid millions of dollars by the EPA to accept toxic wastes from Superfund cleanup sites. The Cincinnati dump is a major repository for Superfund wastes from as far away as Massachusetts.

New Federal Policy

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The Ohio order was issued only two days after EPA officials in Washington announced a new policy discouraging the transfer of wastes from leaking Superfund sites to commercial dumps that themselves may be leaking. Ohio officials said a prolonged closing of the landfill could worsen what already is a severe shortage of safe toxic-waste disposal sites in the East.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency ordered the Cecos site shut down Thursday morning after a consultant’s report “strongly indicated contamination both on and off site,” Virginia Aveni, a deputy director of the state agency, said. Early tests indicate that man-made organic chemicals are leaching from several of the landfill’s nine cells.

“We’re not saying categorically that it’s leaking because there’s so much information that we don’t have,” she said. “We’ve got a real question about the whole site--the management of it and the suitability of the techniques that have been used to manage it.”

Firm Downplays Closing

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Peter Block, a spokesman for Browning-Ferris, said the company had not read the closing order and could not comment on the geologist’s report. But, noting that Ohio officials say the dump poses no immediate health threat, Block asserted: “It’s not as if it (the closing) is a big deal.”

The landfill, located near suburban Williamsburg just east of Cincinnati, has long been the focus of controversy within the federal EPA. Cecos, one of the nation’s largest hazardous waste firms, contends that the dump is built and operated to the stiffest possible standards.

But Ohio officials closed the site briefly last winter after discovering that Cecos workers were pumping waste water out of the landfill into a creek that supplied drinking water to Williamsburg. And some EPA critics questioned the landfill’s safety last year after the clay walls of one cell caved in under water pressure, revealing that the cell was sitting in an aquifer.

The EPA is awaiting results of its own tests near the site but has no evidence that the Cecos dump is leaking, Virginia Donohue, a spokeswoman for the agency’s Midwest region, said Thursday.

Dispute Over Lining

She said that federal officials ordered a newly opened cell of the landfill closed to toxic wastes Thursday because of a technical dispute over whether the cell’s anti-leak lining meets the standards of a federal waste disposal law enacted last fall.

“They’re asking, basically, for a variance,” she said. “The region has to review it, headquarters has to review it, and (EPA Administrator) Lee M. Thomas has to sign off on it.”

Donohue said the federal closing order probably will be temporary, but Aveni said she could not estimate how long the Ohio shutdown will last. Cecos has been ordered to conduct daily chemical tests of the creek supplying Williamsburg’s drinking water until the extent and nature of the leaking is determined.

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