Dayton's Toxic Waste : Water Peril: 'Nothing Is Happening'

Times Staff Writer

When local officials gave geologist Ronald G. Schmidt a grant in 1982 to study abandoned landfills on the south side of this fraying manufacturing city, they were hardly braced for his sobering finding: The landfills' toxic wastes had fouled part of a well field supplying some 9 million gallons of water daily to Dayton's suburbs.

But then, Schmidt was not braced for their response, either. "It's been stonewalled so far," he said recently, 2 1/2 years after issuing his report. "Nothing is happening. People have no idea what's going on."

They should. Studies dating back to the 1960s attest that the primary water supply for 600,000 people, an aquifer of waterlogged gravel lying only a few feet beneath city streets, is slowly being poisoned by chemical leaks from several--perhaps scores--of waste dumps and lagoons. So far, neither Dayton leaders nor state and federal authorities have elected to do much about it.

Effort in Shambles

They are not a lot different from anyone else. While national attention has been heaped on the Superfund program to clean up at least 2,000 of the nation's worst abandoned toxic dumps, experts say, a less-noticed effort to control the tens of thousands of remaining waste sites is in virtual shambles.

These sites are in every town in the country: leaking industrial lagoons and landfills; long-forgotten, paved-over factory sites, and abandoned dumps that are known environmental threats but somehow do not merit emergency cleanup money.

Federal and state governments have passed laws, spent millions of dollars and amassed an army of regulators since the mid-1970s to catalogue these sites and clean them up. But after a decade, the national record reads like a thousand Daytons.

"It is a textbook case of the system breaking down," Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said at recent House hearings on the subject.

Officials Share Blame

The blame is shared by the federal officials who oversee toxic-waste programs, the state and local regulators who bear most of the burden of carrying them out and the companies that should obey the laws but all too often do not.

By almost everyone's admission, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has botched enforcement of the landmark 1976 law that was intended to ensure safe operation of the nation's 1,450 commercial and industrial waste landfills and another 5,000 to 6,000 storage sites. In April congressional hearings, for example, EPA officials admitted that they do not know whether the majority of the dumps obey the law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The EPA largely delegates enforcement of that law to state regulators but in California and Nevada alone, the hearings disclosed, only three of 93 regulated dumps had met legal requirements for equipment to detect toxic leaks into ground water. At a Tennessee dump deemed legally safe by regulators, leak-detection equipment was so fouled by toxic creosote wastes that it was not working. And in Ohio, 38 of 52 regulated sites were in violation of the 1976 law.

Federal EPA officials are well aware of such failings, but only rarely do they force their state brethren to toe the legal line. "If you ask me, our entire middle management appears to have a case of weak knees," said Bill Myers, who quit last month as one of EPA's toxic waste experts.

Money to spot and control toxic-waste problems is short at all levels of government and often misspent. The EPA last year identified at least 10 dumps in Charleston, W. Va., some operating and some abandoned, "that pose substantial long-term threats to the environment" but have no real prospects for being cleaned up.

Bureaucratic Limbo

Those 10 dumps--like thousands nationwide--are in virtual bureaucratic limbo. The sites, while hazardous, do not qualify for federal Superfund cleanup aid. Yet the state has no money to pay for cleanups either.

Nor can states afford a toxic-waste bureaucracy like that of the federal EPA. The Assn. of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials estimated in 1984 that the states have only 30% of the manpower they need to enforce federal toxic-waste regulations.

And even those workers are poorly paid and trained. Employees who quit Indiana's short-staffed toxic waste agency receive an average of 36% more pay in outside private jobs, a state survey shows. "We're at least $10,000 behind starting salaries on engineers," a state official said. "Our demand for geologists is growing exponentially. We're trying to hire now for the numbers we needed three years ago."

Firms in Fortune 500

Given that disarray, most owners and operators of waste sites have felt little urgency to obey the law. The proprietors of leaking landfills and lagoons include many of the Fortune 500, from Chevron Inc. in San Francisco to General Electric Corp. in Connecticut. Some have delayed cleanups for years.

"Compliance with toxic-waste laws in this country has collapsed," said William Drayton, a top hazardous-waste official in the EPA during the Administration of President Jimmy Carter.

"The companies are starting to realize the tabs they're running up--and they're balking," said Mike Belliveau, a California toxics activist. "And the regulators are so busy with the big sites that the small guys are just going unattended."

Dayton is full of unattended dumps. In many ways, the city's water problems are a textbook illustration of what government's decade-long war on toxic wastes was supposed to prevent.

Like the half of the nation that drinks and bathes in water from beneath the ground, this city and its suburbs rely for their water on the Miami Valley aquifer, an underground river that snakes beneath the plains of southwestern Ohio toward the Kentucky border.

The Miami aquifer yields more than 100 million gallons of water to Dayton each day, most of it pumped to the surface by powerful wells. Like huge bathtub drains, the electrically driven wells suck water into their pipes from thousands of feet away.

Lately, more than just water has been sucked into the pipes. In Dayton, the aquifer is pitted by 60 operating and abandoned waste dumps, two Superfund cleanup sites and a toxic-waste storage depot. As early as 1973, a local study concluded that toxic leaks were causing "degradation of the ground water" in south Dayton.

'Volatile Organics'

The EPA says 3% of the nation's public well systems contain "volatile organics"--man-made chemicals such as vinyl chloride and trichloroethylene, often linked to cancer--at levels that pose long-range public health worries. Some Dayton wells and tap water exceed the five-parts-per-billion level of EPA concern. A few wells have edged up to 30 parts per billion.

And the three parts of trichloroethylene per billion in a few wells could not be legally pumped in some states, said Dusty Hall, a local environmental chemist. "If you had that water in Florida," he said, "they'd say, 'Uh-uh. Shut it down.' "

Indeed, Dayton has "shut it down" several times. Toxic pollution closed five public wells in central Dayton in 1983 and forced the shutdown of wells serving a north Dayton trailer park and service station in 1984. Geologist Schmidt has publicly urged a cautionary shutdown of a toxics-fouled well field in south Dayton, in suburban Montgomery County.

Chemicals in Grilled Steak

But William Zilli, Dayton's chief water official, insists that the city's water is relatively clean and that any pollutants are diluted by water from "cleaner" wells. Thomas Saygers, chief sanitary engineer for suburban Montgomery County's water system, notes that a grilled steak "contains more chemicals than you'd get from drinking (Dayton's) water in a lifetime."

Other experts have shown somewhat more concern. By and large, their efforts have borne little fruit.

James D. Pennino, a former Ohio Environmental Protection Agency employee in Dayton, warned of a "significant impact" on ground water from toxic dump pollution in a lengthy 1983 memo to his boss, former Ohio EPA Director Robert H. Maynard.

The Ohio EPA "is simply not doing an adequate job of protecting the state's ground waters," Pennino wrote. "I believe the problems with Dayton's well field would not have occurred if the OEPA had shown more concern for ground water quality protection. . . . Local governments may not wish to take the initiative to protect ground water when the state, by its lack of activity in this area, appears to be unconcerned."

Agency Studies Problem

Maynard later told Pennino in a letter that the agency was studying the problem. Despite repeated evidence that Pennino was right, nobody appears to have done much since.

Consider the case of Duriron Inc., a large Dayton-based maker of chemical-plant equipment. In December, 1983, the city closed its Taits Hill public well field after finding unacceptable levels of chemicals in the water and, six months later, Ohio EPA investigators said that Duriron had regularly dumped chemical solvents into an open pit barely 100 feet from the nearest Taits Hill wells.

A lot has happened since then. Duriron's lawyers, for instance, wrote a blistering letter to the Ohio EPA's Dayton office last July, calling the probe a "violation of Duriron's civil rights." A copy of the letter went to EPA Director Maynard, who, coincidentally, was a top attorney with the same law firm before taking the EPA job.

Maynard, now a private lawyer, says he played no "substantive" role in the Duriron case. The law firm says the letter was not meant to intimidate local EPA officials.

Warning on Prosecution

In August and September, Dayton Mayor Paul R. Leonard summoned state and Duriron officials and, according to one EPA participant's account, "asked why we were bothering a Dayton company and Dayton people" and warned against prosecuting the firm. Leonard flatly denies that account, saying he only warned that drawn-out litigation could delay a cleanup of Duriron wastes.

One thing has not happened: The state attorney general's office has not acted in the Duriron case, despite urging from Dayton's EPA office that illegal dumping charges be filed. A spokesman for the attorney general said charges should be filed soon and that any suggestion that politics has dampened interest in the case is "a crock." A Duriron spokesman, denying any illegal acts, said the company is unaware of any pending legal action.

Then there is the matter of two abandoned dumps on the grounds of a General Motors Corp. factory on Dayton's south side. In early 1983, Schmidt and other scientists at Wright State University found metals and volatile organics in ground water near the dumps. Subsequent tests detected volatile organics in the Dryden North well field, one of the county's biggest public water sources, a bare 1,000 feet away.

GM Waste Sites

In a 1983 report, Schmidt urged county officials to halt public consumption of Dryden North well water "until the full scope of present and future contamination there is fully understood." He also recommended that the GM waste sites be cleaned up or blocked from leaking into county water.

Neither recommendation has been followed. Montgomery County has continued to pump water from the Dryden wells directly to household taps. More recent tests of Dryden well water--conducted last year but not yet made public--show "pulses" of organic pollution considerably greater than the levels recorded in 1982, two experts said.

A General Motors spokesman failed to return numerous telephone calls requesting comment. The Ohio EPA said that it has no record of any abandoned landfills at the GM plant. Thomas Winston, director of the Ohio EPA's southwest region, was unaware of the landfills until told of them by a reporter.

Contaminated Sites

The roster of contaminated sites extends far beyond Duriron. In addition:

--About a mile from the Taits Hill wells, high levels of volatile organics and other toxics were found last year beneath the grounds of Ecolotec Inc., a federally regulated toxic waste storage depot.

--Public officials have taken no steps to stem apparent leaching of toxic solvents from the Powell Road landfill on Dayton's north side, although the federal government closed the landfill in 1983, placing it on its Superfund list of dangerous waste sites. But the city has closed seven nearby wells because of the presence of hazardous chemicals.

--And local experts suspect that a county sewage-treatment plant, a second Superfund site in south Dayton, a city incinerator and a host of other waste sites are also leaking contaminants into the ground water and, probably, into Dayton's tap water. So far, however, nobody has performed the studies needed to determine the extent of pollution.

Multimillion-Dollar Study

Nor does it appear likely that anyone will, at least soon. "What we're looking at is a basin-wide effect, and the cost of doing that is beyond our resources," said county engineer Saygers. "You're talking about a multimillion-dollar study."

Actually, local officials are already planning to spend millions of dollars. Faced with growing pollution in the Dryden well field, Montgomery County officials plan to close their public water system and hook into the city of Dayton's supplies. The $33-million project would require the city to drill new well fields for its suburban customers.

The prime site being considered for new city wells abuts the Powell Road Superfund dump--a proposal that gives even Ohio's environmental officials some pause. The Ohio EPA told Saygers last year that it had "misgivings" about locating a major public water supply next to a Superfund dump. For good measure, it warned that a nearby incinerator dump may pose problems, too.

"It'll be a tough task for the city to convince us those wells are safe," said Thomas Winston, director of the Ohio EPA's southwest region.

The water in some other towns along the Miami Valley aquifer, geologist Schmidt says, is even worse. "You've got an aquifer that 3 million people, probably, depend on as a water source," he said. "And we're not doing a damned thing to protect it. I think that five years from now whole communities in this valley will be using distilled, treated water for drinking."

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