Arkansas Town Waiting for EPA to Clean Up 'Priority' Waste Sites : Environment: Some residents blame the pollution from the three town dumps for physical ailments. Ten years after an EPA investigation began, cleanup has yet to start.


Don Bailey remembers hunting rabbits as a boy down by the town dump, how the frisky rabbits would jump when you sneaked up and run for half a mile. They made good eating.

He also remembers swimming in nearby Lake Dupree, always curious about the wind-whipped orange foam that lathered its banks.

Bailey is now 39. He is so ill he cannot work and has lost all feeling in one arm. His brother and sister also have strange allergies and ailments the doctors cannot seem to correct.

Today the dump has a chain-link fence around it with a red sign that says: "KEEP OUT. HAZARDOUS WASTE AREA." As for the rabbits, Bailey remembers when their always reliable numbers began to dwindle and you had to walk up and kick one to get it to move.

"I killed one, took it home, cut it open and it was yellow as a lemon inside," he recalls. "It stank."

Jacksonville, a town of 30,000 just north of Little Rock, is the location of three toxic waste sites on the Environmental Protection Agency's "priority" list--Superfund sites.

Thousands of drums containing waste byproducts of now-banned herbicides sit on a covered concrete slab where four chemical companies operated for 40 years.

For more than 10 years, since the EPA first started investigating, some of the town's citizens have been raising a stink of their own. They fear they are being poisoned by dioxin.

Among more than 30,000 cleanup sites across the country--including 1,194 priority sites--three may not seem like many. But these citizens believe that in a town this size it is quite a distinction, though dubious, and 10 years is a long time to wait to get it cleaned up.

"This town is a chemical soup," said Claudette Hazlett, "and I'm angry about it."

Hazlett is Bailey's sister, which would explain her anger, not to mention her own constant headaches and back problems. She is also vice president of a group called People Against a Chemically Contaminated Environment.

On the other hand, Jacksonville boosters say that the town has confronted its problem and is supporting a cleanup, and that notoriety hurts the town's image.

"We are left with a legacy that requires remediation," said state Rep. Mike Wilson. "Fortunately, that contamination is confined to a very small area that affects no one that we can see. There's a lot of sex appeal for the media in dead-baby stories."

Wilson is spokesman for a group called Jacksonville People With Pride.

A third group, Jacksonville People With Pride Cleanup Coalition, was awarded three EPA grants of $50,000 to hire technical advisers to monitor cleanup at all three sites: Reasor-Hill Chemical Corp. and successors Hercules Powder Co., Transvaal Inc. and Vertac Chemical Corp.

That is when the dispute boiled over. Hazlett's group, furious, told the EPA that Hercules was a member of the opposition group, People With Pride. The government, she maintained, would be paying a transgressor to monitor the cleanup.

EPA withdrew the grants.

Wilson acknowledges that Hercules was a member of People With Pride and that People With Pride Cleanup Coalition has many of the same members, but he says Hercules was not one of them.

"Since we had told EPA from the very beginning that Hercules was a contributor to Jacksonville People With Pride and they knew it, I can't understand why they changed their mind," Wilson said. "Now that they have changed their mind, we are going to find out why."

With the grants up for grabs, enter a fourth group: the Jacksonville Environmental Network, which encompasses Hazlett's group and others who are angry. That group has applied for the grants and has vowed to oppose any attempt by the coalition group to try again for the money by "sanitizing" its membership.

At least, Hazlett said, the EPA's withdrawal of the grants should inspire people nationwide to fight regulatory decisions.

The president of the coalition, Ruby Brown, said the group did indeed intend to use the technical advisers to play down publicity about the contamination, but Wilson said that is not so.

"We have got a proven record," Wilson said. "The big picture in all this is not whether we or someone else receives a grant. The purpose of the grant is to educate and inform, and we are doing that anyway. The big picture is solving the problem, and that is cleaning up this chemical contamination."

Meanwhile, those barrels of toxic waste remain.

MRK, an incineration firm in Zachary, La., received a contract in July to do a trial burn next March at the 93-acre Vertac site. If tests go well, it could start incinerating 2.5 million tons an hour a month later, Richard Merritt of the Arkansas Department of Pollution Control and Ecology said.

Vertac, which began as a World War II ordnance plant, produced the herbicide known as Agent Orange. To incinerate about 28,000 barrels of the ingredients of that herbicide would take about six months, Merrill estimates. If the EPA judges the ash to be non-hazardous, it will be put in drums and buried in a landfill.

Wilson says there is no medical evidence to link the chemicals and the illnesses, which Hazlett concedes--for now.

Even if the chemicals are burned and buried, she said, it will not slow her crusade. She said her group plans to make a door-to-door health survey to document community illnesses.

She has her own, and her brother, Don Bailey, has his, and Bailey said he had a friend who worked at Vertac and died of cancer. Bailey said his friend told him that the company sent home a letter telling his family to wash his clothes separately.

But Bailey, a slight, bearded man with a useless arm, hands that tremble, asthma, allergies and chronic headaches, said no one ever warned him about swimming in the lake with the orange foam or about eating the rabbits and the fish he brought home for the family table.

"They were doing this to people and they knew about it and they didn't tell the people about it," he said.

But when he opened up a rabbit and it stank, didn't he suspect?

"It didn't dawn on people what was what," he said. After all, those companies provided good jobs for good pay.

The only other big employer in Jacksonville is an Air Force base.

Only retribution against the polluters, it seems, will satisfy Hazlett.

"Don's life is ruined," she said. "His future is gone. And a multibillion-dollar industry is reaping the profits at the expense of somebody like this.

"I think it's time our government officials stood up and took a stand and said: 'That's enough.' "

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