Environmental Detectives Track Down Polluters : Superfund: Firms try to reduce their liability for cleanup by finding other culprits. In one case, investigators identified 300 firms with responsibility for contamination.
Call it the Case of the Neglected Dump Tickets.
It occurred several years ago in Ohio, when a group of companies hired Michael Kazmier to help reduce their liability in a Superfund landfill case.
For months, Kazmier and his agents at Orion Management International searched for the cause of the landfill’s contaminated muck, thumbing through hundreds of public documents and interviewing countless people.
Finally, they tracked down a former gatekeeper who, of her own volition, had kept extra copies of dump tickets haulers turned in as they passed into the landfill.
She had hundreds of them stored in grocery bags in an attic, “a mother lode of information,” Kazmier recalled.
From those, the Orion agents identified 300 additional companies that could have been responsible for contamination. That helped distribute cleanup costs, penalties and damages among more parties.
Kazmier is one of a growing number of environmental investigators who specialize in Superfund and hazardous waste cases for business. Others include Kroll Environmental Services and branches of larger private investigation firms such as Pinkerton.
There are 1,191 Superfund sites in the United States, including 44 in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 8, which includes Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Montana, officials said.
Federal law gives the EPA authority to identify companies that may be responsible for toxic waste contamination at Superfund sites. Those companies, called potentially responsible parties (PRP), can be forced to pay cleanup costs averaging $25 million to $30 million per site.
However, the EPA does not always identify every potential offender because of time and money constraints, said EPA civil investigator Greg Phoebe, based in Denver.
“We try to do as complete an investigation as we can. At some point, though, depending on the nature of the site . . . you have to make an enforcement discretion-type decision,” he said.
Phoebe said most private investigators are hired by larger firms that have the resources to conduct independent probes.
Attorney Louis Tosi, whose Columbus, Ohio, firm represents several big-business clients, believes the Superfund law has a built-in disincentive for federal investigators to pursue every PRP.
“From a litigation standpoint, a lawyer who is suing somebody for recovery of money would much rather sue one person than 100,” he said.
“Many times, our companies have been identified because, maybe, they are a big company and they are well known,” said Tosi.
“We know that maybe 80 other companies have used the site. No one remembers who; there are no records.”
That’s when specialty firms like Orion go to work.
From a spacious office on the crest of a pine-covered hill about 30 miles west of Denver, Kazmier manages a network of more than 100 agents nationwide who primarily are retired law enforcement officers.
They glean clues from tedious examinations of public filings, such as planning, zoning and health records, sometimes going back several decades.
They question former employees, site users, truck drivers and even scavengers who may have frequented the site, looking for a scrap of information that may have been overlooked in the Superfund investigation.
They also act as environmental archeologists by reconstructing the history of a site, sometimes reaching back for decades. And they take chemical “fingerprints” of debris to determine what types of companies may have deposited trash there.
Orion’s investigations take anywhere from 30 minutes to more than a year, depending on the complexity of the case, Kazmier said. The cost averages $35,000 to $40,000, but can top $100,000 if the case takes longer than a year.
Kazmier specialized in environmental private investigations after he retired from the FBI eight years ago, naming his company after Orion, the Greek mythological hunter.
He only had one client that first year, but has doubled gross revenues every year since, earning nearly $5 million last year.
“This is a field that is of great concern to the public as well as law enforcement,” he said.
Kazmier declined to discuss specifics of his cases or how much his clients have saved. Clients have included some Fortune 500 firms in industries ranging from transportation and defense to chemical and pharmaceuticals. Often, the client is a committee or an attorney who represents several firms named at one site.
Orion investigator Don Sonney, based in Columbus, Ohio, likes the challenge of a good, complex landfill.
Take the Case of the Slippery Silo Owner.
Sonney was searching for a silo company that had deposited metals in a dump in the early 1900s, but town residents told him the company went out of business in the 1950s and “there was no sense really digging for it,” he said.
Sonney didn’t quit there. He began a background search and found the company had been purchased in the 1940s by a defense contractor that was still in business. That firm could be named as a PRP.