What did they know about the Fresno dump, and when did they know it?
That Watergate-era question lingered over the Interior Department on Tuesday, a day after it was forced to reverse a decision to grant historic landmark status to the toxic Superfund landfill.
Secretary of Interior Gale A. Norton and her immediate subordinates confessed ignorance about the toxic history of the 145-acre site, which was recommended by an expert panel within the agency, Interior Department spokesman Mark Pfeifle said Tuesday. "They didn't have the information," he said.
The Superfund saga of the former Fresno Municipal Sanitary Landfill, however, was no secret to the National Park Service Advisory Board, a 12-member panel that recommended 20 sites to Norton.
In its summary of the nominees, however, the panel apparently omitted mention of the methane, motor oil, solvents and other leaking pollutants that put the Depression-era landfill on the Superfund national priorities list in 1989.
"The Superfund part got lost in the translation of the signing-off process at the Department of Interior," Cindy Wood, a park service spokeswoman, said Tuesday. She called the omission an "honest mistake," not an attempt to bury the contamination history.
Interior Department officials learned about the Superfund status after media inquiries Monday, and quickly pulled the landmark designation pending further inquiry.
"In the end, [the Superfund status] may not matter," Pfeifle said. "But we want to make sure the issue has been fully vetted and that we have consulted with local officials in Fresno and with EPA officials."
Martin Melosi, a University of Houston professor who started the nomination rolling four years ago, found himself defending the dump to a barrage of media Tuesday.
"In the documents, that was all included," he said. "There was no attempt to camouflage the nature of the place. On the contrary, we wanted to show it in its totality."
Melosi, an expert in pollution and technology and author of the book "The Sanitary City," said a colleague at the National Park Service, Robie Lange, was looking for appropriate public works and sanitation projects to nominate. Lange could not be reached for comment.
Melosi, a San Jose native, thought of the Fresno landfill. After all, it was first in the nation to employ trenching and compaction technology at a time when trash was burned or left in open pits.
That method became the prevailing U.S. model for trash disposal, though it also led to many landfills becoming Superfund sites when decades of increasingly toxic trash began leaching into ground water.
After some research, Melosi and Lange nominated the Fresno site. Lange then asked city officials, who were in the final stages of a mandated cleanup of the landfill, to support the nomination.
Mayor Alan Autry complied, sending a letter of support, city spokesman Randy Reed said.
"The Park Service is really the one that led the charge, and we came along for the ride," said Reed, who was fielding calls from national media and listening to live radio broadcasts from the barren heap that once was the town's dump. "It's not that we're trying to run from it, but it's the Park Service that started the whole process."
In some ways, Fresno--the nation's raisin capital--relished the sudden attention drawn to a lavish sports complex it is building at the foot of the drumlin-shaped trash heap, and Reed tried to keep a positive spin on the tempest.
"It's really a great story of trash to treasure," he said.
Eleven of the 12 members of the National Park Service Advisory Board were convinced of Melosi's and Lange's pitch that a landfill was an important landmark in contemporary American culture. Board member Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist for National Geographic, was not.
"It seemed inappropriate," she said Tuesday. "I felt we were lending it a certain dignity that it didn't deserve."
Melosi insists it's not a matter of dignity but history. He noted that plenty of homely sites--an oil well in San Fernando among them--have made the list.
Not only do gritty landmarks pop up on the list of national landmarks, at least five--all of them in 19th century mining towns--lie within or near Superfund sites.
Last year, a mill in Silverton, Colo., earned landmark designation despite being amid a Superfund cleanup site, said Chris Whitacre, a historian for the National Historic Landmarks Program in Denver.
"In the West, so many of the mining towns are in the midst of Superfund sites," Whitacre said.
Butte, Mont., one of the most telling examples of the toxic consequences of mining, got its historic designation long before Superfund existed.
Other historic districts, however, were designated after they were listed in Superfund.
Melosi remained chagrined by the attention to his landmark nomination Tuesday.
"I was disappointed it was withdrawn," he said. "I still think it's historically significant. Sometimes the things we point out are not pretty, but they're part of our history and culture."
Mohan reported from Los Angeles, and Sanders reported from Washington, D.C.