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Trouble in the air monitoring agency;
May 4, 1997
Margaret Newkirk, Dennis Willard, Bob Downing
For 17 years, residents have been fighting to first stop, then shut down the town's most controversial employer: the $160 million hazardous waste incinerator run by Waste Technologies Industries.
They've jumped fences and gone to jail, held rallies and blocked streets, drawing environmentalists and media from across the country to the Ohio River Valley.
The protests, including one in which actor Martin Sheen and 36 others were jailed in 1991, turned WTI into a national symbol for environmental issues.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. EPA told East Liverpool the incinerator would be safe. So in 1993, WTI fired up for business, 400 feet from the nearest home and 1,100 feet from an elementary school.
Now, nearly four years after the rest of the country stopped paying attention, East Liverpool may have a new cause for worry.
On March 25, state Auditor James Petro released a special audit of the agency responsible for monitoring air quality around WTI.
The audit confirmed what the Ohio EPA has known to some degree for years: The North Ohio Valley Air Authority, or NOVAA, has been running amok.
That audit, along with interviews and a review of state documents revealed that:
"How can we trust anything that's been told to us over the years?" asked Terri Swearingen, a longtime incinerator opponent.
Richard Canestraro, who replaced DeLuca as NOVAA director in July 1995, said Friday he has taken steps outlined in the audit to address long-term problems at the agency.
WTI spokesman Raymond Wayne said Friday the problems with the air monitoring agency in no way reflect on the company's environmental record. "On the environmental side, we have a high degree of confidence that the monitoring is among the best in the country," he said.
The audit appears to be the first of a series of investigations into NOVAA, DeLuca and Vincent Zumpano, a former air filter changer at the agency. Zumpano is in jail after being convicted of trying to bribe a Jefferson County commissioner on behalf of Paul Voinovich, Gov. George Voinovich's brother.
William Reed, a lawyer for DeLuca and Zumpano, confirmed that he has been contacted by federal investigators. He said neither DeLuca nor Zumpano would be available for comment.
For East Liverpool, there's a larger question: After all the studies and all the reassurances, who was watching WTI?
"It scares me," said Sandi Estell, whose back yard sits almost eye-level with the top of the WTI incinerator stack. "We're not given any honest place to turn to for information, with my family living so close to this plant."
FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE
NOVAA is East Liverpool's first line of defense against polluters, the Ohio EPA's official watchdog in Belmont, Carroll, Columbiana, Harrison, Jefferson and Monroe counties.
It's responsible for issuing air permits, reporting violations and beginning enforcement on behalf of the state under an annual contract that the Ohio EPA has renewed for the last 25 years.
The audit does not say the WTI incinerator, which burns dangerous chemicals such as petroleum products and paints from sources in several states, released any pollutants beyond acceptable levels. It does suggest, however, that an agency with hands-on responsibility for collecting data about those pollutants was, at best, untrustworthy.
NOVAA is not the only source of pollution data about WTI, though it is the only source of information on many other industries along the Ohio River. Both the Ohio EPA and U.S. EPA can obtain WTI data from monitors in the incinerator's smokestack.
But those monitors measure only for some potential poisons. Among other pollutants, NOVAA is responsible for measuring dioxin, identified in an ongoing U.S. EPA risk assessment for East Liverpool as "the most important factor in calculating potential risk at this facility."
REPORT SOON TO BE RELEASED
The U.S. EPA used NOVAA-generated data on dioxin in preparing its long-delayed final risk assessment for WTI. After four years, the eight-volume, 3,800-page report will be released Thursday in East Liverpool.
The report is the last step before the WTI incinerator gets its final operating permit.
Dioxin was identified for the first time as a human carcinogen last year. Even low levels can cause reproductive and hormonal problems and may be a greater threat than cancer. There is also increasing evidence that it interferes with fetal development, according to Linda Birnbaum, director of experimental toxicology for the U.S. EPA's research lab in Triangle Park, N.C.
Data collected by WTI and NOVAA indicate the incinerator's dioxin levels have been well below danger levels over the years.
But in a recent letter to citizen activists, the U.S. EPA does not say categorically that it trusts the WTI pollution data it has received.
"We will evaluate the final outcome of the state investigation when it is released," the U.S. EPA said. "And at that time, (we) will determine whether the outcome has any impact on the results of environmental sampling or testing by NOVAA."
Ohio EPA Director Donald Schregardus, through a spokeswoman, said he did not know enough about the NOVAA audit to comment. He referred comments to Robert Hodanbosi, chief of the EPA's air pollution division.
SYSTEM HAS SAFEGUARDS
Hodanbosi said the audit should not raise questions about the monitoring system itself, because the system has safeguards and because the audit does not address technical issues.
But he also said the state would decide within the next two weeks whether to yank NOVAA's contract.
Along with dioxins, NOVAA monitors particulates and heavy metals like lead through sporadic stack tests and a network of air monitors.
The monitors are like high-powered vacuum cleaners, pulling air through filters that are weighed and analyzed to see what's left behind.
The continuous monitoring is "the best that technology can do right now," said Rick Sahli, former No. 2 man in the Ohio EPA and now an environmental attorney. "But it needs to be backed up with an adequate and effective ambient air program."
That monitoring "requires a very high level of expertise," Sahli said. "I'm not sure the state EPA or even parts of the federal EPA has that expertise."
"I don't even want to think about it," Sahli said. "NOVAA has always worried me."
Files at the Ohio EPA document years of fighting between the state agency and its local representative in Steubenville, painting a clear picture of a public office, with critical public responsibilities, that was out of control.
HIRES CRONIES AND KIN
In the early 1990s, the state EPA sent an inspector from its Southeast District office to try to clean up NOVAA. The state repeatedly urged DeLuca to hire qualified people instead of cronies and relatives.
"There were a lot of problems with them," said Pat Walling Miller, a former air division chief for the Ohio EPA and now a professor at the University of Michigan. "There were problems with monitoring, with conflicts of interest. We were actually doing surveillance.
"That was an area that really needed a strong local air agency, not a problem one. It disturbed me greatly."
A confidential 1992 memo from an EPA staffer to former Ohio EPA Legal Director Grant Wilkinson warned that DeLuca might have conflicts of interest with the industries he was supposed to regulate and that NOVAA inspectors were baffled when they recorded the high carbon monoxide levels.
Fred Klingelhafer, an inspector with the Ohio EPA's Southwest District office, checked NOVAA's equipment and found the device was turned the wrong way. The turned equipment "was really obvious," Miller said.
Properly calibrated, the monitors identified Wheeling-Pittsburgh, a local steel company, as the source of the carbon monoxide.
"The carbon monoxide violation was basically untouched until the Southeast District office 'assisted' NOVAA in analyzing the problem," the memo said.
The memo also said NOVAA provided "inconsistent information on inspections," and that only one member of its staff, Harold Strohmeyer, was hired based on anything resembling qualifications.
Of particular concern, according to the memo, was the 1991 hiring of Zumpano.
"NOVAA's most recent hire, Vince Zumpano, has an electronic technology background and 15 years' experience as a service manager for the Tri-State electric and machine company."
That same year, an Ohio EPA performance report said NOVAA didn't follow through on enforcement against polluters.
"For example, the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel enforcement action needed Ohio EPA's direct involvement to prepare the enforcement action requisition which NOVAA was contractually obligated to file on its own.
"Substantial violations have occurred for a long period of time, the report said.
Klingelhafer, the inspector assigned to watch NOVAA, was relieved of that duty in 1992.
"I'd like to think it was because I accomplished what I set out to accomplish," Klingelhafer said. "I'd like to think I made progress. I was pretty much told to get back into the Southeast District. The oversight was done out of the Columbus office after that."
It appears from state documents and Petro's audit, however, that NOVAA's problems extend beyond lax monitoring and the hiring of poorly trained political cronies.
$500 A MONTH PER CAR
Take the Crown Victorias.
NOVAA leased four Crown Victorias for $500 a month each at EPA expense. In 1991, the EPA cracked down, saying NOVAA could spend only half that much and that public air inspectors driving luxury cars was bad public relations.
No problem, DeLuca said. He kept the Crown Victorias and said he would charge another source of NOVAA funding for the half of the cost the EPA wouldn't pick up.
The Ohio EPA's response: What other source of funding?
It turned out NOVAA employees were getting a second paycheck, funded by fees levied against local polluters by NOVAA. The Clean Air Fund supposedly paid NOVAA inspectors to monitor beyond their EPA duties.
Petro's audit found a third shadow payroll that the Ohio EPA knew nothing about, though the U.S. EPA did.
NOVAA, the East Liverpool Board of Health and Von Roll, the main owner of WTI, established the Trilateral Environmental Monitoring Committee. The three collected soil, air and food samples in East Liverpool and sent them to the U.S. EPA. There, the samples were tested for dioxins as part of the risk assessment study.
The health board dropped out of the group, to be replaced by a citizens group organized by WTI.
ALL JOIN NEW PAYROLL
Von Roll paid $56,000 in 1995 and $72,000 this year for NOVAA to gather the samples. All 12 NOVAA employees, including DeLuca's secretary, signed onto the new payroll in late 1994. Most received between $2,000 and $4,000 a year from WTI.
Neither WTI spokesman Wayne nor Michael Parkes, public relations director for WTI, said they knew of any direct contract between the company and individual NOVAA employees, but records show Parkes' signature on contracts for four employees, including DeLuca and Zumpano, from September 1994. By 1995, the pay of four employees, including DeLuca and Zumpano, had increased to $7,500, records show.
The arrangement raises a number of questions, including whether NOVAA inspectors could be objective in monitoring companies that were paying them.
"You might look at it and say it's inappropriate because it's an industry they're regulating," the Ohio EPA's Hodanbosi said of the arrangement.
Hodanbosi repeated that the Ohio EPA had no knowledge of the arrangement. But he said the agency didn't think it was improper to have industries like WTI rather than taxpayers pick up some of the monitoring costs.
Incinerator opponents think the whole thing is suspect, including any data NOVAA produced while on the WTI payroll.
"How can it reasonably be concluded that it's fair when they're doing the monitoring for people who are supplementing their paychecks?" asked Dick Wolf, an East Liverpool resident who has been fighting WTI for year.
DELUCA PUTS THEM TO WORK NOVAA
Employees also had a fourth job the Ohio EPA didn't know about, though they did it without pay.
According to the audit, DeLuca routinely required NOVAAs air inspectors and technicians to work during NOVAA hours at his own entertainment complex, banquet hall and party barn.
NOVAA inspectors tended bar, put up tables, cooked, anything that was needed, according to their testimony to Petro's investigators.
They got no pay, and told investigators they had no choice but to comply.
"My pay was peace of mind," one air inspector said, explaining that DeLuca made life miserable for any staffer who balked.
Petro has referred the finding to Jefferson County authorities for prosecution.
DeLuca also received a $118,000 early retirement incentive package in 1994, then was rehired as the agency's director a week later, according to the audit. Board members say they knew nothing about his retirement or subsequent rehiring, but DeLuca's lawyer said the board did know.
NOVAA director Canestraro, head of the Jefferson County Democratic Party and a former NOVAA board member, took over when DeLuca retired for good in July 1995. The board allowed Canestraro some unusual purchases, too -- for one, a remote starter for his NOVAA car.
He said he bought the equipment because he had received a threatening letter and was afraid of a car bomb. "I didn't want to take a chance," he said. Over the years, largely through heated negotiations over NOVAA's annual contract, Ohio EPA staff solved some of the agency's problems, documents show.
The EPA got NOVAA out of Crown Victorias and into Ford Tauruses, for instance, and got some of the employees training.
What the EPA never did was yank the NOVAA contract.
Hodanbosi said the EPA did not know the extent of the problems at NOVAA until the audit and might have reacted differently if it had.
"That's a big decision to make, not to contract with a local air agency you've been contracting with for 25 years, he said. "We'd have to have a very good reason in order to do that.
"Now that we have this auditors' report, we are looking at it, as you are. And we are internally trying to decide what options are available to us and what our next step is with that agency."