Watchdog to probe EPA handling of lead smelter risk
The Environmental Protection Agency’s internal watchdog plans to investigate the agency’s performance in addressing the health risks posed by lead smelters in the wake of a USA TODAY investigation. The action was announced this week as part of the Inspector General’s action plan for 2013.
USA TODAY’s ongoing “Ghost Factories” investigation found the EPA and state regulators had failed to investigate and address risks to thousands of families posed by long-closed lead factory sites across the country.
EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr., whose office is charged with independently auditing and watchdogging the agency’s programs and spending, listed the lead smelter probe as a new review priority in his office’s Fiscal Year 2013 Annual Plan.
In a statement, the IG’s office said USA TODAY’s initial series, published in April, “was reviewed during our planning process.” The scope of the lead smelter review has not been finalized, the office said.
Officials at the Environmental Law Institute, a non-partisan research and training organization based in Washington, applauded the IG’s plan for a lead-smelter probe. “We are confident that the impetus for this investigation is the groundbreaking work by … USA TODAY,” said institute President John Cruden, who previously oversaw environmental enforcement for the U .S. Justice Department.
FULL COVERAGE: Ghost Factories: Poison in the ground
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he’s hopeful the inspector general’s probe will shine further light on the agency’s responsibilities to children, communities and taxpayers.
“For too long, regulators have neglected to fully investigate toxic sites in our communities,” Brown said. “We need to review sites that have not yet been tested and prioritize testing near schools, playgrounds and neighborhoods close to abandoned smelter sites. After the results come in, we need to take action to clean up residual contamination.”
U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health, said the inspector general’s report of its findings will be an important tool for future action. “We must take every action possible to make sure these sites are cleaned up properly, and polluters are held responsible for the cost of cleanup,” said Lautenberg, D-NJ.
Lautenberg and Brown are among seven senators who have called for the EPA to address dangers posed by old factory sites highlighted in USA TODAY’s series.
According to the inspector general’s plan, an investigation of human exposures from lead smelters is assigned to the IG’s land and Superfund program inspectors. The kinds of questions this investigation group seeks to answer, the document says, include: “Is EPA ensuring that requirements are met and guidance is followed in conducting Superfund cleanups? Is EPA recovering the government’s costs to clean up Superfund sites?”
USA TODAY’s investigation has identified failures by the EPA in both of those areas.
In April, the newspaper reported that the EPA was warned in 2001 that the soil around hundreds of long-closed factory sites was probably contaminated with dangerous amounts of lead. Even though the EPA was given a list naming more than 400 potential sites, USA TODAY found that many were never investigated and some received only cursory reviews. At several sites, the EPA and state regulators had tested soil and documented hazardous levels of lead – yet never ordered cleanups or warned families nearby. In other cases, investigators recommended soil tests that were never performed.
USA TODAY reporters investigated all 464 sites on the EPA’s decade-old list, and after the findings were published, the EPA launched a national smelter strategy to re-evaluate all the sites. Several have been targeted for cleanups.
Last month, the newspaper revealed that taxpayers or homeowners often will be stuck with the cleanup costs — rather than the companies that operated the plants — in part because regulators in some cases failed to act in time to hold companies accountable. The newspaper’s complete investigation is online at: ghostfactories.usatoday.com.
EPA smelter program officials declined to grant an interview about the new inspector general probe. In a statement, the agency said it is aware of the inspector general’s plan for 2013 investigations and “looks forward to cooperating fully.”