SACRAMENTO — An Environmental Protection Agency chemist alleges that agency officials suppressed evidence of dioxin and other poisons at wood-treatment waste sites affecting drinking water supplies in the Oroville area and three other rural communities.
The federal agency also softened its regulation of wood preservers in response to industry lobbying and political pressure from several members of Congress, including Dan Quayle, then an Indiana senator and now vice president, according to Cate Jenkins, a chemist at the agency's headquarters who helped draft the new industry rules.
Jenkins has brought those and other charges of criminal violations of environmental laws to the attention of several committee leaders in Congress.
EPA officials denied Jenkins' charges, saying she made them based on inaccurate data and that a review by the U.S. inspector general's office cleared the agency of criminal misconduct.
"We're not covering up anything," said Terry Wilson, a spokesman for the EPA regional office. "We're being successful at working with a company that, at times, has been reluctant. We have made a determination how to clean up the site, and I think that's a major accomplishment."
Details of the allegations were reported in Wednesday editions of the Sacramento Bee.
In investigating drinking water contamination from the Koppers Co. wood-preserving plant in Oroville, Jenkins said EPA officials in San Francisco played down data supplied by the company showing dangerously high levels of pentachlorophenol, or PCP, in one family's well. PCP is an insecticide that is used to treat wood products. It contains dioxin as a manufacturing byproduct and produces dioxin when burned.
The Koppers report on samples taken in 1983 from the well used by Norma Prince and her family was released in March, 1988, about a year after the EPA received it, Jenkins said. John Kemmerer, the EPA official in charge of the Oroville investigation, later declared that the data was actually from a culvert in the Koppers plant yard, not the Princes' yard.
Jenkins said Kemmerer changed his story one day after telling her in April, 1988, that he was "quite definite" about the high level of PCP found in the family's well water. She said Kemmerer had told her the data was insignificant.
William Morris, manager of the Oroville plant, said Kemmerer was right about the high PCP levels being incorrectly assigned to the Prince family well.
EPA spokesman Wilson said Kemmerer told residents at a March, 1988, meeting that assigning the high reading to the Prince well was an error. Wilson said the EPA staff double-checked the Prince well.
"We didn't find anything, and so we determined that this must have been a glitch," he said.
The Princes and other nearby residents were receiving bottled drinking water at Koppers' expense at the time, but Jenkins said residents still were bathing and washing clothes in the PCP-laced water.
Koppers and the EPA have known since at least 1972 that ground water near and below the Koppers plant and Louisiana-Pacific sawmill next door has been contaminated with pentachlorophenol.
The company has been piping clean water to some residents and has proposed treating and removing the polluted water and soil.