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Critics Say They're in Dark About Superfund Process

June 25, 1989|MIKE WARD | Times Staff Writer

Over the past six years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has paid almost $280,000 to two contractors to provide community relations for its Superfund program to clean up polluted San Gabriel Valley ground water.

But the community relations plan for the program is not finished, project documents that are supposed to be available in local libraries are not in place, and one environmentalist who tried to get some information on the project from the EPA said he was told that he would have to file a request under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

Wil Baca, an engineer who has headed environmental committees of the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn. and is on the Board of Directors of the Santa Monica-based Coalition for Clean Air, said the community relations effort has been invisible to the public. Far from involving the community in the ground-water project, Baca said, the EPA has made it difficult for residents to find out what it is doing.

"The public has been shut out of the Superfund process," Baca said. "They want to keep us dumb."

The EPA has a $402,250 contract with the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District for community relations and technical assistance.

In his quarterly reports to the EPA documenting his district's work on community relations, Robert Berlien, the district's general manager, lists attendance at community meetings, review of EPA documents, conferences with politicians, meetings with EPA officials and interviews with the news media.

At the end of March of this year, the district had received and spent $246,973 under the cooperative agreement. Of that amount, about $63,000 went to an engineering firm to provide EPA with technical assistance, and the remaining $184,000 was spent on community relations.

"I think we've served a purpose in at least giving people a place to get their questions (about the Superfund project) answered, in keeping some contact with local government agencies about what's going on," Berlien said. "I think we've served a good purpose in reviewing EPA plans."

In addition to its $402,250 contract with the district, EPA has budgeted $207,000 for community relations work by CH2M Hill, its major consultant on the San Gabriel Valley project.

The community relations plan is being prepared by CH2M Hill. The staff member who wrote the latest version declined to comment on it, citing her company's policy of referring all matters about work for EPA to that agency. An EPA spokesman said the community relations plan is being reviewed and should be ready for adoption in July.

David Jones, remedial branch chief of the EPA Western region, said CH2M Hill has been paid $95,000 of the $207,000 budgeted for it to develop and implement the plan. Jones stressed that community relations work, such as preparation and distribution of fact sheets, has been done without waiting for the plan to be completed.

The EPA and the state Department of Health Services hired CH2M Hill in 1983 to write a plan dividing community relations tasks between the federal and state agencies. That plan, completed in May, 1984, was outdated nine months later when the state drastically reduced its role in the cleanup. But Neil Ziemba, EPA manager of the San Gabriel Valley project, said the plan was still useful because it outlined the tasks to be performed.

Amy Schwartz, EPA community relations coordinator, said work on revision of the plan began in 1986 but was not completed until this year because other projects had higher priority.

The federal government has spent more than $8.5 million on the San Gabriel Valley ground water project, mostly for studies and engineering reports characterizing the extent of the pollution and analyzing ways to treat contaminated water.

Because the San Gabriel Valley project is run from the EPA Western regional office in San Francisco, the only local access to EPA studies and reports is through files maintained at libraries and water district offices.

The EPA sends information on the San Gabriel Valley project to eight libraries, but ships complete files to only two--in La Puente and Baldwin Park--and to a water resources center at UCLA and to the El Monte office of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District.

Baca said that, on a recent visit to La Puente library, he found only a few documents available. The Baldwin Park library's file also is incomplete. For example, it is missing three of the six fact sheets that the EPA has issued.

The documents include maps of polluted areas, reports on contaminated wells and proposals for water treatment projects.

Baca said that he called Ziemba to request that libraries be restocked with documents, but was told that the agency is reluctant to do so because libraries just throw the material away. Baca said that he then asked for documents to be sent to him personally, but was told that he must file a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

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