A Dirty Shame

On April 7, 1987, a hooded man was led into a chamber in the United States Capitol. Great care had been taken to conceal his identity; in addition to the hood, screens shielded him from the eight assembled U.S. representatives, their staffers and the media. The man was flanked by federal marshals. He was identified only as John Doe.

For days the House Subcommittee on Governmental Operations had been burdened with dry, dull testimony on toxic-waste disposal, particularly the handling of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. But John Doe had a dramatic story to tell.

It was a story of law-breaking and the Mafia. It was a story detailing a series of government screwups. And, although no one at the time could possibly have guessed, it was a story that more than a decade later would wind up with a very unhappy ending for some Colorado towns.

In 1984, the man testified, he had started working for a two-year-old Kansas City company called PCB, Inc. The business was one of several in Missouri recently licensed to dispose of toxic chemicals, specifically PCBs, by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. In the early Seventies scientists had concluded that PCBs were dangerous to people, and later research was showing that without the proper treatment, the chemicals could accumulate in the environment. So in 1981 Congress had approved very explicit rules governing the disposal of these toxic wastes.

But after only a year of operation, the mystery man continued, PCB, Inc. found itself falling behind on the job. It had collected far more PCB-contaminated equipment than it could handle at its Kansas City site, and tons more of the stuff was coming in every day. John Doe's bosses panicked and instructed him to get rid of it--illegally, if necessary. Dump the stuff, the managers told him, "where it couldn't be found."

Which John Doe did, he confessed. Most of the PCBs arriving at the Kansas City facility were encased inside old transformers and other electricity-generating equipment. Working with fellow PCB, Inc. employees, he began tossing the contaminated equipment into nearby rivers--the Missouri, for one--and recreational lakes. The dumping continued every night for six months. He told the committee that he was rewarded for his off-the-books work with cash bonuses, which he took to be money PCB, Inc. had saved by not paying to dispose of the chemicals properly.

John Doe's story was never completely verified, and the government tried hard to portray him as a liar. Three weeks after his extraordinary appearance in front of the congressmen, he was charged with making false statements. Yet after six months of prosecutorial effort, a U.S. District Court jury took less than two and a half hours to clear him. "It was possible that he did [dump the PCBs]," the foreman said, "and every one of us would like to know for sure whether he did."

True or false, the man's testimony touched an open nerve at the EPA. Even before John Doe spilled his secrets, there was evidence that the EPA's regional office that had been charged with overseeing the disposal of PCBs in the Kansas City area had fumbled the job.

Previous government investigations had revealed that the EPA's Region 7 office had failed to uncover serious disposal problems, such as those at PCB, Inc. And when the EPA eventually did find the violations, it rarely did anything about them until it was far too late.

Later, federal law enforcement officers would reveal that officers of PCB, Inc. and other Kansas City-area PCB-disposal companies were linked to Buffalo and Kansas City mob families, which in turn were involved in narcotics, prostitution, pornography, loan-sharking, arson and extortion--links that the EPA was aware of yet did nothing about.

But like many government investigations that begin vigorously and with the best intentions, the congressmen soon lost interest in the Kansas City PCB scandals. While the EPA worked on cleaning up some of the sites, the old PCB, Inc. facility remained largely forgotten until three months ago. That's when two dozen towns, electrical cooperatives and companies across Colorado began receiving letters from the EPA informing them that they would have to help pay the tens of millions of dollars it would take to clean up the vast, toxics-laced site of the now-defunct company.

"It's going to be a mess before it's over," predicts Darrell Davis, utilities manager for the tiny central Colorado town of Center. "We'll get stuck for more money. If I get by with less than $20,000, I'll be surprised. We've already paid our dues, and now we're going to have to pay again."

To those who must dispose of toxic wastes--power companies, municipalities, the military--the laws enacted over the past two decades directing how disposal sites gone wrong must be made right are like a trail of gasoline: You never know when it will ignite, flash back and blow up in your face. Collectively, these laws are known as the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer