Longform

A Dirty Shame

Page 5 of 6

Also doing business with PCB, Inc. were the Delta-Montrose Electric Association, the Fort Morgan Electric Department, the Fleming (population 388) Electric Light Department, the city of Loveland, Yampa Valley Electric, the Holy Cross Electric Association of Glenwood Springs, and Moonlake Electric, of Rangely.

Wray (population 2,100) sent ten capacitors and three electric switches, a total of 740 pounds, in 1983. In 1984, the city received its own Certificate of Destruction from PCB, Inc. "It looks to me like the city did everything it possibly could," says Doug Sanderson, assistant city manager. Nevertheless, the city may wind up paying for PCB, Inc.'s cleanup.

Worse, for some cities, this isn't the first time they'd been dunned a second time. Holyoke's Highline Electric, for example, paid $55,000 to ship a batch of toxic capacitors to Rose Chemicals, and then, eight years later, another $60,000 to clean up the Rose facility. Y-W Electric paid $15,000 to cover its Rose connection in 1987. "And now what it's going to cost us to get out of this PCB, Inc. thing, I don't know," says manager Terry Hall.

When Congress passed the CERCLA laws in 1980, its intent was to find somebody--anybody--to cover the astronomical costs of cleaning up waste sites across the country. Part of the strategy was to force everyone who had anything to do with the contamination to work together on a remedy. As a result, the parties that may be held responsible for the PCB, Inc. tab range all the way from the current owners of the site back to the original generators of the waste--including small towns in Colorado.

"You're equally liable if you mismanaged your waste as you are if you managed it properly," complains Russ Selman, a Chicago attorney who worked for the EPA enforcing the laws before striking out on his own to represent the other side, a clientele that currently includes several former customers of PCB, Inc. "The law is like a drive-by shooting; you may get who you intended to get and all the innocent bystanders."

During its short shelf life, PCB, Inc. collected more than thirty million pounds of contaminated material, much of it from the military. Although the company made a token effort early on to clean up the two buildings and concrete flooring it left behind, the work fell far short of what was needed.

"Unfortunately, PCB, Inc. wasn't real careful about disposing of these things," says Belinda Holmes, an attorney for EPA's Region 7 in Kansas City. Although federal laws passed in 1989--inspired by the Kansas City disasters--require companies to set aside money for potential cleanup costs, PCB, Inc. left behind virtually nothing. The more than $4 million in fines that the EPA had levied against the company, Holmes says, "was uncollectable."

In 1995 the PCB, Inc. property was declared a Superfund site.
With Van Gundy dead and his business defunct, this past January the EPA finally decided to dun the companies that transported the waste to the PCB, Inc. site, along with the entities that hired those transport companies. In Colorado, that means two dozen towns, co-ops and companies that thought they'd cleaned out their PCBs a decade and a half ago--and paid for the job--now await another, perhaps larger bill.

"We just get caught in the middle," says Center's Darrell Davis. "It's frustrating as hell."

Last week, a committee of towns and companies on the hook for the PCB, Inc. cleanup calculated it would cost anywhere from $35 million to $40 million to get the job done--and they'll be picking up most of the bill. Van Gundy's widow is still alive but unlikely to contribute to the cause. "We'll send her a bill, but I don't think we'll collect," says Dick Sternberg of the Washington, D.C.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents co-ops that sent PCBs to the company.

Still, what angers most Coloradans on the hook for the cleanup is that one of the main parties at fault is off the hook entirely. "EPA was the one that fouled it up," says Tom Johnson, manager of Highline Electric. "And we're the ones that have to pay for it."

"I'm so mad at the EPA, and I have so little respect for Region 7," adds Sternberg. "Of course, they're guilty as sin as far as I'm concerned."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer