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Cleaning up the EPA

What's scariest about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's inept attempt to clean up the Peak Oil site in Hillsborough - aside from the fact that it did more to add to the pollution than abate it - is the God-like demeanor displayed by the agency. If EPA's own auditors are to be believed, while attempting to clean up one of the worst hazardous waste sites in the country, the agency brushed aside warnings and concerns expressed by local and state environmental officials, repeatedly ignored its own rules for handling hazardous waste, used untested technology that failed to meet EPA's own standards and then tried to keep quiet the audit that so thoroughly blasted its performance.

As a result, the public, which has already spent more than $4-million on the site through EPA, is stuck with a huge mound of contaminated ash - a byproduct of EPA's cleanup efforts. In addition, the worst of the problem, ground-water contamination, has yet to be addressed.

A state environmental official made it clear just how nasty the mess is at a recent meeting of the Hillsborough County Commission, which also serves as the county's Environmental Protection Commission.

Rick Wilkins, head of the hazardous waste program for the state Department of Environmental Regulation, brought a bottle of inky black liquid to the meeting. It came from the ground water at the Peak Oil site in Brandon.

EPA won't even begin attempts to clean the ground water for at least two years.

Bob Jourdan, chief of EPA's emergency response and control section in Atlanta, denies that the agency's bungling and rule-breaking posed any health or environmental threats. Yet in the next breath he admits that, actually, it's hard to be sure. The agency's records on the site are inadequate to make a clear judgment.

Jourdan also explained the EPA's reasoning for keeping the audit quiet. "We didn't bury the report," he told Hillsborough commissioners, "but we thought it was so poor that we didn't go out of our way to give it out."

In other words: Let's not tell the folks in Hillsborough or the public what a poor job we did.

Wilkins, with the state DER, says he's confident EPA officials will learn from the mistakes brought out in the audit. That's hard to believe, considering that EPA first attempted to quash the audit and then, once it was made public in January, denied repeatedly just about every major charge in it. Besides, since when do EPA officials have to learn to abide by their own rules? That should be a given.

U.S. Reps. Sam Gibbons and Mike Bilirakis have asked for congressional and Justice Department investigations into EPA's actions at the Peak Oil site. Both Congress and U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh should heed those requests. And when they do, they should start their investigations with these questions: What did the public get for its $4-million, besides a 7,000-pound pile of highly toxic ash?

And who is responsible?