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Read why a thorough environmental site assessment is needed at the Harrisburg incinerator before the sale.

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Mount Ashmore:
Rugged monument to
bad government

Internationally infamous dirty incinerator
ash field at center of new PA bond deal

The mystery of the ‘missing’ toxic waste
at Harrisburg’s incinerator


Directors of the Harrisburg and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, waste authorities say there are no outstanding environmental issues related to the sale of the Harrisburg incinerator that should be of a concern to anyone.

A few months back, in August 2012, at a county commissioner's meeting in Harrisburg, environmentalist and longtime incinerator opponent Eric Epstein begged to differ.

After all, Epstein told commissioners, outrageous environmental pollution at the facility has concerned a lot of people, over a lot of years.

Where did all the dangerous pollution suddenly go? he asked.

Epstein presented 18-pages of questions to the commissioners, and reminded them of the storied history of record-setting pollution involving deadly and long-lived contaminants at the site.

When will this hazardous waste site be cleaned up? Epstein wanted to know. And who will pay for it?

His questions were met, weeks later in a letter, with stony denial and derision from incinerator officials.

The Harrisburg Authority plans to sell its infamous incinerator to the Lancaster County Solid Waste Managment Autority (LCSWMA) for about $150 million, according to Lancaster Authority minutes.

Officials for both waste authorities say they have reports that confirm there are no serious environmental problems at the site, even though they say they can't release those reports to the public.

They say it's time to move on with the deal. There are big financial stakes involved for both Harrisburg, and Lancaster, they point out. There may have been some problems in the past, but there's no evidence of any environmental problems today, they say.

Epstein and others strongly disagree. There's a mountain of evidence, under, and perhaps even in, everyone's noses, they point out.

The evidence is found in tens of thousands of pages of documents on file with state and federal environmental offices.

Most importantly, should anyone care to properly excavate for it, the evidence is found in a mountain of hazardous waste and ash sitting beside the Harrisburg incinerator.

So why not look into it? Epstein suggests. Where are the studies and reports?

Eric Eptein knows something about that mountain of ash and deceit. He wants the commissioners, the public, and today's environmental regulators to know about it too.

To understand the issue at hand, Epstein tells the commissioners, you have to look back in time, beyond the flat time frame presented by smiling waste management officials, like you would look out a picture window beyond a gussied-up garbage dump, and ask yourself some pretty obvious questions.

Mountain of debt and ash

Many are aware that Harrisburg is buried under a mountain of debt from its long-failed incinerator.

Mt. Ashmore

Truck dwarfed by Mount Ashmore in 1980s

Less known is that Harrisburg is also buried under an infamous mountain of toxic ash, called "Mount Ashmore," a product of the same incinerator.

The piles of toxic ash, like the debt, grew over decades to outlandish proportions.

The mountain of ash in fact is a strange residue of the debt.

Ironically, with its purchase of the incinerator, LCSWMA may ultimately be responsible for cleaning up decades of Harrisburg's neglected toxic ash waste.

LCSWMA and its customers may one day be on the hook for untold tens of millions of dollars or more of environmental clean up costs.

The environmental problems are so severe, and go so far back in time over a 40 year span, no one knows for sure how bad the problem is, or what the costs of cleanup may be.

But reasonable conclusions can be drawn.

The brutal math of ash

At the center of the controversy is a mountain of ash piled some 80 feet high next to the incinerator.

The incinerator and its ash mountain sit together on a hill in south Harrisburg, overlooking a bleak, hard scrapple neighborhood off Cameron Street, on the colonial road to Lancaster, by overnight journey through Middletown.

The grounds are a desolate and dusty place. Garbage and dump trucks perpetually rumble up and down the hill overlooking the river.

The incinerator itself is squat and ugly. A single reddish smokestack projects from its side, like an angry finger.

Built as it was in the early 1970s, Harrisburg's incinerator, by today's standards, was technologically primitive, and dirty.

When the incinerator opened in the 1973, operators needed a convenient place to dump the biggest bi-product of the burn: mountains of ash.

The math is brutal: for every three tons of garbage burned, about a ton of ash is swept, blown or otherwise conveyed from the incinerator.

The plant was licensed to burn 600 tons of trash a day. So you have to put, on a good day, 200 tons of ash somewhere.

There remain today two large ash mounds -- officially called sites A and B -- covering large sections of the 20-acre lot surrounding the incinerator.

This ash presumably goes all the way back to the opening of the plant. Presumably, I say, because no one seems to have a recollection, or records, that the ash mounds were ever cleaned out in any serious fashion. Rather, there are plenty of documents showing the city time and again refused to deal with the ash.

The ash pile called Site A opened with the incinerator in 1973. It was filled beyond its lawful capacity the next year. But the city kept piling more ash on it.

With the first landfill overflowing, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources ordered the city to develop a second landfill pit and pile, Site B, by August 1974.

But city fathers dragged their feet and stalled, and continued to unlawfully dump ash and unprocessed garbage on Site A for years. It took until December 1977 for DER to finally order the city to stop using the first landfill.

All this set a pattern for years of foot dragging, ignoring the law, sloppy regulation, and the unlawful dumping ash and refuse on the lot.

The city received a permit for the second, Site B, landfill in September 1978.

But in 1980 the state attorney general's office filed papers in Commonwealth Court complaining that the city was still depositing incinerator residue in the first landfill, and failed to have the second ash pit ready for use. The court quickly approved a consent decree between DER and the city in which the city agreed to remove excess waste from Site A.

But in 1982 DER cited the city for dumping unburned garbage in the second landfill. In January 1983 the city promised to remove all unburned waste from Site B, but a few weeks later DER caught the city dumping there again.

By this time several mayors had already come and gone.

Steve Reed became Harrisburg's mayor in 1982. Reed saw the troubled incinerator as a way for the cash-strapped city to make money.

But Reed would not only prove to be notably irresponsible with city finances and debt.

He also was irresponsible with the incinerator's toxic ash. Over the years Reed didn't want to acknowledge the growing problem, let alone pay to properly dispose of the ash.

Today, the debt, and the ash, remain as his legacy.

Leachate and incinerine

Incinerators burn dirty fuel: garbage. Different kinds of garbage produce different toxins. Some wastes produce mercury and heavy metals, or even radioactive compounds. Burn plastics and you'll get dioxins and other chemicals.

Mix them all together, let it sit for years, and often you don't know what you get.

In the 19th century, in northern Pennsylvania, waste of unknown origin was routinely poured down mine shafts and caves; today an indefinable goo continues to leak out. Environmental engineers have come to give colorful names to mysterious compound effluents like these: putrescine where things are putrid, and even, around graveyards, cadaverine.

The strange liquid that flows from the bottom of an incinerator ash pile, fed by rains and the incineration process, is called leachate. It leaches, or extracts out, whatever's in the pile. (I prefer the more colorful incinerine.)

Engineers also speak of there being two kinds of ash.

Ground ash is swept from an incinerator's burn chamber. Fly ash adheres to condensed, deadlier toxins as it flies up into the smokestack. Both types of ash must ultimately be disposed.

Part of the problem early on in Reed's 28-year tenure was that the mayor was desperate to burn just about whatever he could get his hands on to stoke the flames to keep the incinerator profits rolling in, to help plug the city's general operating fund.

Despite a few half-hearted attempts to mend it, over the years the incinerator was repeatedly allowed to fall into severe disrepair. So the neglected cash cow burned ever dirtier.

Over the decades the incinerator burned unknown amounts of materials, of unknown composition. Due to changes of law and administrations since 1973, careless or deliberate mishandling, and the city's sale of the incinerator to the Harrisburg Authority in the early 1990s, manifests documenting what was burned either don't seem to exist, or went up in smoke.

These worst practices went on for decades. As a result no one today honestly knows what was burned -- or what residue remains behind in the growing piles of ash on site, or was carried away by ground water, or the wind.

1980s: The rise of Mount Ashmore

What's certain is that things got worse.

Eric Epstein

Environmentalist and government watchdog Eric Epstein at Three Mile Island: Epstein has documented decades of hazardous waste at Harrisburg incinerator site

Eric Epstein helped compile a 4,000+ word web history of violations at the site, culled from environmenta: l inspection files and other records, stretching from 1969 to the incinerator's most recent closing in 2003.

How bad was it? Over the decades, regulators and environmentalists alike agreed, Harrisburg ran the dirtiest incinerator in the country.

In January 1985, for instance, DER issued a permit allowing Harrisburg's incinerator to accept and burn sewage sludge.

But by July 1985, a DER inspector found the city burning the sewage sludge in amounts exceeding permitted levels. Too much shit, literally, was finding its way in to the incinerator, and its residue to the ash.

Records show that state regulators, almost from the start, and for decades, were part of the problem. The DER and, later DEP, cooperated with the city to keep the incinerator running.

When permits were violated, state regulators simply issued new permits, though they knew the city had flagrantly ignored and violated most if not all of the permits they'd issued in the past. Lax environmental inspectors, time and again, decade after decade, for reasons of expediency or folly, looked the other way while the city kept the smoke and ash rising.

All this of course fouled the neighboring environment, and the neighborhood, and perhaps even the neighbors, records also suggest. But the pollution would turn out to be carried much farther than the immediate vicinity. Hints of serious problems began to materialize in the 1980s.

By 1986 neighboring Swatara Township wrote the DER complaining of rats running in and around the supposedly incinerated ash. What were they eating? Not everything, apparently, was burning, and vermin were overrunning the neighborhood.

There were far worse problems than this. But it would take more than a decade to understand what was happening inside the incinerator's belching smokestack.

Soon the second ash pit, Site B, like a volcano stoked by hidden fires, had illegally grown into a monumental sodden and seething heap.

The state environmental permit for this second ash field supposedly allowed the pile to grow to no more than eight feet above immediate ground level. But by 1988, under the state regulators noses, it had somehow grown to a towering 80-foot high mountain monument to careless incineration and regulation, dwarfing dump trucks that rumbled up its side and along its crest.

Someone had finally built a monument to garbage, debt, and ruin.

This toxic mountain monument seemed to magnetically attract rats, ever-growing loads of ash, residue of raw sewage and governmental bullshit, and was in perpetual search of a cleanup sponsor.

It came to be called Mt. Ashmore.

'The reality and economics of the situation'
Percolator turns to time bomb, 1988 to 1990

Runoff from rain and the incineration process, as I say, is called leachate. Think of it like a giant, toxic coffee percolator. The rain washes on top, percolates down, and runs off into the ground water toward the nearby Susquehanna River.

Ash in plant in the 1990s: this photo is from Stop the Burn website. (Click photo or here to enlarge.) Caption reads: 'The very bottom of the plant under the boilers. This shows a combination of bottom ash that somehow fell out of the furnaces, as well as fly ash that fell out of the electrostatic precipitators (the only pollution control equipment that operates at the plant). The ash is swept up periodically and sent to the next door ash pile along with the rest of the ash.' To view more photos and documents from the 1990s visit coalition's archived website here >

A system of drains within the ash field was designed to monitor the contents of the leachate. But quickly Mt. Ashmore had grown much larger and heavier than the design capacity of its leachate monitoring system, and overcame it. Accurate leachate readings early on became impossible.

As a substitute, engineers over the years bored horizontal and vertical holes at varying distances in and around the growing mountain of ash in an attempt to measure the effluents. But that's an inexact science, to say the least.

Following some of these jury-rigged tests in the late 80s, city and state (first DER, then DEP) engineers claimed they'd found acceptably low levels of toxins like heavy metals in the leachate and bore samples.

Critics suspected some of the toxins simply were hidden in pockets of the sprawling mountain, or had already leached out into the neighboring ground water and properties with rain. No one knew for sure. To this day no one bothers to venture a guess.

By April 1988 the DER found excessive emissions from the facility's towering smokestack. About this time, other emissions, including long-lived toxic chemicals like dioxin, were beginning to be detected in unheard-of quantities.

By June 1988 the city was repeatedly cited for failure to close its first ash pit, Site A (that was supposed to have happened ten years earlier); failure to maintain a water-monitoring leachate collection system in Site A; overfilling the second landfill, Site B, Mt. Ashmore, beyond its capacity; "failure to maintain (Mt. Ashmore) in such a manner as to collect the leachate for treatment; and failure to maintain a diversion channel around the site."

In other words, unknown amounts of toxins and hazardous wastes were running all around the site, and escaping into the outside environment.

And ash was falling off the lot.

By August 1988, ash from the bursting landfill fell into private property in multiple incidents in Harrisburg and Steelton.  The City Harrisburg ended up pleading guilty to multiple summary criminal charges filed as a result.

In the middle of all this, on August 17, 1988, the city grudgingly submitted to the DER a closure plan for both ash piles. The city asked regulators to allow the elevations of the ash piles to exceed the originally allowed heights.

"The reality and economics of the situation are such that it will be virtually impossible to remove all the ash from both sites to originally permitted levels," the city told the regulators. That would be a familiar song.

This song would be refrained throughout the ensuing decades by the city, the Harrisburg Authority, and today, in 2013, by the Lancaster Authority. None of these players seem to think Mt. Ashmore should be cleaned up, or needs to be cleaned up.

In 1989, the state environmental office finally ordered the city to stop dumping ash on Mt. Ashmore or face a $500 per day fine.

A June 1989 Harrisburg Patriot-News editorial, titled "Outrageous disregard for citizenry," applauded the state for finally getting tough with Harrisburg's Mt. Ashmore.

The Patriot editorialized the obvious. Mt. Ashmore, it wrote, "is a health hazard waiting to happen." The paper pointed out that Mayor Reed had continued to pile ash on the mountain even while under pressure from the state Department of Environmental Resources to stop.

"There is ... no visible effort on the horizon likely to address the ash problem in the foreseeable future," the Patriot presciently wrote. "Rather, city officials seem to be stalling for time, hoping for an act of God or a buyer to take the incinerator and its ash problems off its hands.

"Indeed, the tornado that dropped down in York and Lancaster counties last week makes us wonder about the public-health disaster waiting to happen if the pile should ever be dispersed in a heavy-wind storm.

"The city, for all the money is has put into the incinerator operations, has permitted it to turn into a financial and environmental time bomb."

Dioxin and toxic waste in 1990:
City fights hazardous waste designation

What's in the ash heap?

In 1990 the DER characterized the city's ash as "hazardous waste" under state law, Epstein's records show.

The term, however obvious, is not just one of semantics, but of expensive legal finding and hard economic reality. Hazardous waste requires expensive remediation and ultimate removal. As opposed to, well, letting it sit there forever, melting or blowing away, or even adding to it, for reasons of governmental expediency.

On October 19, 1990, the Harrisburg city solicitor, Howard Wein, disputed in a letter to the DER the environmental agency's characterization of the ash and the unknown residue in it as "hazardous waste."

To this day, the Harrisburg and Lancaster Authorities and their mutual engineering consultant downplay or ignore any suggestion that the ash mountains are, or contain, expensive hazardous waste, even though no one knows with any certainty what's in them.

Into the 1990s the city's finances only grew worse.

Mayor Reed in to the early 1990s continued to brush aside citizen and environmental complaints.

Instead Reed sold the incinerator to the city's own Harrisburg Authority. He used the resulting bond proceeds not to clean up Mt. Ashmore, or to substantially upgrade the failing incinerator to modern standards, but to plug city deficits, and to finance bizarre pet projects, like the purchase of Wild West artifacts for a non-existent cowboy museum, and to pass out of largesse to political friends, and to help finance court cases involving his growing number of alienated foes.

By the mid-1990s the incinerator was in dire financial and mechanical shape.

As the condition of the facility deteriorated, pollution predictably grew worse.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency throughout the 1990s grappled with the problem of dioxin and other pollutants at Harrisburg's incinerator, and around the nation.

For decades the EPA had been locked in political and scientific fights over the dangers of dioxin. It once declared that dioxin was one of the most potent carcinogens known, but had to back off.

What was known was that dioxin is doggedly biologically persistent. It lodges in the body's fatty tissues, and remains with one for life, till the grave.

But there were regulatory problems. Part of the problem was that, in to the late-90s, the EPA had yet to set a safe standard for dioxin emissions in incinerators. Another problem was that the toughest clean air standards only applied to newly built facilities, and not existing plants like the Harrisburg incinerator.

How bad was the dioxin problem?

By the late-90s the EPA would set a standard for incinerator smoke of 30 nanograms per dry standard cubic meter of air, or 30 ng/dscm.

Smokestack samples of the Harrisburg incinerator's emissions from the 1980s, however, when most of Mt. Ashmore accumulated, alarmingly pointed to dioxin levels of 40,000 to 80,000 ng/dscm.

As improvements were forced on the plant in the 1990s, those levels lessened, but remained alarming, and among the highest in the nation.

In 1994, DEP found 1,157 ng/dscm of dioxin in one of the Harrisburg incinerators burners.

In 1996, inspectors found 7,074 ng/dscm in the second unit.

How bad is that? Buy comparison, DEP reported, the Lancaster Authority's much newer incinerator in 1997 produced no more than .085 ng of dioxin per a normal cubic meter.

In August 1997 the Harrisburg Patriot cited Freedom of Information Act data to report that dioxin levels at the incinerator "measured in 1996 were eight times higher than similar tests in 1994." In 1996 inspectors found 9,000 ng/dscm at the plant, records indicated. And no one was telling the public, the Patriot complained.

"The findings were never publicized by the EPA or the city," the paper reported.

Even so, even back then, there was no hiding from the high numbers, or the long and troubled history of the plant.

"This facility is probably the highest emitter of dioxin in the country that we know of for municipal incinerators," the paper quoted Jim Topsale, a municipal waste combustion expert at the EPA's Region 3 office in Philadelphia.

‘Environmental racism’

The Patriot's 1997 report had an immediate and stunning impact on the neighbors living around the incinerator.

The next day the newspaper reported that poor minority occupants of the public housing projects adjacent to the incinerator were incensed both by the high levels of dioxins spewing from the plant, and that this information had for years been kept secret from them.

"I think that basically, as property owners, we need to find out what the risk factor is," the paper quoted neighbor Sterling Summers as saying. "We need to know whether we need to leave here or whether we should be taking legal action against the incinerator."

"We breathe it every day here," another minority Harrisburger told the paper. "At night, you can see it going up into the sky."

Because the plant was located near Harrisburg's two public housing projects, the city found itself accused of "environmental racism."

Had the plant been built next to one of Harrisburg's affluent neighborhoods, like the tree-lined Bellevue Park, or the shady Italian Lake neighborhood, the troubled plant and Mt. Ashmore with it would have been closed and cleaned up long ago, critics charged.

The local chapter of the NAACP soon demanded the plant close down.

In 1998, the President of the Harrisburg NAACP chapter, Charles Chivis, began protesting the plant and Mayor Reed's plans to help a private company build a medical waste treatment facility near the incinerator, in a predominantly black neighborhood. Treated medical and infectious waste, under the plan, would then be burned in the incinerator.

Charles Chivias

The late Charles Chivis: former president of the Harrisburg NAACP

"There are only two low-income housing units in Harrisburg," Chivis said. "There is already an incinerator near one of the units, and they are proposing (a medical waste facility) for the other."

I personally know something about this sad chapter in the incinerator's history.

In the spring of 1998 I found myself on the Democratic primary ballot for governor. While campaigning at the state capitol I was approached by NAACP President Chivis, who asked for my help, and the help of the state Democratic Party, to scuttle the infectious waste-burning plan, and to close the incinerator.

Chivis was a compact and forthright man of great energy and passion.

Chivis explained to me that he was dying of cancer. He wasn't sure if he may have contracted his disease from the incinerator. He got us all to publicize the ridiculous controversy, and soon the plan to collect and burn infectious waste in Harrisburg was scuttled.

It was then I got a taste of Mayor Reed's vindictiveness. On primary election day, Reed stationed a political operative at my polling place. When I showed up to cast my ballot, Reed's man announced the mayor was challenging my right to vote. Obviously Reed thought I'd played a role in defeating his infectious waste incinerator plan, and was angry.

For the next several years the NAACP's Chivis, fighting cancer, also fought to close the incinerator and clean up the site. He'd protest around town carrying a sign that read, "I'm dying from cancer and I know it. We're killing our children with dioxin, a by-product of our incinerator. We have to stop it."

Charles Chivis ultimately died of cancer on April 9, 2004.

2000: Harrisburg dioxin found in arctic Eskimos

The incinerator's mounting environmental and economic problems only grew worse.

In 2000, Dr. Barry Commoner, a biologist and one of the founders of the modern environmental movement, released a widely read international study describing Harrisburg's incinerator as one of the leading sources of dioxin pollution thousands of miles away in the Canadian arctic.

Dr. Commoner's study found that Harrisburg's incinerator was the source of dioxin that had been mysteriously detected in the flesh of Inuit Eskimos in Canada.

"The Inuit people of Canada live on the far northern tundra and ice, 500 miles from any significant source of pollution, yet studies have shown that somehow they carry in their bodies twice the amount of the pollutant dioxin as Canadians living near areas where it is produced," The New York Times reported on October 17, 2000.

"The study found that of all the dioxin sources, only a handful produced most of the pollutant," the Times reported. "And it was not the ones nearest Nunavut that contributed the most pollution. Instead, weather patterns and other factors were found to be more important than proximity in determining which sources were the regular contributors.

"To model the spread of dioxin, the researchers used government computer programs designed to simulate the spread of radiation in the event of a nuclear accident," the Times explained. "They fed in federal data about each source of dioxin, weather information and details about factors like the chemical reactions that happen to dioxin in the air.

"Then they tracked streams of dioxin, hour by hour, for a year.

"The researchers concluded that only 19 of the 44,000 sources accounted for more than a third of the dioxin in Nunavut."

And of those 19 sources, the study found, the single largest contributor to dioxin pollution in the arctic region, and in the flesh of the Inuits, by far was the long-dirty incinerator in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

"At the 8 sites in Nunavut (land in northern Canada recently turned over to Native Americans) that the study looks at, the Harrisburg incinerator is the #1 source of dioxin pollution at half of them," Harrisburg activists complained. "At the other half, the Harrisburg incinerator is between the 3rd and 7th highest contributors."

These findings, of course, begged the obvious question: if dioxin was getting into the bodies of Inuit Eskimos thousands of miles away, what was it doing to the bodies of those living close to the incinerator in Harrisburg, and to the ground in and around the plant, in the shadow of Mt. Ashmore?

The Times quoted Dan Lispi, Mayor Reed's assistant in charge of the Harrisburg incinerator, downplaying the dangers.

"The study, Mr. Lispi said, 'names names, and is implying that these named facilities are causing health problems from dioxin for the people in the Arctic. That is very misleading.'"

(The Patriot in 1997 ran an article also downplaying the dangers; Dr. Warn Donovan, director of the Central Pennsylvania Poison Center at the Hershey Medical Center, tried to reassure locals by saying, "Dilution is a wonderful thing.")

But environmental regulators by 2000 clearly were under fire to do something.

In November 2000, the EPA's regional administrator wrote the secretary of the state DEP that the federal agency would close Harrisburg's incinerator by the end of the year, and chastised the state agency for years of foot dragging and ineffective regulation of the city.

"As you know," the EPA administrator wrote, "the Harrisburg incinerator was recently identified ... as one of the largest North American sources of dioxins/furans emissions that adversely affect Broughton Island, just north of the Arctic Circle on Baffin Bay. Although one may challenge the validity of the study that concludes the (Harrisburg incinerator) is a significant source of dioxins/furans on Broughton Island, there is no doubt that (the Harrisburg incinerator) is one of, and perhaps, the most significant single source of dioxins/furans in the United States." (Emphasis added.)

The Harrisburg incinerator "must cease operation on or before December 19, 2000," the EPA ordered.

Water, ash, and hubris

By this time the incinerator was engulfed in the cascading retrofit and debt crisis that would eventually spell the end of Mayor Reed's political career, and push the city to the brink of bankruptcy.

The first incinerator retrofit attempt lasting into the mid-2000s would fail when the contractor went broke without a performance bond.

In a last-ditch attempt to fix the plant, the Lancaster Authority's own operator, Covanta, was brought in to fix the project in 2006.

"When the Covanta team arrived at the incinerator," Governing Magazine reported in 2010, "it was shocked by what it found."

"'I don’t want to say I was scared,' says Covanta Vice President Jim Klecko, 'but I had reservations about physically going through the facility.' Streams of water flowed through the facility, amidst piles of ash."

In the same article Governing Magazine ran a flattering, if misleading, interview with an unrepentant former Mayor Reed. Reed told the magazine he had "moved on," even if Mt. Ashmore hadn't.

"'Closed door?' (Reed) says in response to a question about his management style. 'I wouldn’t say closed door. "Autocratic" would be the word. It’s an autocratic style based on a certain level of impatience. I am not one who is fond of, 'let’s have formal committees and study this problem for the next three years and let’s have a hundred people serve on this committee.'"

This ironically would be the same management style exhibited by the head of the Lancaster Waste Authority, Jim Warner, today, as a heedless LCSWMA seeks to finalize the purchase of the incinerator, even as it downplays the long history of environmental problems in and around the plant.

The Lancaster and Harrisburg authorities commissioned engineering studies, but refuse to release them to the public.

Hazardous waste

Longtime foes of the incinerator meanwhile are gearing up for a fight against LCSWMA, and hope to force a permanent clean up of Mt. Ashmore.

Warner and LCSWMA, on the other hand, put forth the interesting proposition that there is no problem. Not only does LCSWMA not plan to clean up Mt. Ashmore, the Lancaster Authority hopes to dump more ash on site. The plan is to tear down the public works building next to the incinerator and dump more ash in a proposed new field the authority wants regulators to approve.

So it was, a few months back, last August 2012, that longtime incinerator documenter Eric Epstein attended the Dauphin County commissioners meeting to ask when these obvious "legacy environmental issues" would be remediated and cleaned up.

Epstein pointed out that the DEP and independent analysts in the late 1980s and early '90s had characterized ash in both pits as holding hazardous waste. But city at the time cited a special exemption allowing its waste to be dumped on Mt. Ashmore. A 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision later invalidated that exemption, Epstein says.

"If it was hazardous waste when they tested it 20 years ago, how's it not hazardous waste now?" Epstein asked.

And just where had all the long-lived dioxin gone? Up in smoke?

Will this 20-acre plot of spoiled land be cleaned up to a brownfield or a greenfield standard? Epstein inquired. And is there a bond in place to help with the cleanup?

Epstein then asked the big question: if the Lancaster Authority buys the incinerator and its grounds, who will be financially responsible for the long-overdue cleanup?

LCSWMA plan for Harrisburg incinerator site: ash fields can be seen at top and bottom of image

The startled Dauphin County commissioners -- who themselves had set the sale price of the incinerator with the Lancaster Authority, and who are also enmeshed in ongoing criminal fraud investigations of the bond swaps connected to it -- passed along Epstein's 18 pages of questions to the Harrisburg Authority.

At the time, a DEP spokesman told the Patriot, "DEP did issue a notice of violation in January 2012 for problems resulting from monitor and pump failures in the leachate detection system. Harrisburg Authority has nearly completed all corrective actions needed to be in compliance; this is the only outstanding issue. Other past violations have been resolved."

On September 25, 2012, Jack Lausch, formerly with the Lancaster Authority, and today the facility director of the Harrisburg incinerator, wrote back to the commissioners to respond to Epstein's 18 pages of questions.

Lausch's strange defense essentially was the past is not important, because none of the current staff of the authorities were around to know what happened back then.

"Preliminarily, please note that the information Mr. Epstein presented is related to the operation of the (Harrisburg incinerator) and Ash Landfill Cells A and B1 during a time (1972-1991) when the City of Harrisburg was either or both owner and operator of the (incinerator) and landfill," Lausch responded.

"The time·frames he noted pre-date the current management of THA (the Harrisburg Authority) - both Board and professional staff. As such, we have no institutional (personal) knowledge with which to provide our response about activities at that time and the information presented below is from sources such as documents and conversations with DEP. However, we can offer the following information in response to your questions....

"'Have these legacy environmental issues identified over 30 years at Pit-A and Pit-B been fully and completely remediated?'"

Lausch responded, "No significant issues have been noted by DEP since 2009 (this is based on personal THA staff knowledge). In 2011 a Groundwater Assessment Plan was commissioned by THA and approved by DEP and subsequently a Groundwater Assessment Report was prepared by ARM Group. It was determined that no remediation was necessary."

Interestingly, minutes of the Lancaster Authority show that the ARM Group was also hired by LCSWMA. But neither authority will release the ARM Group's reports to the public, citing a non-disclosure agreement related to the incinerator's sale.

"'The facility is a de facto hazardous waste site. Who or what is ultimately liable and responsible for maintaining, monitoring and remediating any future cleanup? Does the chain of custody end with City residents or County taxpayers?"

Lausch responded that LCSWMA, and not the Harrisburg Authority, will be on the hook for legacy cleanup costs should the sale go through.

"The new permit holder assumes all liabilities from the date when the original permit was first issued," Lausch wrote. In other words, the Lancaster Authority and its customers will be responsible for all cleanup costs of the mismanaged Harrisburg facility going back to 1972.

That, anyway, is the Harrisburg Authority's position on the matter.

Regulators may have a different take.

Last year, a DEP spokesperson told the Patriot-News, "Should the site be transferred, the new permittee would be responsible for ongoing compliance at the site, including any clean-up needed. However, some of Harrisburg Authority’s liabilities may remain in place." It's environmental strict liability law.

The DEP spokesman went on to tell the Patriot that there is a bond in place for the state to conduct a cleanup should the Lancaster Authority go bankrupt and be unable to live up to its new responsibilities at the Harrisburg site.

Even so, Lausch responded to Epstein in his September 2012 letter, "Testing (by the ARM Group) indicated there is no need for remediation related to (the incinerator) and landfill."

"Is there a bond should LCSWMA go bankrupt and the state has to step in to perform the cleanup?" Epstein asked.

Lausch responded that the Harrisburg Authority currently has a line-of-credit and cash bond in place of only about $2.5 million "for closure of the (landfill.) ... These funds are controlled by DEP... A new owner would have to submit a bond on its own behalf."

Obviously, should it come to that, $2.5 million is an inadequate amount that will obviously be not be anywhere near enough to clean up Mt. Ashmore, or the neighborhood, should it come to that. The lawyers don't even get together for lunch on cases like this for such a pittance.

The two authorities simply hope, and bet, it doesn't come to that.

In a letter of response sent to the Harrisburg Authority last November, Epstein wrote, "Chemicals, elements, household hazardous waste and radionuclides can evade detection and create effluent plumes, migrate offsite, or be obscured by masking... (It) is hard to conceive how (an) entity can unilaterally declare this site exempt from remediation."

But the Lancaster or the Harrisburg authorities won't make the final call on the question. It will be made by the environmental agencies.

This is the hard reality known all too well by top officials at both authorities.

The big, unknown issue with the incinerator's sale to the Lancaster Authority is whether the sale will finally trigger what regulators call an "environmental assessment."

Previous owners were not forced to conduct a comprehensive and formal environmental assessment of the incinerator and its grounds, and the properties beyond.

Harrisburg Authority Chairman Bill Cluck, by profession an environmental attorney, certainly knows this because he himself filed litigation relating to this nettlesome subject in 2002, I'm told.

Other high-stakes questions remain.

If an environmental assessment is triggered on sale, will the Lancaster Authority have to conduct what's called a harms/benefit test? Will there have to be an environmental impact statement?

What's going on now reminds me a lot of the movie Jaws. There were several shark attacks, and the sheriff is concerned. He wants to close the beach. But town fathers come to him and remind him there's lots of money riding on this for the town. Yes, people may have been bitten badly in the past. But that's the past. There may have been a shark yesterday, but he's long gone! He's mysteriously leaked away into the deep wondrous blue water ...

In the end it doesn't matter what the Harrisburg or Lancaster authorities say, or deny, about pollution at the Harrisburg incinerator site.

It does matter what the EPA says.

But for now the agency is silent.

Will the owner of the Harrisburg incinerator, whoever that is, finally one day be forced to pay the piper for of a long-overdue cleanup of Mt. Ashmore? Eric Epstein and other determined watchdogs already seem ready to demand a full cleanup.

Is there dioxin and other incinerator by-products in the neighborhood's soil that also must be addressed?

Those with the Lancaster Authority say they certainly don't think so.

The one hundred million dollar question is whether the regulators at the EPA will agree with them.


-- Bill Keisling
posted May 17, 2013



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