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Archive for Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Cleanup needed

August 14, 2002

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City and state officials need to clean up their act when it comes to dealing with hazardous materials and citizen complaints.

Lawrence city officials showed their commitment to the environment last weekend by ordering a quick cleanup of petroleum-laced soil that had been dumped next to the Kansas River.

Quick response to a problem is good. Prevention is better.

On Saturday, the Journal-World was told about the presence next to the Kansas River of about 15 dump truck loads of dirt that were emitting fumes so toxic they made an environmental watchdog afraid to light a match. Dave Murphy, the riverkeeper employed by the Friends of the Kaw organization, had been alerted by a citizen to the soil that had been transported from the excavation site for new fuel storage tanks at the city's Public Works fueling station to a location near a North Lawrence boat ramp.

Alarmed by the gasoline and diesel fuel fumes being emitted by the dirt and Saturday's forecast for rain that would wash the polluted soil into the river, Murphy got on the telephone. He called Daniel Kellerman, district geologist for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, who already was familiar with the excavation. In fact, Kellerman already had tested the soil on Friday after receiving a complaint from a citizen and agreed that it was contaminated. However, he had decided the removal of the soil could wait until Monday and refused to change his decision based on Murphy's plea.

City Manager Mike Wildgen disagreed. When he finally was contacted about the problem, Wildgen ordered the cleanup to start immediately. It no doubt was a costly move to call city crews out on a weekend, but Wildgen quickly acknowledged that a mistake had been made and must be remedied.

There are several places where this problem might have been averted. If city workers and supervisors aren't fully versed in the proper way to handle potentially hazardous materials, they certainly should be given some remedial instruction and told to err on the side of caution in the future.

At least some of the responsibility also seems to fall on Kellerman, the KDHE employee assigned to monitor the project. Although Kellerman acknowledged that workers' noses could become desensitized while working on a project to the point that they can't detect a petroleum smell, he didn't employ a more objective measurement until he received a citizen complaint. It seems that soil testing would be standard operating procedure on such a project.

And although Kellerman acknowledged Saturday the soil was contaminated and that dumping it by the river was a violation of state law, he deemed it unnecessary to act immediately to reduce the environmental threat. The state laws regulating this sort of thing aren't in place simply so violators can be fined; they are intended to prevent and remedy environmental hazards. That should have been Kellerman's priority.

Kellerman did notify the county's emergency preparedness director, who notified Wildgen of the problem, but it seemed a threat to the fragile Kaw and an expensive weekend cleanup operation might both have been avoided if the state agency charged with overseeing such projects had done its job properly.

Another flaw was revealed by Murphy's call to 911, where a dispatcher dismissed his complaint and refused to refer him to someone who could address his concern. Hopefully police dispatchers have received new instructions about how to handle such complaints.

It's good that the hazard was acknowledged and remedied in a timely fashion, but the procedure for monitoring excavation projects and responding to potential hazards clearly needs further attention by city and state officials.

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