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Archive for Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Riverkeeper criticizes state, city efforts to remove contaminated soil

August 14, 2002

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State environmental officials Tuesday said proper procedures were followed in a chain of events that ended with several truckloads of contaminated soil being dumped last week near the Kaw River in North Lawrence.

"It appears the situation was properly handled," said Theresa Hodges, director of the Bureau of Environmental Field Services within the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

But Dave Murphy, Friends of the Kaw riverkeeper, said if last week's incident illustrated the system working, he'd rather not see what happens when it fails.

"I feel like I tested the system, and the system didn't work," Murphy said Tuesday.

Despite contacting state and city officials starting Friday about the situation, city crews started removing the soil only after Murphy got the Journal-World involved.

"There's not a doubt that if the average Joe Citizen had called this in, nothing would have happened," he said. "It shouldn't be that way."

Murphy's concern was the soil posed a threat to the nearby Kaw River. "I wasn't so sure that if I'd have lit a match, it wouldn't have caught fire," he said.

When rain started falling Saturday morning, he was concerned the soil and the contaminants it carried would be washed down the boat ramp into the river, which is one of two sources of fresh water for the city of Lawrence.

KDHE response

But Hodges, referring to a report filed by Daniel Kellerman, a KDHE geologist stationed in Lawrence, said his tests of the soil found not-so-dangerous petroleum concentrations of "plus or minus 50 parts per million."

Because the soil had been dumped near the river, Hodges said Kellerman tried to get the soil removed but could not reach the city workers involved in the project.

The workers' telephone numbers, Hodges said, were unlisted.

"This was not considered an emergency situation in which a hazardous materials team would have been called," she said.

Kellerman renewed his efforts Saturday morning, eventually reaching Paula Phillips, Douglas County's director of emergency management. Phillips, in turn, called City Manager Mike Wildgen, who ordered an immediate cleanup.

"The proper decision was made, and the proper actions were taken," Hodges said.

Murphy says that's not what happened, insisting Kellerman dismissed his pleas to have the site cleaned up Saturday.

The dirt was moved, Murphy said, because of his persistence  not KDHE's.

Murphy also criticized the Lawrence Police Department, noting that after he couldn't get assurances from Kellerman that the site would be cleaned up, he called 911.

Unresponsive police

"The police department let me down completely," Murphy said. "I was told, 'Sir, I don't know what your agenda is, but we are not going to participate.' And then I was told to call KDHE."

Murphy said he asked the officer to send a cleanup crew.

"He wouldn't," Murphy said. "And then I asked him to give the emergency numbers so I could call them myself. He wouldn't do that either."

Exasperated, Murphy went to the Journal-World.

"By that time, it was raining," he said. "I couldn't wait anymore. I didn't want to go to the media with this, but I didn't know what else to do."

A story about the dumping appeared in Sunday's newspaper.

Kellerman declined to comment for this story, referring questions to Hodges.

On Saturday, he told the newspaper he had been monitoring a city of Lawrence project to excavate underground fuel storage tanks at the city's Public Works fuel depot at 11th Street and Haskell Avenue. Soil taken from the tank excavation had been tested and was properly disposed of, he said.

But the soil dumped at the boat ramp was from a new excavation site, and KDHE was not required to test that soil, Hodges said.

Still, Wildgen admitted the dirt shouldn't have been taken to the boat-ramp site in the first place.

Agreeing to disagree

"We should have been more careful," he said.

In retrospect, Wildgen said he wished Murphy had called him.

"As soon as I heard there was a problem, I said, 'Get at it, let's get it cleaned it up,'" Wildgen said. "I wasn't going to wait until Monday."

Murphy said his not calling Wildgen was a "mistake on my part."

But Wildgen wasn't the problem, Murphy said, and neither were the city workers who moved the soil.

"There's not a doubt in my mind that Mike is one of the most environmentally sensitive city managers in the state of Kansas. None of this was done on purpose. I truly believe that," Murphy said.

The problem, he said, lies with a police force that won't enforce the law and a state environmental department that doesn't seem in a hurry to get contamination cleaned up.

Hodges agreed Kellerman should have had the city worker's telephone numbers, but maintained the system worked.

"Even though this was not a hazardous-materials type situation, contacts were made to have the soil moved," she said. "And by Saturday afternoon, it was being moved."

Murphy said he agreed to disagree.

"They're right," he said. "Eventually the right thing was done, and I'm glad of that. But at the same time, I was trying to get a level of responsiveness out of KDHE and out of the Lawrence Police Department that did not exist.

"But we're all tuned up better now, and for that I'm grateful."

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