Sunday, November 7, 2010

 

How many officials does it take?
Reporter examines how civil authorities failed to handle a toxic hazard
By Michael V. Hannigan
Monitor Staff Writer

MALAKOFF–Government at all levels dropped the ball in Malakoff.
According to records, officials at the city, county, state and federal level knew about a building that housed a hazardous waste dump in Malakoff long before any action was taken – even though there was evidence that children were playing there.
The site – the location of a defunct metal plating business – was cleaned up in late 2009 after Malakoff Fire Marshal Garris Strange condemned the building and declared it to be “immediately dangerous to life and health” in that April.
The building was located on West Mitchum Street, between Brookshire’s and City Hall.
According to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) memo, there are 103 residents within one-quarter mile, 399 residents within one-half mile and 769 residents within one mile of the site. The memo also points out that the Malakoff Elementary School campus is within one mile.
Contractors eventually removed 38,000 gallons of hazardous liquids and 48,000 pounds of solid hazardous materials from the site, according to an EPA official.
Inspections at the site as early as 2002 discovered arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cyanide and lead present inside the building and in the soil, according to state reports.
There is no evidence, however, the public was ever warned before 2009.
Administrative record files for the cleanup were released in July of this year and listed Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) inspections in 1997, 2002, 2003 and 2008.
A story in The Monitor at the time of the records release detailed state and federal actions at the site.
Those records reflect a pattern of changing ownership (five owners from 1994 to present), violations and fines – but no cleanup or public warning.
As early as 2002, reports note the building had a hole in the roof; a cracked foundation, and liquids ran from the vats and out of the building during storms.
Thirteen months before the building was condemned, TCEQ and EPA officials conducted an inspection in March 2008 and reported sixty 55-gallon drums and 15 open vats of unknown chemicals.
The report from that visit said: “The exterior of the … building showed signs of heavy deterioration with open drainage pathways allowing for off-site migration of contaminants. Stained soils were visible around the perimeter of the building. During the course of the investigation, EPA observed vehicle and pedestrian traffic, including small children in the shopping center and roads adjacent to the facility.”
The report also says: “Proximity of the site to residential and commercial areas may constitute a hazard to the public. Poor site conditions may result in off-site impacts by hazardous materials present on site. Lack of security and ease of access to the site may present a hazard. Local merchants reported seeing children entering the building.”
The Monitor contacted the TCEQ and requested an explanation for the delay in action at the site through the agency’s press office. After three months and pressure from State Rep. Betty Brown’s office at the request of the newspaper, the TCEQ released the following answer from Media Relations Manager Terry L. Clawson:
“The TCEQ pursued the actual site owners from the time of site discovery; however, site ownership changed multiple times during this period.
“Intentional or not, the changes in ownership stymied efforts at issuing and enforcing fines and penalties assessed as violations mounted. Investigations by TCEQ Regional staff found that each owner failed to comply with cleanup orders.
“Finally, the TCEQ transferred the site to the State Superfund program, which then referred the site to the EPA to complete a removal action.”
Clawson also provided a time line of action at the site, which shows the City of Malakoff knew about the hazardous waste dump from at least 2006, and that Henderson County government seized the building for back taxes and held the property for 10 months in 2005-06.
According Clawson’s time line, a $15,500 penalty was assessed in the case in October, 2006, three months after Henderson County sold the property at a sheriff’s auction.
Two weeks after that, the TCEQ conducted another inspection of the site, this time with then-Malakoff utility director and co-city administrator Glen Herriage.
Herriage this week confirmed he was involved in that site inspection and said he called TCEQ several times trying to get the site cleaned up, something Clawson’s information verifies.
Herriage left Malakoff in June, 2008, to become the Athens Director of Utilities.
In April 2009 when Fire Marshal Garris Strange discovered the hazardous waste, city officials said they did not know of the site’s existence.
This week Herriage said, “I wouldn’t keep something like that to myself.”
Current City Councilwoman Pat Isaacson was mayor in 2006. She said she doesn’t recall ever being told about the hazardous waste dump. At the very least, she said, no one ever described the danger of the situation.
“I would have been yelling about that,” Isaacson said.
As for the March, 2008, inspection, Herriage said he was never informed about that visit. According to Clawson, that inspection was set up with the fire marshal.
“Usually, the fire marshal is contacted prior to the site visits and information is shared that way,” Clawson wrote in an e-mail. “It wasn’t until the 2008 site visit that (the Regional inspector) was made aware that there was an acting fire marshal for the city of Malakoff. The inspector started contacting the fire marshal for his 2008 site visit.”
The fire marshal, in early 2008, was Tim Samples, but he told The Monitor that he never had contact with the TCEQ regarding the site.
The 2008 fire chief Kirk Kebodeaux, and 2009 fire chief Rick Vieregge, both said they also were never contacted by the TCEQ regarding the site.
All three said they didn’t know about the site until Strange’s investigation in April, 2009.
Strange, who took over for Samples midway through 2008, said he did not know what was at the site until he checked out a complaint from a nearby merchant.

 

Seven Points police officer suspended
By Barbara Gartman
Monitor Staff Writer

SEVEN POINTS–Seven Points police officer Sgt. Raymond Wennerstrom was suspended from duty, with pay, Monday.
Calls to the police chief Jack Nelson of the Seven Points Department of Public Safety and to Mayor Joe Dobbs at city hall were not returned.
However, a press release from the mayor was released, saying the city “intends to have a professional and disciplined department.”
“We are going to look professional and act professional. No more goatees, blue jeans or T-shirts,” the press release said.
When first taking office, Dobbs hired Nelson to make necessary changes and improvements in the department.
So far, Nelson has secured bullet resistant vests, new patches, a new name for the department and new uniforms, with all officers to be dressed alike.
In the past, the department has had five separate uniform styles its officers could wear, but that has been changed, Nelson said.
The question of Wennerstrom’s suspension is an ongoing internal matter, and cannot be commented on at this time, Dobbs said in the press release.

 

Woman found guilty of felony meth possession
Monitor Staff Reports
ATHENS–A Henderson County Jury took just over one hour last week to convict Lehua Deann Mauala for the third degree felony offense of Possession of Methamphetamine.
  Ms. Mauala was arrested on November 8, 2009, along with another individual, after being seen by Henderson County Patrol Deputy Richard Miller outside a closed business in Murchison, raising suspicions of a possible theft in progress.
Upon questioning the pair, Miller suspected that Mauala was in possession of illegal narcotics, and called for a drug-sniffing dog.
Upon arrival, the dog, Benny, immediately detected narcotics.
A subsequent search of the vehicle yielded a quantity of marijuana, methamphetamine, drug paraphernalia and a loaded 9 mm handgun with the serial number ground off, resulting in an additional charge for Mauala of Felon in Possession of a Firearm.
Sentencing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 14 in the 173rd District Court. Mauala could receive up to 10 years in the penitentiary on the possession charge; the Felon in Possession of a Firearm charge remains pending.
First Assistant District Attorney Mark Hall and Assistant DA Nancy Rumar prosecuted the case for the District Attorney’s office.
DA Scott McKee indicated he was very pleased with the work of the deputy involved in the case.
“This is a great example of the kind of law enforcement professionals we have on the street,” McKee said. “Deputy Miller knew something did not look right and investigated further. His hunch paid off, resulting in meth off the streets and a pistol out of the hands of a felon.
“This is a perfect example of how federal, state and local agencies can work together to investigate and interdict narcotics transactions,” McKee added. “All of the agencies involved worked together quickly and efficiently to investigate and make an arrest on this defendant.”



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