OT: U.S. EPA probes Chicago lab in probe of possible falsified pollution records at Superfund sites

greenspun.com : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

U.S. EPA probes Chicago lab

February 13, 2000 BY CHARLES NICODEMUS STAFF REPORTER Falsified lab records and mishandled tests at a government lab here raise questions about the reliability of pollution measurements at some of the most polluted industrial sites in the Midwest for as far back as 20 years, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

A massive federal investigation included what some staffers called an "invasion" of the Chicago regional lab of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Investigators raided the downtown lab in September, seizing thousands of records and grilling workers for nearly 11 hours, witnesses told the Sun-Times.

Test procedures were violated and lab records were doctored in handling of soil and water samples from Superfund sites and other facilities in six states, EPA officials said. Mishandling of the samples--including failure to start time-sensitive tests promptly-- would have made any pollution present in the materials appear less severe, lab sources said.

Three lab workers under suspicion have left or been removed, and a fourth has told colleagues he is "looking for another job."

The raid focused on the work of lab employees for Lockheed Martin Environmental Services, one of three contractors in the lab. Lockheed workers have been barred from conducting tests.

Test results under review include those from the heavily polluted Waukegan harbor and the old Johns Manville plant at the north edge of Waukegan, and from the old Sherwin Williams plant on Chicago's South Side.

EPA officials would not speculate on the motive for the manipulation. But changing the dates on samples--known as "time traveling"--can be done to balance a lab worker's load. It also can render an analysis invalid, because samples may deteriorate before testing.

Norman Niedergang, assistant regional U.S. EPA administrator here, declined to reveal how many test samples were manipulated. Tens of thousands of samples are under review, and some tests have been repeated.

He stressed, however, that so far none of the suspect tests impeded the agency's crackdowns on pollution.

Niedergang would not comment on the possibility of criminal prosecutions. Investigators included the EPA's criminal division as well as staff of its inspector general.

EPA spokesmen confirmed for the Sun-Times that the agency is reviewing the handling and accuracy of 20 years' worth of tests by the agency's Chicago regional laboratory, a 10th-floor, block-square facility at 536 S. Clark. The tests include those for cancer-causing PCBs and a variety of lethal pesticide chemicals, such as DDTs, Dieldrin and Endrin Keotone.

Niedergang said outside investigators imported to audit and reform key lab operations are imposing the same controls on the EPA's nine other regional labs.

Most lab workers interviewed by the Sun-Times said the facility's 58 staffers learned of the closely guarded inquiry at 8 a.m. on Sept. 1, when a platoon of EPA investigators swarmed into the laboratory. Agency officials say the raid was unprecedented in EPA history.

The investigators herded dozens of lab staffers into a conference room and kept some sequestered for nearly 11 hours, taking the scientists and technicians out one at a time for questioning.

During the grillings, the investigating crew brought in dollies and carts to carry away dozens of boxes of confiscated records, documents and files stripped from the lab workers' desks and file cabinets. Computer disks and tapes were seized and their data drained and transferred from the Lockheed workers' hard drives, computer terminals and electronic storage units.

After the raid, the lab stopped accepting samples that would have been analyzed in the Organic section staffed by Lockheed employees. Those samples are being tested by outside labs. A Lockheed spokeswoman said the "problems were of great concern but have been corrected."

The investigators also seized the lab's log books of samples received for testing, going back 20 years.

The lab's work includes analysis of samples from the 270 Superfund sites in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Minnesota. Superfund sites are the most heavily polluted in the country.

A task force of outside technicians and data handlers was brought in for a seven-week-long "crash" assignment to transfer and convert the data from the log books to an electronic database. That made it easier for investigators and EPA analysts to track down which lab personnel had received which incoming samples for testing, and how they were handled.

Niedergang said the inquiry began in September 1998, after "allegations were received" that testing procedures at the lab were being violated.

A month earlier, the lab had filled a quality assurance post that had long been vacant. Niedergang would not say why the position was vacant in this region while it was filled in others.

Lab workers said they were told by EPA managers that the position was left vacant to save money. That decision opened the door to unchallenged acceptance of test results.

*** Changing dates can ease workload but ruin samples

It's called "time traveling."

At labs of the Environmental Protection Agency, the term refers to improperly postponing tests on time-sensitive samples from industrial sites--and then doctoring lab records to obscure the test delays.

Changing the dates on soil and water samples, whether innocent or intentional, can make a lab worker's testing load easier to manage. It can also render the ensuing analyses invalid, because test samples can deteriorate if not studied within the handling periods strictly required by EPA regulations.

Samples are tested not only for the presence of substances--such as PCBs, DDT and Dieldrin--but also for the strength of the contaminants.

And because pollutants in a sample may break down or be diluted if not handled promptly, the EPA dictates tight testing times. The schedule is intended to protect the lab results from legal challenges that could undermine enforcement of pollution programs.

Investigators poring through thousands of records from the Chicago lab found that for some samples certain lab workers ignored required times for starting tests and then altered lab records in an apparent attempt to cover up the infractions.

The lab work--which often comes in bursts--was easier to handle if it was stretched out, the probers were told. In other cases, laziness or sloppiness was suspected.

Charles Nicodemus



-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), February 14, 2000



-- (kb8um8@yahoo.com), February 14, 2000.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ