I tried to reconcile these two very different perspectives on the adequacy of the Dupont cleanup.
First, the official version, in a regulatory document:
As the EPA is undoubtedly aware, a significant amount of mercury-contaminated sediments will be left behind at the completion of the currently proposed removal action.” ~~~ US FWS consultation letter (11/10/14)
Second, the unofficial press interview remarks:
“They are removing the vast majority of contamination, so the load in the ecosystem will be reduced,” Melissa Foster, a senior biologist in Fish and Wildlife’s New Jersey field office, said in an interview. ~~~ Bergen Record, 11/21/14
So which is it?
Is Dupont doing a great job by removing the “vast majority” of contamination?
Or is Dupont getting off the hook for leaving “a significant amount of mercury contaminated sediments” behind?
Now, I can completely understand why a biologist at US FWS would want to tone down public criticism of a powerful polluter – and implicitly a partner federal agency the EPA – in press remarks. Aggressive regulators that hold powerful corporate polluters accountable tend to suffer career setbacks.
But, why would a reporter – who had been provided and specifically advised about the significance of the US FWS regulatory documents – write a story with that quote, which he knew was in direct contradiction to US FWS official written assessment?
For simply asking that question, I get accused of “trashing reporters”.
Bergen Record reporter Jim O’Neill tells me he’s tired:
Really really really really getting tired of your constant trashing of reporters. I have written more than 50 stories about the Pompton Lakes DuPont contamination .. .I’m not ignoring it, downplaying it or getting spun….
O’Neill was lashing out in response to my private email, which did not “trash reporters”, but merely respectfully noted that he got spun in his most recent Dupont cleanup story. I provided the direct evidence explaining exactly how he got spun, with verbatim quotes from regulatory documents that contrasted sharply with quotes from his story.
Well, I’m tired too – tired of breaking the story, producing the documents the Record relies on, and then getting ignored – or worse – by the reporters and editors at the Record. It has happened so many times now it can not be random.
I’ve even been pressured by the Record’s lawyer to take down material I’ve posted – not once but TWICE. The first legal attack came for posting a Margulies cartoon without permission (see: Even the Cartoonists Are Afraid Of Christie), which I refused to take down because I felt it met fair use standards. The second attack was for a TWEET! Can you imagine that: the Record felt the need to send out a legal attack dog for a fucking tweet that criticized Scott Fallon for stealing my ideas.
I guess my 11/13/14 Letter to the Editor about how Scott Fallon missed the story about open space diversion of parks capital budget must have burnt the last bridge at the Record.
But, I’m getting way off topic.
So, let’s take a look at how Mr. O’Neill has gotten spun in his last 3 stories on the Dupont cleanup – in fact not only spun, but his stories reported the exact opposite of what was actually going on.
I) Dupont request to weaken the Vapor Intrusion requirements
On April 25, 2013, Dupont wrote a letter to NJ DEP requesting that their vapor intrusion workplan be revised to reflect changes that DEP recently made to weaken the Vapor Intrusion (VI) standards (read Dupont’s letter).
In January 2013, leading up to the Dupont request, when NJ DEP previously had weakened those vapor intrusion standards, we broke the story and issued a press releasing criticizing that.
Of course, that should have been a huge statewide story because it impacts not just Dupont Pompton Lakes, but thousands of sites across NJ where people are being poisoned in their own homes by industrial chemicals.
But it was ignored by the Record (see our press release that went unreported)
Over 18 moths later, on August 19, 2014, O’Neill finally wrote about the Dupont VI request with this lede, under this headline:
NJ rejects DuPont request to alter plan on Pompton Lakes cleanup
State environmental officials said Tuesday they will not grant DuPont’s request to change its plan to deal with contaminated air inside Pompton Lakes homes sitting above polluted groundwater.
No room for doubt there – a reader could only conclude that NJ DEP rejected the Dupont request.
The problem is, O’Neill didn’t just ignore our statewide press release and miss the Dupont story or get spun, he got it exactly backwards.
NJ DEP did not reject Dupont’s request, in fact, just the opposite: NJ DEP approved it!.
Here is the EPA website headline for the NJ DEP response to Dupont’s request – note the word “Approval”:
Here is the pertinent text of the DEP letter - note use of the phrase “hereby approve”:
We caught DEP and EPA with their pants down, approving a Dupont request to weaken VI cleanup requirements behind closed doors.
That should have been a major scandal. Instead, O’Neill made DEP look like an aggressive regulator.
II) Initial Coverage of EPA Lake Dredge Plan Downplayed Weakenings & USFWS history
There is a long story I won’t go into right now on EPA’s efforts to force Dupont to cleanup the mercury contamination in Pompton Lake and downriver sediments, and the concerns of US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) about the adequacy of those cleanup plans.
For today, the key point is that we’ve been involved, have written multiple posts and press releases, and were instrumental in securing US FWS review.
So we were well prepared when EPA finally released its revised cleanup plan on October 30, 2014.
At the request of Suburban Trends reporter Leslie Scott, we rapidly reviewed the EPA plan and provided initial review comments to her and Mr. O’Neill later the afternoon of October 30 (see:
Ignoring most of that, particularly the ecological issues, here is what O’Neill wrote about the revised EPA plan:
Well, there was a lot more than hot spots – just days later, the Record published a far more critical story by Leslie Scott. In that a story, EPA was forced to go on the record and admit that the cleanup was scaled back:
Bill Wolfe, director of New Jersey PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility), said the EPA is letting DuPont off the hook for potentially millions of dollars in natural resource compensation damages.
He said, “While the EPA is not legally responsible for assessing and collecting natural resource damages … an ERA is a critical scientific study that documents, among other things, the need for additional cleanup and the need to compensate the public for injuries to natural resources. The 2014 version leaves it up to EPA to decide, at some future point, based on future monitoring and sampling, whether an ERA is required.”
Wolfe added that DuPont has had the benefit of closed-door negotiations that allowed a reduced cleanup size, delayed the cleanup by two years, and changed the cleanup standards to be “flawed and lax.”
Wolfe said abandoning the older standard “puts more control over cleanup in DuPont’s hands, which raises oversight and enforcement concerns.”
III) Coverage of US Fish and Wildlife consultation with EPA
The day after EPA released the Dupont cleanup plan, on October 31, 2014, we joined Pomtpon Lakes residents at CCPL in a letter to EPA Regional Administrator Enck to request an extension of the comment period, and notified press of that request.
There were two specific reasons for our request for additional time: 1) to review US FWS review comments; and 2) to determine the status of US FWS Feb 2012 commitment to pursue a Natural Resoruce Damage Assessment (NRDA) against Dupont.
We also threatened to issue a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain the US FWS documents, see:
The request was ignored by the Record. To do a story about it would have had to involve PEER and raised concerns about Dupont’s science, which had been seriously criticized by US FWS back in 2012.
On November 12, 2014, US EPA issued a press release to announce that they approved our request:
(New York, N.Y.) In response to requests from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Citizens for a Clean Pompton Lakes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will extend the public comment period for the proposed plan to remove mercury contamination from areas of Pompton Lake in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey from December 18, 2014 to February 2, 2015
That newsworthy US EPA announcement also was ignored.
Again, to cover the issue would require mention of PEER and a would have had to discussion of WHY we requested an extension of the comment period, i.e. the ecological and US FWS issues.
On November 18, 2014, PEER issued a press release which broke the story about two things: 1) USFWS was pursuing NRD claims, and 2) US FWS had submitted critical comments on the proposed EPA cleanup plan. In that press release, we released US FWS documents that had not been released previously or reported on – in other words, they are highly newsworthy, see:
Again, that press release was ignored.
But the US FWS documents PEER released were used. Our letter to EPA RA Enck is what prompted EPA to post the USFWS comment letter, our press release is what made those documents public, and out FOIA threat is what prompted the Record’s awareness of the US FWS NRDA.
I had always assumed that reporters credited their sources, inserted of creating the appearance of doing investigative work.
O’Neill finally did write about the US FWS conners, but again, he got it exactly backwards.
As I had written in a series of detailed emails to O’Neill, there were two things of significance in the US FWS documents:
a) US FWS had completed a screening, found natural resource injuries, and was pursing a NRD claim against Dupont; and
b) US FWS had submitted critical comments, but had significant backed off from their prior criticism issued in the Feb. 2012 comment letter to EPA.
There were several obvious signals in the most recent US FWS comments that showed that they backed off the 2012 criticism, which I outlined to O’Neill in detail based on a comparison of the 2012 US FWS letter with the 2014 version.
Those obvious signals in the 2014 version of US FWS comments included:
- using the wrong baseline to compare the EPA’s revised 36 acre cleanup. USFWS used 26 acres, instead of 40 acres from the final EPA permit Dupont challenged. This comparison masks the fact that the cleanup was scaled back;
- no mention of the NRDA issue in the 2014 version
- no mention and apparent withdrawal of severe criticism of Dupont’s ecological analysis
I encourage readers to compare the 2012 US FWS letter with the 2014 version to observe how USFWS backed away.
So, after ignoring our request to extend the comment period; EPA’s approval of that request; and the PEER disclosure of the US FWS comments and pursuit of NRDA again t Dupont, O’Neill finally wrote about the US FWS concerns, in an November 21, 2104 story, he ignores us again:
The story not only ignores our analysis – it presents the issue of the adequacy of the cleanup in the wrong light.
The focus on the need for a thicker cap ignores the critical point, which is that the EPA plan is deficient because it allows Dupont to leave a lot of mercury behind.
The US FWS has repeatedly raised concerns about the fact that the EPA would allow a “significant” amount of mercury to remain in the environment – that is why US FWS decided to pursue NRDA injuries back in 2012.
Despite having the US FWS documents, which PEER forced public release of, O’Neill quoted US FWS expressing exactly the opposite concern:
“They are removing the vast majority of contamination, so the load in the ecosystem will be reduced,” Melissa Foster, a senior biologist in Fish and Wildlife’s New Jersey field office, said in an interview. “But some will be left, and we want to make sure it’s not getting into the food chain.”
But here is what US FWS letter actually said:
“As the EPA is undoubtedly aware, a significant amount of mercury-contaminated sediments will be left behind at the completion of the currently proposed removal action.”
“Significant amount of mercury-contamaitned sediments left behind”?
Or “removing the vast majority of contamination”.
Glass of mercury half empty or half full?
Is there a pattern here in O’Neill’s coverage, both in terms of ignoring PEER and downplaying criticisms of Dupont’s cleanup efforts?