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Reilly responds to Lois Gibbs on Love Canal habitability and related issues

[EPA press release - May 15, 1990]

Attached is the letter on the Love Canal Habitability Study that EPA Administrator William K. Reilly sent yesterday to Lois Gibbs of Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, Inc.


United States Environmental Protection Agency
Washington, D.C. 20460
May 14, 1990
The Administrator

Ms. Lois Gibbs
Executive Director
Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, Inc.
P.O. Box 926
Arlington, Virginia 22216

Dear Ms. Gibbs:

I appreciated very much the chance to meet you in January and hear in detail your concerns about Love Canal. This letter responds to the issues you raised during our conversation and to your recent written comments on the Love Canal Habitability Study. I know I promised to get back to you promptly. The delay in responding to you reflects the fact that a great deal of examination, thought, and consultation has gone into my review. Love Canal, as you know, has a complex history.

I have considered your comments and looked into the Habitability Study itself. I have consulted with the Agency's General Counsel Don Elliott, Regional Administrator Connie Eristoff, Assistant Administrator Don Clay, with members of the Peer Review Panel that evaluated the Study, and with others. The overriding question I have focused on is "have we complied with the law?" I am now satisfied that the answer to that question is "yes." Specifically, I have concluded that the Love Canal Habitability Study was conducted in full conformance with the law, that it was rigorously designed and carried out to ensure that it was scientifically sound and unbiased, and that it was subjected to full scrutiny and comment by nationally-recognized independent experts and the public. All this the law demands of EPA. We are not called upon to make decisions about the future land uses of the area.

Based upon the information in the Study, decisions about the future use of the Love Canal Emergency Declaration Area (EDA) are being made by state and local authorities, which are the appropriate levels of government to make such calls. State and local agencies, in making their decisions about the future use of the land adjacent to Love Canal and about the associated environmental impacts, will clearly need to take into account the full range of issues, uncertainties, and public sentiments that are present.

Before addressing the specific issues you have raised, I want to make very clear that the area of concern here is not the Love Canal site itself. The Habitability Study was not undertaken to assess the habitability of the Love Canal disposal site or the two rings of homes that originally surrounded it. These homes were torn down and the land on which they stood, along with Love Canal, are buried under a 40-acre cap with a liner and extensive barrier drain collection system, which is operated and maintained by New York State. An extensive, fenced buffer area separates the site from the Emergency Declaration Area. The site is surrounded by monitoring wells and routine monitoring to date shows that this containment system is working effectively. Thus, the area assessed by the Habitability Study -- the Emergency Declaration Area -- is outside of the Love Canal Site.

In this letter, I want to address the issues raised during our meeting and in your subsequent written comments. It may be helpful first to recount briefly the background of the Love Canal Habitability Study. As you know, in 1982 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a decision on the habitability of the Love Canal Emergency Declaration Area. This decision was based on the results of an extensive environmental sampling program in which several thousand samples were collected and analyzed for a broad spectrum of chemicals. Except for contamination in Love Canal area sewers and creeks, which has now been cleaned up, the study found no indication that any Love Canal chemicals had migrated into the Emergency Declaration Area.

It is important to note that another federal agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, determined that the Emergency Declaration area was suitable for residential use provided that the EDA sewers and their contaminated drainage tracts were remediated and that continuous safeguards were in place to monitor the site and prevent further leakage from it. These tasks were accomplished as part of the Love Canal remediation program; the New York State Department of Health concurred in this finding.

After this decision, however, some issues were raised about how this program to sample and analyze chemicals in the EDA was designed and carried out. To provide further assurances that the habitability decision was technically sound, EPA decided that a second study on habitability should be conducted. This second study, which began in 1983, was subsequently mandated by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986.

To respond to the concerns you raised in your meeting with me, I have reviewed the following issues: (1) whether the EPA Habitability Study was conducted in conformance with the law; (2) whether it is scientifically sound; and (3) whether it was conducted with full public consultation.

Section 312(e) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) directed EPA to "conduct or cause to be conducted a habitability and land use study" which would assess the risks associated with inhabiting the Emergency Declaration Area; compare the level of hazardous waste contamination in the Emergency Declaration Area to that present in other comparable communities; and assess the potential uses of the land within the Emergency Declaration Area, including but not limited to residential, industrial, commercial and recreational uses, and the risks associated with such potential uses. I have concluded that the Habitability Study fulfills those statutory requirements for the following reasons.

The Habitability Study assesses the risks associated with inhabiting the Emergency Declaration Area in a number of ways. First, it compares the levels of certain indicator chemicals in the Emergency Declaration Area soil to the levels found in four comparable communities. These indicator chemicals were deemed by the scientists conducting the study to be representative of those chemicals which would likely have been present if the area had been affected by chemicals from the Love Canal disposal site. The comparison approach used in the Study assesses the relative risks of inhabiting the Emergency Declaration Area by comparing contamination levels in the EDA to levels found in comparable residential communities which are presently inhabited but are not affected by a chemical landfill.

Moreover, the Technical Review Committee, which was created in August of 1983 in order to develop a scientifically sound approach for determining the habitability of the Emergency Declaration Area and to provide high-level oversight of all Love Canal matters, thoroughly evaluated the various approaches that could be used to conduct the study. The Technical Review Committee was comprised of experts from EPA, the Centers for Disease Control, the New York State Department of Health, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. After extensive deliberation, and public discussion, the Technical Review Committee concluded that the comparative approach used in the study was the most scientifically sound way to assess the habitability of the Emergency Declaration Area, particularly in light of the lack of relevant standards for the chemicals that might be found in the EDA and the lack of toxicological data for these chemicals.

The use of the comparative approach was supported by EPA's independent panel of scientific experts, including representatives from the New York University Medical Center, Yale University School of Medicine, the University of California School of Public Health, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, the University of Texas, and other institutions. This expert peer review panel, which held a meeting on May 10-11, 1989 to discuss New York State's Habitability Decision, concluded that "the lack of appropriate toxicological data for the many chemicals present in the Canal and the lack of standards of acceptability for these chemicals makes the exposure and risk assessment approach unworkable at this time."

In conducting the Study, the Technical Review Committee recommended an approach that went beyond the comparison of comparable communities, as discussed in your letter. The Habitability Study went to great lengths to assess the risks of inhabiting the Emergency Declaration Area by analyzing approximately 2300 surface soil samples taken from this area to determine whether they contained levels of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) in excess of the 1 part per billion (ppb) level of concern established through a quantitative risk assessment as a standard by the Centers for Disease Control. The Technical Review Committee focused on TCDD because this 1 ppb level of concern was the only relevant standard available for chemicals in the Emergency Declaration Area.

Only one Emergency Declaration Area soil sample (from a vacant lot) was found to contain TCDD at a level in excess of the 1 ppb levels of concern, and that soil has since been remediated. Ninety-seven percent of the samples did not contain any traces of TCDD that could be detected by even the most sensitive analytical instruments. After reviewing the results of these analyses, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded that "2,3,7,8-TCDD is not present in the surface soil of the Emergency Declaration Area at a concentration of human health concern."

Finally, the Technical Review Committee analyzed air samples from the 562 residences in the Emergency Declaration Area to determine whether persistent chemicals from Love Canal found their way into surrounding homes. Chlorobenzene was not detected at all, and chlorotoluene was detected in one home. After carefully evaluating all of the data, the Technical Review Committee determined that the presence of the chlorotoluene could not be attributed to Love Canal. By determining whether toxic chemicals were present in the air of the Emergency Declaration Area residences, the Technical Review Committee assessed a second path of risks of inhabiting the EDA. The methods employed to conduct these independent scientific reviews were deemed to be the most practical and appropriate under the circumstances.

With regard to assessing the potential alternative uses and risks of those uses as required by the statute, I believe that by assessing the risks of residing in the Emergency Declaration Area, which the Technical Review Committee determined was the highest use of the land, EPA has fulfilled the requirement to assess the potential uses of land within the Emergency Declaration Area. In developing the Habitability Criteria, Dr. Frederick Pohland of the Georgia Institute of Technology stated that "[t]he most sensitive habitability criteria would, I think, be applied to individual residences and so, in a way we would cover just about any other option should the decision be for something other than residences."

EPA has been cooperating with the state agencies which have evaluated the potential uses of the land in the Emergency Declaration Area. By funding both the Love Canal Land Use Advisory Committee, as well as the Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency, and by assessing the risks of residing in the Emergency Declaration Area and thus, in effect, the risks of other potential uses, I believe that EPA has complied with the statutory requirements of CERCLA section 312(e)(3).

With respect to the second matter, scientific validity, after a thorough review, I have concluded that the Habitability Study was conducted in a scientifically sound manner. To assure the study's scientific validity, the Technical Review Committee convened a panel of distinguished scientists from across the nation nominated by TRC members and the public to assist in developing the criteria for determining whether the Emergency Declaration Area was habitable. The habitability criteria, the pilot studies, and the design and results of the Habitability Study were scrutinized by EPA's peer review panel comprised of independent scientific experts.

The peer review panel, which reviewed the results of the Habitability Study, unanimously concluded that "each of the component parts of the habitability study was well planned, well executed, and had a high level of data quality assurance, and that the resulting data are of high quality and are appropriate for making a determination on habitability." EPA's independent review of the study has also concluded it was scientifically sound and unbiased. To further assure myself, I spoke personally and at some length with several scientists on the peer review panel who all assured me that in their opinion the study was valid and appropriate.

With respect to the third issue you raised concerning public involvement in conducting and reviewing the study, the Technical Review Committee held decision-making meetings at four to six week intervals throughout the entire 6-year course of the study. All of these meetings -- a total of fifty -- were held in a public forum open and accessible to all. These meetings were advertised in local newspapers and through extensive mailings; they were held in convenient locations in Niagara Falls.

Before closing, I want to take particular note of your final concern about the broader public policy implications. Love Canal has become a national symbol for the environmental threats we face from hazardous waste and a powerful impetus to take strong steps to prevent such events from ever occurring again.

The role of the Federal government has been to ensure that the Habitability Study was conducted in a credible and scientific manner. Having done so, EPA properly, and in accordance with the law, provided the Habitability Study to the State of New York in order that the appropriate settlement and land use decisions could be made. EPA's involvement in solving chemical contamination problems at Love Canal will continue. The Agency has maintained and will continue to maintain a strong role in the ongoing investigative and cleanup work at Love Canal. Well over $100 million in Federal funds has been expended in support of these activities. The Agency will continue to provide funding to New York State for other activities.

In closing, let me stress again how much I appreciate you visit last January. I value the role of citizens and grassroots environmental organizations and applaud, in particular, your unceasing efforts and your personal struggle to focus public attention on the plight of your former community. Your current work with the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes also serves a valuable purpose. These are not easy issues, and my belief is that we can both learn a great deal from each other.

Again, thank you for taking the time to raise your concerns regarding this matter with me. My staff and I look forward to working with you on this and other important issues.

Sincerely yours,

William K. Reilly

P.S. And congratulations on winning the Goldman Prize!