Monday, April 28, 2014

EPA finally releases info for Nov. 4 FOIA request

The Environmental Protection Agency has largely complied (finally) with my November 4 Freedom of Information Act Request. They have released or otherwise made available 139 documents related to USCGC STORIS and her export.

There is some interesting insight into the operation of the agency and the response and subsequent public position of the EPA officials as they were notified of the ship’s export and the potential that the ship contained PCBs above regulated levels. The c...oncern was the potential violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. There are relevant responses from GSA and the US Coast Guard related to the concerns raised as the ship was headed to Mexico. Backup information related to the ship sent to EPA is also included.

The EPA’s site for the STORIS materials is here:

The redacted/withheld materials lists that were to be sent to me Wednesday afternoon March 5 were received later in the day after I pointed out that I did not receive them. The process of reviewing the lists to determine how I will respond for the withheld materials is currently underway. I suspect that the withheld correspondence would contain relevant and important information.

The lists are at the following links:

Withheld information:

Redacted documents:

While there is a lot to read, I have gone through the materials for a first review and have noted some key points to address and consider. A more thorough analysis and further discussion with other interested parties will likely reveal more points to think about, particularly in regard to the actions of the agencies involved and the deficiencies of the paperwork used to designate STORIS as “PCB-free” when there is still a high likelihood that she was not. This also does not yet address the situation with GSA that allowed the ship to be sold out from under STORIS Museum and The Last Patrol.

Document CRSGSAtoR9Email8 – There is a reference to Mark Jurisich of US Metals Recovery asking for MARAD radiation reports because Mexican Authorities were holding the ship based on the raid conducted in November over concerns that the ship was contaminated with radiation. This and associated documentation incorrectly speculates or otherwise states that I and/or members of the STORIS Museum had started the radioactivity rumor with the Mexican authorities. I categorically deny that we were responsible for the issue with radioactivity. I corresponded with the Mexicans regarding PCBs and those documents are included in the released information. That’s it.

Our concerns in this situation have always been the circumstances of how STORIS, as a nationally significant historic ship listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was excessed and sold out from under the nonprofits who hoped to preserve her. This, and the lack of cooperation from the government with the nonprofits even as the buyer flaunted deadlines associated with the purchase agreement with the apparent blessing of the government. Then you have all of the various issues related to the aspects of the sale and export as it related to probable PCB content on board the ship.

Document MaierEmail24 - Message from EPA enforcement officer Doug McDaniel stating that EPA had no case or interest for enforcement action with STORIS because Jurisich had documentation from the USCG indicating the ship was PCB-free. Whether or not STORIS was truly clean apparently became irrelevant to EPA because of the Coast Guard paperwork. It didn’t matter whether the documentation was truthful and complete or totally deficient. And the correspondence shows that even EPA had questions about certain phrasing in the Coast Guard reports that required clarification by CG officials.

This is particularly important because the EPA’s position is that it was US Metal Recovery’s responsibility to ensure the ship was PCB-compliant for the export to Mexico and this message apparently absolves the buyer of any responsibility, instead shifting the issue of whether or not STORIS was truly PCB-free to the US Coast Guard.

It’s great that EPA would allow pollution to occur just because of flawed paperwork rather than actually perform a physical inspection themselves. Had EPA inspector Christopher Rollins actually looked at the ship when I called prior to her departure, he would have seen for himself the materials on board the ship that were cause for concern and actually caused other potential scrap bidders to walk away from purchasing the ship. EPA also had the chance to stop the ship before she left the country as they were contacted on Oct. 28 when the ship was still in U.S. waters north of L.A. Instead, they allowed the ship to proceed to Mexico.

This all brings into serious question the Coast Guard’s procedures in testing ships for PCBs prior to their disposal. This would affect at least eight other retired cutters that are currently in the U.S. in civilian hands, all of which are WWII vintage or earlier. Several of these vessels are utilized as museums. The message indicates that it would be an EPA-wide issue rather than a Region IX (San Francisco) issue to explain to USCG the importance of proper testing in the future. (Brent Maier is a Congressional liaison for EPA’s Region IX.)

Document MaierEmail32- Correspondence with the San Diego EPA office and discussion about notifying American personnel at the US Embassy in Mexico, but not Mexican authorities.

Document MaierEmail35- Summary of conference call with Bob King of Senator Mark Begich’s office and EPA’s position they have a limited role in maritime issues. While I think Bob King was genuinely concerned about STORIS, speaking for myself, I am not otherwise impressed with Senator Begich’s role in this situation with the ship or his public assertion that he was going to investigate the whole process of STORIS’ sale and export. His comments sounded good on the radio report, but I think the matter was dropped very quickly.

Among the other documentation is the correspondence I had with the Mexican authorities and discussion about how EPA was going to handle inquiries from the press and Congress, such as Begich and Speaker John Boehner, as well as inquiries from other concerned parties such as the Basel Action Network, an environmental group that monitors shipbreaking activities. There is also heavy denial from the Coast Guard that STORIS would have had any wiring on board that contained PCBs, as they claimed that only certain cutters built in the 1960s and 1970s had PCB-containing “wet cables” in their electrical systems. They claim that since STORIS was built in the 1940s, there would not have been PCBs in her wiring.

While all of this information is helpful in many respects, there are still a whole range of unanswered questions that can only be addressed with ALL of the documentation that was requested from the other federal agencies involved with the excessing, sale and export of the ship. This information from EPA is also only the first part of the information needed from that agency.

A second FOIA request sent to EPA related to other records and correspondence in the days following the period covered by this request is open and active, having just been recently filed. That request will hopefully reveal whether or no there was any correspondence with the Mexican officials, what kind of results – if any – the Mexicans supplied to the U.S. regarding what they found in testing the ship, and what other actions EPA and government officials took in relation to the ship. This includes the various politicians that we contacted for help in the days following the export.

I am currently working on an appeal for EPA’s denial to waive the associated fees for the second request. Their actions in denying the request for that FOIA are particularly questionable in light of the information just released and their claim that I did not express any intent to share the requested information with the general public when the request made it clear that the information would be made available publicly. This page and its companion Web site, along with the associated interpretation should make it clear that I intend to share this information with as many people as possible. The materials from EPA are the only documents received so far from the four FOIA requests I made on November 4. The status of the other requests will be outlined in the next post.

Your review of and comment on this information is greatly appreciated.
(Originally posted March 8, 2014)

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