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Compliance and Stewardship

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One of EPA’s essential functions is to ensure compliance with environmental laws—making sure they mean as much on the ground as they do on paper. Here we look at some of the past year’s most successful enforcement cases in the Pacific Southwest—and the EPA staff who make them happen.

This chapter’s other focus, stewardship, looks at EPA’s work on sustainable solutions to long-term environmental challenges big and small, from local redevelopment to global climate change.

EPA’s Brownfields Program spurs redevelopment where former industrial sites are lying unused due to suspected contamination. In Nevada City, California, the sites are legacies of historic gold mining. On the other side of the Sierra, at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, redevelopment is already bringing economic benefits.

In Hawaii, EPA research grants are funding ground-breaking scientific studies of the impact of rising carbon dioxide levels on coral reefs. Early results suggest that if the oceans absorb too much CO2, acidification may doom reef-building organisms.

Meanwhile, in a desert valley near Las Vegas, Nellis Air Force Base points the way to a sustainable future. Nellis installed the nation’s biggest solar photovoltaic generating system, and the base is conserving water and energy while reducing toxic waste.

Enforcement Actions Secure $2 Billion for Environmental Improvements

One settlement will result in a nearly 40% reduction in emissions from a Southern California cement plant.

Graph: Enforcement results for the Pacific Southwest Region

Enforcement results for the Pacific Southwest Region, one of 10 EPA Regions. Larger version »

In fiscal 2008, EPA enforcement actions in the Pacific Southwest resulted in commitments of more than $2 billion for toxic cleanups and other environmental improvements—a record amount for the region.

The largest cleanup commitment, $876 million, resulted from a Clean Water Act case against the City of San Diego for sewage leaks and spills over several years. The city is scheduled to spend the funds to upgrade and maintain its sewage collection system through 2012. Honolulu, in a similar case, is committed to spend $300 million on sewage system upgrades to prevent spills like the one that closed Waikiki beaches for a week in 2006.

Federal agencies made commitments totaling $810 million to clean up contaminated soil and groundwater at five federal facility Superfund sites in California. Based on enforceable agreements with the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, these federal agencies will implement cleanups at Camp Pendleton, El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Edwards Air Force Base, Fort Ord and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Contaminants at the sites range from unexploded ordnance to toxic chemicals to radioactive materials.

In other major cases, owners of a landfill near Las Vegas will take action to prevent waste from contaminating waterways at an estimated cost of $36 million (see Sunrise Landfill) and ExxonMobil paid a $2.64 million penalty for PCB leaks from an offshore oil platform (see Chris Rollins).

Cleaning Up Cement Kilns

EPA’s Pacific Southwest Office took part in a national enforcement initiative against fossil-fuel-burning cement kilns that spew excessive air pollution.

The case against Cemex California Cement’s plant in Victorville in San Bernardino County, California—the state’s largest source of smog-forming nitrogen oxides (NOx)—was one such action. A March 2009 settlement set new limits for air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and NOx, reducing emissions at the Cemex plant by 3.8 million pounds per year—nearly 40%. Cemex also must pay a $2 million penalty.

EPA also settled a case involving emissions of NOx, particulate matter, and other pollutants against another cement plant, Riverside Cement’s Oro Grande facility near Victorville, Calif. As part of the settlement, the company shut down seven 50-year-old kilns before starting up a new, cleaner kiln to replace them. Shutting down the old kilns cut NOx emissions by 3 million pounds per year compared to the new kiln. The company also paid $394,000 in penalties.

Targeting Neighborhood Plating Shops

EPA and state regulators make routine inspections of industrial facilities, but the list of regulated locations is a long one. So inspections are often prioritized to target issues or geographic areas of particular concern.

In Los Angeles, EPA hazardous waste inspectors in 2008 targeted metal plating shops in the Pacoima/Sun Valley area and the Compton/Gardena area. In 26 inspections in these low-income neighborhoods, EPA found significant violations at eight facilities. Enforcement actions are now underway.

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Returning Brownfields to Productive Use

More on Brownfields:

Region 9 Brownfields

Watch videos:

Golden Opportunity for Abandoned Gold Mines In Nevada City

Shared Success: Nevada Tribal Community Transforms Contaminated Property

Disused industrial sites, rail yards, and underground fuel tank sites are often candidates for redevelopment, but can lay unused for decades because developers don’t want to get stuck with unknown cleanup costs.

EPA’s Brownfields program provides grants and technical expertise to assist cleaning up and redeveloping contaminated lands, making it easier for such lands to become vital, functioning parts of their communities. In the past two years, for example, EPA’s Brownfields program has spurred redevelopment in Nevada City and Newark, California, and at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in Nevada.

Golden Opportunity for Abandoned Mines in Nevada City

Nevada City, in Northern California’s Gold Country, is working with federal and local partners to assess abandoned gold mine sites. The city is using EPA Brownfields assessment funds to find out whether these sites are safe as future recreation areas. Funds are used to assess properties, prioritize sites for cleanup, and analyze cleanup options. The project also strengthens local partnerships through community outreach activities.

The city (population 3,000) has a 160-year history of gold mining operations, with 16 major mines in the area. After gold was discovered, Nevada City rapidly became the largest and wealthiest mining town in California, with 10,000 residents. Hydraulic mining in the late 1800s changed the landscape drastically. Miners aimed high-pressure hydraulic monitors, like large water cannons, at the hillsides, washing away millions of tons of earth and rock.

The gold-bearing muck washed downstream in trenches “charged” with mercury, a toxic liquid metal which has the unusual property of dissolving gold. The mercury was then collected and evaporated in furnaces, leaving behind pure gold. The mercury vapor was condensed back into liquid and used again, but at every step, some mercury was lost. Today, recreational gold miners are finding as much mercury as gold in local creekbeds.

Hirschman’s Pond, near Nevada City, Calif., where hydraulic gold mining has left contamination.

Nevada City and its partners are assessing five major mine tailings areas that are close to residential neighborhoods and elementary schools. Historical research and initial assessments indicate that these sites are probably contaminated with mercury and arsenic. This affects numerous downstream communities, potentially contaminating drinking water and making fish unsafe to eat. Deer Creek was once an important fishing resource, but now there’s a fishing ban in effect.

Nevada City’s primary partner is the local nonprofit Friends of Deer Creek (FODC). Their aim is to further community understanding and stewardship of the Deer Creek watershed. When the nonprofit was ready to begin assessment, EPA provided a comprehensive sampling plan. When FODC wanted to analyze samples at low cost, EPA evaluated the proposed laboratory methods and showed how to do it while adhering to the agency’s sampling protocols.

Four areas have already been sampled. After assessment and cleanup, the sites will be open to the public for recreation, learning about local history, and ecological restoration. Nevada City plans an interpretive “Tribute Trail” linking the sites.

Nevada City and the FODC are collaborating to find where there’s mercury in the Deer Creek watershed, better understand how it moves, and reduce or eliminate downstream mercury transport. The project will help protect local residents and downstream communities from the toxic legacies of mining—mercury and arsenic.

A Green College Campus in Newark, Calif.

In the southeastern San Francisco Bay Area, EPA in 2004 awarded a $200,000 Brownfields grant to the Ohlone Community College District to clean up hazardous substances contamination on an 82-acre property on Cherry Street in Newark that had been used for agriculture. Today, the site is a new community college campus that provides training, education, and other services.

In addition to hosting an environmental studies program, it’s the first community college to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum-certified—the highest rating for an energy and resource-saving development. Solar panels generate up to half of the electricity needed by its Newark Center building, and school furniture is made from at least 65% recycled materials.

The district serves Newark, Fremont and a portion of Union City, with a combined population of about 250,000. Of the district’s 7,974 full-time equivalent students, approximately 84% are Asian, Pacific Islander, and Hispanic. Minority populations account for nearly half of Newark’s residents. The new campus provides job training in a variety of health sciences and technology fields, as well as jobs for instructors and campus employees.

Boosting Economic Development at Reno-Sparks Indian Colony
Brownfields redevelopment helped finance the new Tribal Health Center at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, near Reno, NV

At the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in Nevada, EPA helped transform idle contaminated property into economic development that benefits the tribe’s 1,000 members, as well as other Native Americans in the region and the City of Reno.

Several years ago, EPA’s $2 million grant to the State of Nevada created a revolving loan fund for brownfields cleanup. The state loaned about $1 million to the tribe—the first brownfields loan to an Indian community in the western U.S. The tribe used it to find and remove 1,000 tons of soil contaminated with lead and petroleum from former industrial operations.

The 22-acre property is being redeveloped into a commercial site, including a Wal-Mart Super Center. The site will produce up to $6 million in tax revenues annually, which will be used to repay the bonds that financed a new Tribal Health Center, as well as ongoing local government services such as public safety and schools.

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Studying Climate Impacts on Hawaii's Coral Reefs

Scientists find that future climate changes will likely harm coral reefs.

In 2006, EPA awarded a $747,000 Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant to Paul Jokiel of the University of Hawaii, and others, for research on the effects of climate change on Hawaiian coral reefs. His recent findings suggest that ocean acidification due to human activities could cause significant change to coral reef communities in shallow warm oceans.

Coral reefs are sensitive to higher temperatures and ocean acidification, which are influenced by rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere associated with climate change. Acidification interferes with the ability of reef organisms to make calcium carbonate skeletons and therefore threatens the physical structure of reefs.

A Hawaiian coral reef provides food and habitat for fish and other marine life.

Dr. Jokiel built a mesocosm (controlled environment) facility at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology to test the impact of increased CO2 on common calcifying reef organisms. The mesocosms simulated a doubling of today’s CO2 to levels expected later in this century.

In long-term experiments, corals in the mesocosms exposed to elevated CO2 had a 15-20% reduction in calcification rate, but no changes in reproduction or recruitment of corals were detected. However, CCA cover was reduced 86%, and one form of CCA, rhodoliths, actually shrank within the mesocosms with elevated CO2. This is alarming, since CCA hold a reef together by cementing carbonate fragments into massive reef structures, and they provide chemical cues to attract settling larvae of reef-building corals.

These findings provide evidence that future climate changes are likely to have significant adverse impacts on coral reef ecosystems throughout the world. Calcifying organisms like corals and CCA are essential to the growth, recruitment and stabilization of reefs. Their massive wave-resistant reef structures protect tropical shorelines, and provide habitat for a myriad of fish and other organisms that support coastal human populations.

The question remains as to whether coral reefs can adapt to the relatively rapid environmental changes that are now occurring. In a Limnology and Oceanography paper (2008), Jokiel and others present a modeling tool to evaluate coral reef responses to changes in ocean temperature and chemistry. The model can help managers assess the interactions of stressors in ways specific to local conditions and populations, and can aid in evaluating relative risk.

A 2007 EPA report by Dr. Jordan West, Climate Change and Interacting Stressors: Implications for Coral Reef Management in American Samoa, provides specific recommendations for minimizing impacts of climate change for reefs in American Samoa.

Protecting Coral Reefs

EPA has taken a strong role in protecting coral reefs in Hawaii and other U.S. islands in the Pacific through research, grant funding, technical assistance, program development, and enforcement. Recent activities are addressing threats to coral reefs from climate change and land-based pollution. In the past two years, EPA has provided technical assistance and more than $5 million to American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands for coral reef protection.

More info on coral reefs:

Oceans, Coasts, and Estuaries - Coral Reefs

Wendy Wiltse, a Honolulu-based EPA biologist, reviews proposed harbor improvements, beach sand replenishment, aquaculture, and other projects that have direct impacts to coral reefs in Hawaii and the Pacific islands. Through the Army Corps of Engineers permit process, she helps minimize impacts to reefs and assists in designing effective mitigation. Dr. Wiltse is also very active in Hawaii’s efforts to reduce land-based pollution, such as silt-laden runoff, which threatens the health of Hawaii’s reefs.

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Nellis AFB Accelerates Environmental Performance

The huge 14-megawatt solar array gets attention, but Nellis also reduced energy use, water use, and hazardous waste.

Over the past year, reporters have been beating a track to Southern Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base, to see Nellis’ sparkling new 140-acre photovoltaic electric power generating facility—the nation’s largest photovoltaic array.

There, 72,000 solar panels track the desert sun each day to generate up to 14 megawatts of power—enough to provide 20-30% of the facility’s electric power. The solar panels avoid the annual generation of 18,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). The array is sited, in part, over a closed, historic landfill, thereby making creative use of an area with limited development potential.

This $100 million system was built through the coordinated efforts of the Air Force, MMA Renewable Ventures LLC, and Nevada Power. MMA Renewable Ventures financed and operates the solar power plant, selling electricity to Nellis Air Force Base at a guaranteed fixed rate for the next 20 years. Nevada Power supported the project by purchasing Renewable Energy Credits generated by the solar array.

Nellis Air Force Base now has the nation’s largest solar photovoltaic generating system.

Nellis has already achieved a 16% reduction in energy use from lighting retrofits, improved air conditioning equipment and “cool roofs”—white ceramic paint on rooftops to reduce heat absorption, which cuts air conditioning power use. And they’ve gotten a 50% (20-ton) reduction in hazardous waste from a variety of projects, including recycling fuel from spill pads and encouraging the reuse of hazardous materials.

But Nellis’ environmental performance doesn’t stop there. Guided by its Environmental Management System (EMS), Nellis is setting additional goals to reduce its impacts. Base managers aim to reduce water use by 11%, or 100 million gallons of water annually, as a result of a $2.8 million xeriscaping project. They’re replacing thirsty lawns and landscaping with plants adapted to desert environments, which need little water. Given the continuing drought in the Southwest, water conservation is a high priority throughout the region.

The base’s jet plane maintenance activities and building maintenance have routinely generated waste paint—a hazardous waste—and wastewater contaminated by zinc. The base has set a goal to cut both of the waste streams, reducing paint waste by 2,600 pounds and reducing zinc discharges to water by 120 pounds a year.

Nellis’ successful implementation of its EMS has provided the foundation for its environmental accomplishments to date and its future goals. An EMS is a set of policies, processes and practices that enable a facility to reduce its environmental impacts and increase its operating efficiency. Nellis’ EMS is notable because of the size of the facility and its success in gaining the involvement and cooperation of Air Force personnel as well as civilian staff and contractors.

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Chris Rollins: Tracking Down PCBs and Hazardous Waste Violations

Highly toxic PCBs, including “invisible” uses on obsolete ships, cannot legally be exported from the U.S.

Chris Rollins
Chris Rollins

On January 29, 2009, EPA levied fines totaling $518,500 on two Maryland-based companies that allegedly exported a PCB-laden ship from San Francisco, even though the ship—the retired passenger liner Oceanic—had already left U.S. waters when EPA took action. The message was clear: You can run, but you can’t hide from EPA’s law enforcers.

In this case, the key enforcer was Chris Rollins, a long-time San Franciscan and UC Berkeley graduate with a degree in physical sciences. Neither Chris nor any other U.S. officer, including the Coast Guard, was able to board the ship after it left port, since it avoided U.S. jurisdiction en route to the Persian Gulf. But Chris and the regional enforcement team examined thousands of pages of records subpoenaed from companies that owned or worked on the vessel to establish the violations.

Chris first came to EPA’s Pacific Southwest Regional Office as a part-time student intern in early 1998, when he started work in the Pesticides Program. After graduation in December of that year, he gained full-time status and became a pesticide inspector, making the rounds of stores that sell pesticides, checking for violations of pesticide labeling and registration regulations.

For the past year and a half, he’s been in the Waste Division, where he conducts inspections and develops cases involving violations of regulations governing hazardous waste and PCBs—polychlorinated biphenyls. EPA banned the production of PCBs in 1978, after tests showed that they cause cancer in animals and harm the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems in humans.

Click to play a video about PCBs on ships
Watch Chris in EPA’s video about PCBs

Disposing of Vessels with PCBs

PCBs’ most widespread use was in electrical transformers and capacitors—familiar to most people as the canisters sitting atop powerline poles. Most of the liquid PCBs formerly inside these canisters have been replaced with less toxic chemicals, but all such equipment made before 1979 is assumed to have some residual PCBs. This is legal, but yellow warning labels are required for PCB concentrations of 500 ppm or more.

Ships built before 1979, such as the Oceanic, may contain PCBs in cable insulation, gaskets and watertight seals, and paint. PCBs, including these “invisible” uses on ships, cannot legally be exported from the U.S. The primary means of legal disposal are high-temperature incineration for liquid PCBs and special hazardous waste landfills for PCBs in solids.

In another major case Chris worked on recently, ExxonMobil paid $2.64 million to settle allegations that the oil giant illegally disposed of at least 389 gallons of PCBs that leaked from transformers on an offshore oil platform in Southern California’s Santa Barbara Channel over a two-year period. No release to ocean waters was ever documented. Some of the PCBs ended up in an oil pipeline to tanks onshore, where it was diluted into large quantities of oil, and some went to the wrong type of landfill.

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Donna “Kahi” Kahakui: Enforcing the Law in Hawaii

EPA investigators initiated quarterly Hawaii Environmental Task Force meetings to plan cooperative efforts.

Go ahead. Think of the long-running TV show, Hawaii Five-0. Now, instead of Dano (as in “Book ‘im, Dano”), think Donna. That would be Donna Kahiwaokawailani Kahakui, one of two EPA Special Agents based in Honolulu, working for the Criminal Investigations Division (CID). In Hawaii’s law enforcement community, she’s known as Kahi.

Before coming to EPA in 2002, Kahi was already known as an environmental activist and athlete. She founded Kai Makana, a volunteer-run nonprofit that educates and mobilizes people to understand and preserve marine life and the ocean environment through youth mentorship and community-based programs. One of their projects involves stewardship of Mokauea Island, an islet off Honolulu where ancient Hawaiian lifeways are recreated.

Kahi Kahakui (right) and Nahina Leeloy together paddled outrigger canoes almost 180 miles from Oahu to Kauai to Ni’ihau, to raise awareness of the need to take care of the ocean

Kahi Kahakui (right) and Nahina Leeloy together paddled outrigger canoes almost 180 miles from Oahu to Kauai to Ni’ihau, to raise awareness of the need to take care of the ocean.

Kahi is also a champion outrigger canoe paddler. In April 1999, she completed the first recorded solo outrigger canoe paddle from the Big Island to Oahu—a 140-mile marathon in 58 hours that her CID colleague Gary Guerra calls “superhuman.” That’s just one item on a long list of paddling records (Molokai to Oahu, 32 miles in 5 hours, 11 minutes) and accomplishments, both solo and as a member of outrigger crews.

Unlike on Hawaii Five-0, most of the CID’s work is carried out quietly. This cadre of EPA agents investigates environmental crimes—not unknowing violations, which carry financial penalties, but willful lawbreaking that earns jail time.

Kahi covers the State of Hawaii, while Gary primarily covers American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and some of Hawaii.

They collaborate closely with other law enforcement agencies that can provide backup. Several years ago, they initiated quarterly Hawaii Environmental Enforcement Task Force meetings, where federal, state and local law enforcement authorities gather to plan cooperative efforts.

Like detectives, they often work odd hours, conducting interviews with whistleblowers outside the workplace. In one recent instance, Kahi worked with the U.S. Coast Guard to successfully prosecute a couple of sailors who routinely dumped oil off their vessel.

In 2008, Kahi went in with plenty of backup to an illegal hazardous waste dump in Leeward (western) Oahu, shut it down, and called in an EPA Emergency Response Team to safely clean up and remove drums of oil and chemicals. The soil was contaminated with lead, arsenic, and chromium. EPA ordered the owner to clean up the site. Two men associated with the dump were later charged and convicted for firearm violations.

With EPA and other federal and state agencies putting the spotlight on the Waianae Coast, the evironmental violators have been put on alert and now realize that they are being watched and will be held accountable for their actions, says Gary.

The United States Attorney for the District of Hawaii, Ed Kubo, has sent an equally clear message to those who do not adhere to the environmental laws and do not care to protect and preserve the Hawaiian Islands. Kahi, Gary and EPA-CID are committed to doing just that.

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