Kent County wanted a bike path.
Local officials in the Delaware county had their eye on a former landfill, practically across the street from Dover Air Force Base. So in 2005 they bought the property and two years later got certification from the Environmental Protection Agency that the site was safe.
But in 2010, the EPA's inspector general, the agency's independent watchdog, found that toxic chemicals were still present at the site, requiring more action by environmental officials before the bike path could be built.
It's a problem that investigators say still hasn't been solved. The EPA, they say, has at many contaminated sites done a better job of marketing its work than addressing real environmental dangers.
"The EPA's management of the long-term oversight and monitoring requirements for the safe re-use of contaminated sites has lagged behind its marketing of site re-use opportunities and showcasing of successes," the IG said in a new report released earlier this month. "Only in recent years has the EPA focused attention on the long-term stewardship aspects of contaminated sites across its cleanup programs."
The Kent County property, known as the Wildcat landfill, was a dumping ground for paint sludge, latex waste and other dangerous chemicals until the EPA shut it down for safety violations. Added to the EPA's Superfund project to clean up hazardous waste sites around the country, the agency considered the property decontaminated by 2002. Kent County bought the property in 2005, and a review by the EPA in 2007 found it was "protective of human health and the environment."
But the IG's investigation told a different story.
Inspectors subsequently found that water on the site was coated with a thin layer of petroleum. The levels of aluminum, iron and magnesium in the soil were higher than is healthy, and several other metals also were present in large concentrations.
And investigators said the EPA had not approved the plan for a bike path, instead deciding the land could only be used "as a conservation area and greenway with access restricted to authorized personnel."
The EPA largely agreed with the report, and changed some of its testing policies to better monitor decontaminated sites.
Last year, the EPA once again deemed the former Wildcat landfill to be clean, and Kent County is once again starting plans for use of the site.
Investigators are concerned there are similar sites all around the country.
"While the EPA's recycle and re-use goals are notable and may have made positive contributions in difficult economic times, the EPA's duty is to ensure that contaminated sites are safe for humans and the environment," the IG said.
The report comes at a time when the EPA is facing increasing challenges maintaining the long-term monitoring required at the sites to detect health hazards.
Sometimes the agency isn't conducting inspections itself, instead relying on local agencies and companies to determine the safety of "brown fields," properties that may be contaminated by hazardous waste. But without EPA oversight, the final reports are often wrong or incomplete, the IG said.
"Decisions about uses of redeveloped or reused brown fields properties may be based on improper assessments," the IG said. "Ultimately, threats to human health and the environment could go unrecognized."
The government is paying for the privilege. The 35 evaluations of sites the IG said were inadequate cost the EPA $2.1 million.
The IG's critique was one of five areas cited as primary concerns in the office's 2013 report to EPA leadership, along with the EPA's oversight of state-level programs, cybersecurity, management of chemical risks and workforce planning.
New threats are propping up, including new findings on how contaminated soil vapors pose a threat to humans. The New York state government, for example, is investigating several reused sites for dangerous vapors, a phenomenon the IG said the EPA doesn't yet have a plan to address.
And the inspector general is also concerned some states might not have the finances to support the reused sites, noting that Michigan state officials expressed concern they might run out of funds to monitor the safety of several decontaminated sites.
Meanwhile, cybersecurity at the EPA is decentralized, investigators found, with some piecemeal improvements implemented by separate offices. Although the agency is improving its computer safety, investigators noted that several known security issues still need to be addressed, and passwords and identification for users should be improved.
The watchdog's report also found that the EPA needs better workforce planning tools to determine whom it should hire.
"The EPA has not developed analytical methods or collected data to measure its workload and the corresponding workforce levels necessary to carry out that workload," investigators said.