Inequities cited in Md.'s handling of PCB violations Whistle-blower says private firms are treated unfairly

August 22, 1991|By Liz Bowie gvB

For four years, federal environmental officials have dealt out -- harsher penalties to private businesses than to state governments for violations of laws governing toxic PCBs.

Maryland businesses soon will be nailed with $1 million in fines, mostly for failing to keep proper inspection records of electrical transformers containing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), according to a state environmental inspector.

But no state government facility has been inspected since 1987 -- despite a history of previous violations and hefty fines.

That is unfair, according to Victor Lapides, a state environmental official who has spent two years inspecting transformers with PCBs and now is taking on the role of whistle-blower.

Mr. Lapides is on a crusade to get equal treatment for private businesses, universities and hospitals. He has been to the Maryland attorney general and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general, and written a letter of complaint to his boss, state Environment Secretary Robert Perciasepe.

Mr. Lapides said he often hears the same refrain during inspections: "We didn't know we were supposed to be doing this."

It isn't surprising, he says, because the state and federal governments have done little to help educate the private sector about the law and what records must be kept.

At the same time, Mr. Lapides said, the state spent a $190,000 federal grant ensuring that public colleges, state buildings and city schools are complying with the law. The state has held seminars, done mock inspections and opened its doors for questions, all to protect the government from costly fines.

Deputy Attorney General Judson P. Garrett Jr. said he reviewed Mr. Lapides' complaint and found no evidence that the state government broke any laws.

However, state officials acknowledged this week that there may be inequities in the treatment of the private and public sectors and say they will begin reaching out to private businesses.

"I think Bob [Perciasepe] and I are somewhat sympathetic to the equity situation," said Ronald Nelson, deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

EPA officials said they are taking Mr. Lapides' allegations seriously. "We are going to actively look into them," said Lorraine Urbiet, an EPA spokeswoman.

Congress banned PCBs in 1979 but allowed their continued use as an insulation material in transformers as long as the owners of the buildings inspected them regularly and kept records.

Many of those transformers have now been replaced with equipment that doesn't contain the chemical, which is toxic to fish and wildlife, suspected of causing cancer in humans and nearly indestructible in the environment.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the EPA hired the state Department of the Environment to do about 100 inspections a year in Maryland. Those inspection reports were turned over to EPA's regional office in Philadelphia, which then decided on fines.

Between 1984 and 1987, 10 government facilities -- including such major institutions as the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, Walbrook High School, Back River Waste Water Treatment Plant and the State Highway Administration -- were fined tens of thousands of dollars.

The last straw came in 1987 when Morgan State University received a $254,000 fine. The penalty was eventually cut to $175,000, but Mr. Lapides said it made the state decide to leave inspecting its facilities to the EPA.

Mr. Nelson, the deputy environment secretary, acknowledges that the state knew the EPA could not do as many inspections as his agency did -- and the result would be fewer fines for public institutions.

State officials said they would rechannel their efforts to helping state facilities comply.

But the state, though no longer inspecting its own facilities, continued to oversee inspections and find violations in the private sector. The EPA, responsible since 1987 for examining state facilities, has done no PCB inspections in Maryland.

Yet government facilities in Maryland have been caught violating PCB laws more often than public facilities in other areas. Half of all finesagainst state facilities in the mid-Atlantic region were levied in Maryland, Ms. Urbiet said.

The EPA spokeswoman noted, however, that the EPA has about the same manpower to cover the District of Columbia and a five-state area including Maryland, as the state Department of the Environment devotes to overseeing the private sector.

There have not been more inspections done, she said, because the agency has made tips on specific violations a higher priority than general inspections.

Mr. Nelson said the program's goal is not to get large fines but to ensure that the public is protected from the chemicals.

But, Mr. Lapides said, the EPA will be seeking a $190,000 fine from a local hospital for record-keeping violations.

Details of the $1 million in fines expected soon were not available, he said, because the EPA is still reviewing them.

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