Estill County citizens posed hard questions and comments to state officials Monday night about the $8.5 million in civil penalties sought against the companies that illegally dumped, transported or arranged for the disposal of out-of-state radioactive waste in a landfill there and in Greenup County.
On Monday, the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services announced that it will seek a total of $8.5 million from various companies responsible for dumping the waste. Other companies might be added to the list if evidence is found to connect them to the dumping.
Sherry Kraus of Ravenna, one of more than 70 people who attended Monday night’s forum at Estill County High School, said $8.5 million sounds like “chump change” to her.
“It’s an easy cost of doing business for so many of these companies,” Kraus said. “Quite honestly, $8.5 million doesn’t sound like that much to me. ... Is this the best the state can do to discourage this sort of thing from happening again?”
Jennifer Wolsing, an attorney for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said most of the companies involved are not large, multi-state corporations.
“The companies that are involved, the majority of them are mom-and-pop-type operations,” Wolsing said. “These are individuals for whom these penalties are going to be shocking.”
Some business people have said the penalties could potentially bankrupt their companies, Wolsing said.
“If their protests to me have been any indication, they are not going to take this as, ‘Well, shoot, I guess I’m just going to write a check,’” Wolsing said. “To my knowledge these are very serious penalties, and these are definitely not multi-state corporations at all.”
Wolsing said, “Our goal is not to bankrupt these corporations.” Rather the goal is to send a message “that this behavior will not be tolerated.”
In addition, Wolsing expressed hope that some money recovered in penalties might go to Estill and Greenup counties.
State officials now know that 92 shipments containing more than 1,900 tons of waste originating in Ohio and West Virginia were illegally dumped in Kentucky. The Estill County landfill is across the road from the high school and the middle school.
State officials repeated that the estimated exposure to landfill workers and to students and teachers at the high school and the middle school is low, and that there is no evidence to suggest any measurable impact of the waste.
Nevertheless, several people said the buried waste should be removed from Estill County.
“From the beginning when I heard about this, I said, ‘Get it out of here! Remove it!’” said Bob Shaffer, a member of the group called Concerned Citizens of Estill County.
“Removal of the waste is the primary preferred option in our corrective action plan,” said Tony Hatton, deputy commissioner of the Department for Environmental Protection. However, if the landfill company proposes anything other than removal, the company must demonstrate the effectiveness of the remedy, among other factors.
Estill County Judge-Executive Wallace Taylor opened the three-hour meeting by alleging that state officials have not kept him informed about the investigation and penalties. Taylor said he felt “blindsided” by Monday’s announcement about the civil penalties.
“I would like to have more communication from the bodies in Frankfort,” Taylor said.
Tim Feeley, deputy secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the agency has been “doing everything we can ... to be as open as we can as soon as we have the information that is available.”
Wolsing said people in Estill County learned of the civil penalties announced Monday “at approximately the same time as anyone else in Kentucky would have heard about it.”
A lawsuit that Estill County Fiscal Court has brought against the landfill and others is pending in circuit court. The lawsuit alleges that the county’s host agreement and solid-waste ordinance were knowingly and willingly violated by bringing in out-of-state radioactive waste.
“We’re in it to win it,” Taylor said.