Superfund conflict spawns anthrax scare

Living next to a toxic waste site is never fun, but it’s even less fun when there’s an anthrax scare involved.

Ruth and Chris Hawkes live in the Mace Ranch area east of Davis, across the street from what was, years ago, a pesticide and herbicide distributor. Since 1994 the site has been an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site, making cleanup a high priority.

According to the EPA there is no danger to area residents, even though the groundwater is contaminated with at least three suspected carcinogens. Several monitoring and extraction wells have been constructed over the past seven years to deal with the problem.

In mid-October, when workers began setting up equipment to drill a well next to the Hawkes’ house, the couple became concerned about the proximity of contaminants. They also found the behavior of the workers to be less than reassuring, citing several unpleasant altercations. Ruth said that when Chris told the drill rig operator he didn’t want any of the equipment on his property, the man allegedly told Chris, “Do you think I give a shit?”

Ruth complained to the EPA and began videotaping the workers, playing the role of the malcontent.

A few days later, there was a pounding on the Hawkes’ front door. Looking through the peephole, Ruth was startled to see a fireman in hazardous materials (hazmat) gear. When she opened the door the fireman, without explanation, told her to evacuate her house.

Outside, members of Davis’ police and fire departments gathered around while a hazmat official collected some white powder that had been found on the drilling equipment. “It scared the life out of me,” Ruth said. The powder was subsequently found to be baking soda.

The next day, an EPA investigator showed up at the Hawkes’ front door and separately questioned Ruth and her husband.

Scott West of the EPA Criminal Investigation Division confirmed that the incident is being investigated. “It is a high priority to prosecute hoaxes, as Attorney General Ashcroft has made clear,” he said. He wouldn’t say who else had been questioned.

Janet Rosati, the EPA’s project manager for the site, has received and responded to numerous complaints from the Hawkes. She acknowledged that the drill rig operator was way out of line in his behavior, but she also said that Chris Hawkes’ behavior was equally unpleasant.

“[The Hawkes’ concerns] are very rational, reasonable concerns,” Rosati said, adding that it’s unfortunate that their house is right on top of a hotspot. The building of the well, she says, will only make things better.

Ruth wouldn’t comment on anything Janet Rosati said. She and her husband, a biochemist for the USDA, have opposed the EPA’s plan all along. As far as the anthrax hoax, Ruth said, “If whoever did this thinks it’s funny, I’d like to punch them out.”