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Release Date: 04/01/1998
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, Press Office (617-918-1008)

BOSTON - As part of a stepped up enforcement effort focusing on public facilities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday mailed 1,700 letters to state, federal and municipal officials in each of the six New England states, warning them to make certain their public facilities are in compliance with environmental laws.

The letter was mailed on the same day that EPA took two significant enforcement actions against the R.I. Department of Transportation for numerous violations at a DOT facility in Providence near the Woonasquatucket River. The complaints, which include proposed penalties totaling nearly $800,000, allege numerous violations of hazardous waste laws and additional violations of the Clean Water Act.

"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," said John P. DeVillars, EPA New England Administrator. "Public agencies must be held to the same high standards as private industry. We intend to see that they are. Government agencies which have not made a real commitment to environmental compliance are taking a significant risk."

DeVillars said the DOT case is a glaring example why the EPA's New England Office is focusing increased enforcement attention on publicly-owned facilities throughout the region.

DeVillars said his office has filed 255 enforcement cases against public agencies since the public agency initiative was launched in 1994 and more cases will be forthcoming as more EPA inspections are done in the coming months.

EPA filed 77 cases against federal, state and local agencies in New England last year. The cases in Massachusetts included a groundwater pollution action against the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod, a hazardous waste violation action against the Department of Public Works in Haverhill and numerous municipal cases involving violations of safe drinking water standards, underground storage tank requirements and wastewater discharge requirements.

"I recognize that public agency managers have near-overwhelming demands and all too little resources to meet them," DeVillars said. "Nevertheless, it is important that agency heads meet these environmental responsibilities. We appreciate their efforts to do so."

The violations in Rhode Island were discovered during a multi-media inspection at the DOT complex on March 31, 1997. The most serious violations involved DOT's improper handling and storage of large amounts of hazardous waste, much of which was stored illegally at a DOT storage building. The facility, which covers an entire city block, includes vehicle maintenance facilities, a storage building, offices and a workshop.

EPA inspectors found 938 containers filled with various hazardous waste materials, including solvents adhesives, varnish, sealants, paints and paint thinners. Of the 938 containers, 116 were open, and 72 were spilled or leaking. Most also were unlabeled. A subsequent investigation revealed that the materials had been stored at the facility illegally since 1995.

EPA investigators also discovered numerous violations of the Clean Water Act, including spill-prevention violations pertaining to petroleum storage as well as actual illegal discharges of oil into the Woonasquatucket River.

"The scope and severity of the problems is disturbing," DeVillars said, referring to the Rhode Island case. "I'm particularly troubled by the hazardous waste storage problems, which not only posed a threat to the environment but also constituted a very serious fire hazard to the neighbors, DOT employees and emergency response personnel."

To help public agencies come into compliance, DeVillars said technical assistance is available through the EPA's Office of Assistance and Pollution Prevention. The assistance program includes a toll-free assistance line (1-800-906-3328), workshops, conferences, fact sheets and on-site assistance