Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Simpleton and the Sycophant

Greg Harton is the exective editor of the Northwest Arkansas Times. His views shape what events get coverage and the angle of the stories. He also has a weekly column called "What Gives?" Readers are often left asking themselves that question after reading it. Today's column illustrates that point, as Mr. Harton shares his insight about the recent mayoral debate and "two issues that left me shaking my head in disbelief."

"First," says Harton, "the candidates were unanimous in their support for light rail, which taken in context of all the other needs in Fayetteville and the region, is little more than a pipe dream." The candidates indicated that they supported long-range planning for light rail, not immediate construction, but Harton has long opposed even such planning and didn't let the facts get in the way of his analysis.

Second, Harton expresses surprise at "the ease with which Steve Clark, then Lioneld Jordan, then the other challengers tossed out so cavalierly the assertion that Fayetteville’s proposed regional park would be built on top of a 'toxic waste dump.'" Like his anointed candidate Dan Coody, Harton distorts the remarks of the opposition, which did not say the proposed park was on top of the abandoned landfill. Again like Coody, he tries to parse away the difference between a "toxic waste dump" and a "dump containing toxic wastes" to pretend there is no problem except the political one for Mayor Coody.

Harton and Coody can call it whatever they want. However, the City of Fayetteville website provides information about hazardous materials, including "industrial chemicals and toxic waste" that "pose a potential risk to life, health, and property," found in the home. These are among the types of materials routinely sent to the C&L Landfill in the 1970s.

Harton assures us that the landfill "was closed and covered according to the regulations in force at the time [1976]," but he conveniently fails to mention that there are absolutely no federal guidelines or requirements for landfills that closed before 1991. In 2005, the year that Coody signed the agreement to accept responsibility for the old landfill, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality labeled it one of "three landfills now classified by the department as the state’s most troubled." Recent environmental studies on the site have found cyanide, lead, and mercury in the dump, and there can be little dispute by anyone except Coody and Harton that those are dangerous toxic compounds.

Marsha Melnichak, one of Harton's obedient reporters, dutifully promoted Coody's version of the debate and the questions about the landfill. Coody angrily charged that if there was a problem, it is Lioneld Jordan's fault for voting in 2004 for the Mayor's proposal to accept the landfill property and future potential liability. Coody said Jordan knows the area isn't toxic because, as a council member for seven years, he has had all the same documentation on which Coody has relied.

The problem with Coody's self-serving attempt to shift the blame to the City Council is that ADEQ has continued to raise questions about the safety of the landfill well after Coody signed the contract, and thoughtful Aldermen might have new concerns now and be less trusting of Mayor Coody's assurances that everything is swell. When interviewed this week, Claire Barnett, project manager for EnSafe Inc. that evaluated the site for the ADEQ, and Brian Mulhern, risk assessor for EnSafe, said the company is still evaluating the property. Neither would say the Fayetteville landfill site is or isn't safe. So, we are left with the word of Dan Coody, for what that's worth.

The C&L Landfill on the SouthPass property was closed in 1976. Two years later, in August 1978, the nation began to understand the potential risks associated with abandoned dumps, when citizens called attention to one closed in 1953 at Love Canal, New York. They were assured by the New York State Health Commissioner in 1980 that "None of the tests provide scientific proof that Love Canal chemicals have caused human illness."

This week, we were assured by Mayor Coody and Editor Harton that the C&L Landfill site is not a problem.

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