Links between Box Elder landfill, California business charged in radioactive waste scandal emerge
Editor’s note: The following story was written and researched by Eric Peterson and Jennifer Greenlee of The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Box Elder News Journal.
After sitting empty for years on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake in Box Elder County, Promontory Point Resources is trying once again to receive out-of-state waste for its landfill after abandoning a previous attempt in 2018.
In its new Class V landfill application with the state Department of Environmental Quality, the company talks about the lucrative market in contaminated soils from superfund cleanup sites in northern California.
“The full market demand for excavated soil disposal from just counties around the San Francisco Bay appears to have an average in the range of 250,000 to 350,000 tons per year,” the document states.
The report does not mention many sites by name, although they are very well known in California.
Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard is a notorious superfund site that is now subject to a Department of Justice lawsuit, as well as a separate $27 billion class action lawsuit. A company involved in the cleanup, Tetra Tech EC, faked tests of soils in a way that threatened to send radiologically contaminated soils to landfills not equipped to safely store that type of waste. Two of Tetra Tech’s employees have already been sentenced to federal prison even as the DOJ continues to see who else might be responsible for the fraud.
Tetra Tech EC is owned by Tetra Tech, the same company that designed Utah’s Promontory Point landfill. One of the Tetra Tech vice presidents, Jon Angin, also was, for a time, the CEO for Allos Environmental, the Utah-based parent company of Promontory Point Resources. When Allos Environmental filed its new Class V application with Utah regulators last fall, it included an old proof of ownership document from 2017 showing Angin as the signatory of another company, PPR Manager, that manages Allos Environmental Group.
When Brett Snelgrove, vice president of operations for Allos Environmental in Utah, was asked if that means Angin or Tetra Tech still had ownership control over the landfill, he denied any association with Tetra Tech.
“I don’t know anything about Tetra Tech and what their business dealings are,” Snelgrove said before ending the conversation and referring a reporter to the company’s media spokesperson.
But in a follow-up emailed statement, Snelgrove wrote: “We don’t comment on our ownership.”
Bradley Angel, an environmental advocate with Green Action who splits his time between northern California and southern Utah, says the Hunter’s Point scandal is infamous.
“This has held up the biggest development project in San Francisco history,” Angel says. “It has to be hundreds of millions of dollars spent in development delays and investigative costs. Two Tetra Tech employees ended up in federal prison — and we think more heads need to roll.”
Hunter’s Point had a storied history. It was a key component of Operation Crossroads during World War II, in which service members would decontaminate ships that returned from conducting nuclear bomb tests. In July 1945, many of the key components of the first atomic bomb were loaded from there onto the USS Indianapolis to transport them to their launching point to be used against Hiroshima, Japan, and help hasten the end of the war.
It was also home to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory from 1948 until 1969, and the laboratory’s activities heavily contaminated the nearby environment with radioactive materials.
Superfund sites present enormous messes for local communities, and lucrative opportunities for companies with the expertise to clean them up. Tetra Tech EC landed $261 million in contracts from the U.S. Navy between 2006-2012 to clean up Hunter’s Point. All that work has now been called into question.
While fraud committed in the cleanup happened as early as 2006, it didn’t come to a boil until a federal whistleblower lawsuit was filed in 2016. Later, the Department of Justice would join the suit and the case is now ongoing.
The lawsuit paints a shocking picture of fraud, noting that Tetra Tech EC employees were contracted to scan soils from the cleanup site for radioactive materials, and separate soils with typical contaminants from radiologically contaminated soils.
Soils would pass over a conveyor belt and go through a scanner that would alert them when radiologically contaminated soil was detected, but whistleblowers reported that management sped up the conveyor belt “6 to 9 times the speed established by the Navy,” and later disabled the scanner alarm altogether. The company for months pushed all soil out to landfills. One account claims as much as 156,000 cubic yards.
For comparison, that’s enough to fill 7,800 average-sized dumpsters of contaminated soil — some potentially radioactive — which was sent to landfills unable to contain that level of waste. The suspect waste was sent to California landfills and the project is still currently on hold.
While parent company Tetra Tech would not provide comment for the story, the company created a website, HuntersPointFacts.com, that states that when problems with soil data arose in 2012, the company “immediately conducted a full investigation” that included analyzing 70,000 sample results at their own expense.
“Tetra Tech EC fully documented the investigation and completed corrective actions with full review by and coordination with the Navy and regulators,” the website states.
Angel, with Green Action, says his organization is relieved that Tetra Tech EC has been taken off the Hunter’s Point cleanup but still worries about all projects Tetra Tech is involved in.
Promontory Point Resource’s application in Utah stresses the convenient value of superfund cleanup sites in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tetra Tech, which designed the Promontory landfill, has also been deeply invested in other northern California superfund projects. Besides Hunter’s Point, documents from the Environmental Protection Agency and news accounts show the company is actively involved in cleanups at other Bay Area superfunds like the Alameda Naval Air Station and McLellan Air Force Base. All these sites contain radioactive contaminants.
Angel understands why there might be an opportunity for waste to come all the way to Utah, noting intense political pressure placed against Tetra Tech, as well as certain California landfills that have drawn criticism for polluting nearby communities of color, mostly migrant farmers.
The Promontory landfill’s new Class V application with Utah also notes that California applies a much stricter standard on its waste; more strict than federal standards for superfund sites, as well as those of most other states, including Utah. Promontory cites the cost of Bay Area contaminated soil being $100 per ton if deposited at Promontory Point landfill thanks to rail access and the different environmental standards. But for the much closer Kettleman Hills Facility in California, the cost is $145 per ton, according to Promontory’s application.
Snelgrove, the vice president of Allos Environmental in Utah, denies connections to Tetra Tech or its subsidiary, Tetra Tech EC, saying “They’re just an engineering company that helped engineer and design the landfill.”
While Angin was listed as a CEO of Utah-based Allos Environmental in 2017 when the company first sought Class V approval, Snelgrove says he has since left the Utah company.
“People move around, especially in the waste business,” Snelgrove says.
In addition to Tetra Tech designing the Promontory Point landfill, the company conducted geological studies of the landfill site in 2015 and 2016.
At the time of the first geological study, in 2015, Angin was employed as vice president of business development of Tetra Tech. He remained employed there until November 2016 when he became president and CEO of Allos Environmental Inc.
Angin’s online resume shows he was a vice president of business development for Tetra Tech between 2014 and November 2016 and that he became president and CEO of Utah’s Allos Environmental in November 2016 until December 2018. He’s currently listed as again working for Tetra Tech.
But the filing Angin provided the Utah Department of Environmental Quality in 2017 indicated he was the authorized signatory of PPR Manager LLC, a Delaware company that was the “sole manager” of Allos Environmental Group.
Delaware records indicate that PPR Manager was formed in December 2015, well before Angin took the helm of Allos Environmental in Utah and during the time he was still working for Tetra Tech — and also the same time the company was actively working the troubled Hunter’s Point cleanup site.
Tetra Tech would not comment on any questions about ownership or potential business agreements with the Utah landfill. Snelgrove would only say that “Tetra Tech is a vendor like any other.”
Regardless, northern California waste cleaned up by Tetra Tech could eventually wind up at Promontory Point landfill if the new permit is approved, and Tetra Tech could profit from the cheaper rates for storing waste in Utah compared to California based on the calculations in Promontory’s application to the state.
To be clear, no waste from Hunter’s Point or anywhere else has yet come to Promontory Point. And while Snelgrove said he had not heard of the controversies at Hunter’s Point, he says the landfill would still vet the waste it accepts.
“Any waste that would come in would have to meet our permit,” Snelgrove said.
Brian Speer is overseeing the state’s review of the new Class V permit, as solid waste section manager at the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control.
“Our DEQ inspectors go out and routinely inspect training records for workers at [landfill] facilities, and while at the facility they do a spot check to see if they might see anything that might look out of place,” Speer said.
How often is “routinely?”
“The state requires we inspect facilities every three to five years, but a Class V we typically inspect once every year,” he says.
In 2018, former Box Elder County lawmaker Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, passed a bill that allows landfills to actually self-inspect their waste and potentially only receive a state inspection every five years. Perry also sponsored legislation in 2016 to give Promontory Landfill clearance to seek out-of-state waste, though he later told reporters with the Standard-Examiner he had mixed feelings about the decision.
Speer was also asked about the ownership document in the company’s application and says it is still under active review to see if it is accurate and up to date.
One potential problem is that the ownership document submitted to the DEQ states that Allos Environmental Group in Delaware granted the landfill property to Promontory Point Resources (also in Delaware) — but there is no Allos Environmental Group having ever been listed as registered in either Delaware or Utah.
The Delaware-incorporated Promontory Point Resources is active and listed, but per the law in that state, its owners’ and officials’ identities are shielded from public view.
The landfill’s first attempt for state approval was withdrawn when a report indicated that the state did not likely need another Class V landfill. By Allos’ own current estimates, there are already six such landfills here.
And while there were reports of the company failing to pay bonds on the project, Snelgrove says the company is current on all its payments. The company also managed to raise $11.9 million in new investments for the company in 2020. If the Class V permit is approved by Utah’s DEQ, it would then just require approval from Gov. Spencer Cox to begin bringing in out-of-state waste.
What’s also new is the company has avoided any mention of coal ash, a waste product of coal-fired power plants loaded with lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxic substances.
“They did that because [coal ash] is a lightning rod,” said Lynn de Freitas of the conservation group Friends of the Great Salt Lake. “A lot of people are really dialed in to what the significance of coal ash is all about.”
Nevertheless, contaminants in some of the Bay Area superfund sites are just as bad — and that’s not counting radioactive soil.
The McLellan Air Force base, for example, boasts 138 chemical contaminants, six of which are radioactive and 37 have been confirmed to cause cancer in humans. The Alameda site contains arsenic, which can cause liver disease, comas, cancer or death.
Despite the consequences facing Tetra Tech in the DOJ lawsuit and other legal actions, the public company remains large and powerful, worth $7.2 billion, and remains heavily involved in government contracts.
In the 2020 election, company employees and their family members made over $170,000 in political donations, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, the majority to influential Democratic candidates and committees.
While the company declined to offer comment for this story, Tetra Tech CEO Dan Batrack had only good things to say about the company’s bright future — and 13% increase in share prices — in a Jan. 27 press release.
“The new U.S. administration’s priorities in climate change and infrastructure are well aligned with our market leading positions in water, environment, sustainable infrastructure and renewable energy,” Batrack said.