June 18, 2003
Posted at: 10:33 p.m. CDT
OSCEOLA, Ark. -- Investigators from the Environmental Protection Agency are searching for hazardous materials inside an Osceola warehouse. All the while, the warehouse owner continues to claim he is innocent.
Dressed in protective boots and cover-alls, environmental specialists from the EPA and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality began gathering samples from the Osceola home of Arkansas Municipal Waste to Energy.
"We initiated a federal search warrant on Monday," said Randall Ashe of the EPA Criminal Investigative Division.
The warrant is for materials stored by the business owned by Wally Elbeck. He is accused of storing hazardous materials without proper permits.
"We're in the process of continuing the execution (of the warrant)," Ashe said. "We're analyzing and obtaining any evidence that may assist us in the criminal investigation."
Ashe has been inside the facility. He won't say what kind of chemicals and materials he's seen inside since, "there hasn't been complete analysis of the evidence."
Osceola residents believe that whatever is inside the warehouse has been making them ill for at least a year. They've consistently complained to ADEQ, and weren't sure if this day would come.
"It's about time," local resident Glenda Hawks said. "It's about time that somebody got involved with this and let us know what is in there."
"I hope that it's just not a facade," Nedura Cook said of the investigation. "And that we're gonna move forward in making Osceola a viable and safe place to live."
"I'm glad to see the EPA is here," Debbie Robertson said. "But I know regardless, it's going to be a couple years before they can even get started on cleaning it out."
Ashe says he doesn't know exactly what's inside the warehouse, but he says if he thought citizens' health or safety was in immediate danger, he would evacuate the area. He doesn't think that's the case.
The ADEQ filed a lawsuit against Elbeck's business in March, citing a danger to the public. The warehouse hasn't been in business since. Attorney Scott Emerson claims the situation out of his client's control.
Elbeck relies, according to Emerson, on his clients that bring waste to him to properly fill out manifests, detailing the materials they send him.
"So if there's hazardous waste that's in there," Emerson said. "It is not his fault that it was in there, because he is not required legally to test everything that comes into that warehouse or came to the incinerator."
Osceola residents don't buy the claim that Elbeck is not responsible for the waste products delivered to him.
"I don't believe it," Glenda Hawks said. "Not for one second do I believe it."