Guam — It has been nearly two years since an underground fire in a Yigo coral pit forced the evacuation of a nearby neighborhood, and the Guam Environmental Protection Agency is still struggling to fine the property owner believed responsible.
Joseph S. Taitano, who owns the much-debated property along Route 15, was fined about $2.3 million in January, but the agency admitted yesterday it will have to undo that fine and try again.
Agency spokeswoman Tammy Jo Anderson Taft said Taitano wasn’t given proper notice of an agency board meeting that resulted in the fine.
Anderson Taft said she believed the agency sent only an email notice, but Superior Court of Guam documents state that local law requires a notice be mailed to Taitano, also.
“No one is in disagreement that GEPA failed to follow the law and give him the notice that he was entitled to,” Taitano’s attorney, Curtis Van De Veld, said yesterday in court.
Van De Veld asked Judge Elizabeth Barrett-Anderson to undo the fine herself, but the judge said she would give the environmental agency board 30 days to fix its mistake.
Guam EPA had been concerned about the Yigo coral pit for the better part of a decade, but the issue came to a head in May 2010 when nearby residents noticed pungent smoke rising from Taitano’s property. Soon an underground fire was discovered, and the agency alleged it was fueled by years of illegal dumping in the black abyss.
After several weeks of uncontrolled burning, GovGuam used emergency funds to plug the pit with clay and dirt. Water couldn’t be used to extinguish the flames out of concern it would drain toxins into the aquifer, which stretches below the coral pit.
At least six families were evacuated during the fire, according to Pacific Daily News files. The incident also revealed that Guam EPA had issued Taitano a “notice of violation” about the coral pit several years earlier, and the property owner and the agency have been at odds ever since.
In an interview after court yesterday, Taitano denied that he used the coral pit as a dump.
It was true that some waste had accrued in the pit, but that waste was dumped by someone else, Taitano said. As part of a previous settlement with Guam EPA, Taitano had funded a cleanup of this waste, Van De Veld said.
Taitano said he still occasionally spots smoke rising from some sections of his property. This could be evidence that the fire has reignited — or was never truly extinguished — but there is no evidence that the fire is fueled by garbage, Van De Veld said.
“This is kind of still a volcano we live on,” Van De Veld said.
After court, Anderson Taft said the Guam EPA still has full intention of following through on its case against Taitano, but it would have to take this back step to rescind the fine before it could move forward again.
The agency has sometimes struggled to follow the strict mandates of law in this case because it didn’t have its own legal council until recently, Anderson Taft said.
The Office of the Attorney General had previously assisted the agency with legal matters, but Assistant Attorney General R. Happy Rons joined the agency as internal counsel in January. She represented the agency in court yesterday.
“Now that we have legal counsel, we will be able to move forward 100 percent effectively,” Anderson Taft said.
Van De Veld said GEPA would face additional hurdles if the agency attempted to fine his client again. He alleged the agency had breached two settlements with Taitano and insisted that the window to act in this case had long since closed.
“We will just have to wait and see what happens,” the attorney said after court.