Last week, however, after spending five months trying to identify the contents of unmarked barrels -- some of which were leaking flammable and hazardous liquids -- an agent surveying the contents of one five-gallon plastic bucket found something unnerving: two fetuses and a placenta, mainly intact and preserved in glass jars.
"In some ways, it's not real inconsistent with the site, because we've found fetal pigs, cats, frogs, and other animals," says Bob Rosen, the EPA's emergency response coordinator. "So, who knows? It's a weird place."
Now, in addition to disposing of thousands of barrels of the nastiest stuff that industries produce, EPA agents have two tiny bodies to deal with.
The barrels were abandoned at a depot off Moreland Avenue by Southeastern Research and Recovery, a company that was paid up to $1,000 per barrel to collect and properly dispose of industrial waste. The company abruptly went out of business earlier this year.
In June, state officials called on the EPA to investigate drums containing flammable oils and lubricants stacked atop each other. Some of the drums continuously leaked onto the asphalt at the site; stopping those leaks was the EPA's first priority. Thousands of other barrels didn't have legible labels. That meant the only way for the EPA cleanup crew to find out what was inside the barrels was to open them.
The EPA agents have uncorked almost every type of industrial waste and plenty of hazardous wastes, all sent by chemical companies, machine shops and manufacturers across the Southeast to Southeastern Research for disposal.
The surprising nature of the cleanup left agents expecting the unexpected. Then they found the fetuses.
Not knowing how the fetuses died, EPA officials called the DeKalb County medical examiner's office to determine if a homicide investigation was necessary. The office's Chief Investigator Greg Greene told CL that the cause of death didn't appear to be homicide. He had no guesses as to where the fetuses came from.
But folks within the EPA have their theories.
"We don't know how they got here. ... They could have been part of the waste disposal," an EPA investigator wrote in an e-mail to CL. "Maybe they were illegally dumped. Weird theories."
For his part, Rosen has ruled out abortion clinics as a source because the fetuses are "in jars and they are well-formed," he says. "So they probably came from a school or clinic using them for some kind of teaching. But they were in a five-gallon pail and it wasn't marked. That's highly irregular."
The EPA's criminal investigators say they are determined to find out where the fetuses came from, just as they'll try to track down the source for all of the illegally dumped wastes.
"At a minimum, they were a biohazard type of waste, and they were just put in a five-gallon pail and sealed with no markings," Rosen says. "So environmentally, that breaks a couple of shipping and transportation regulations."
Rosen expects to have a list of all the chemical companies and manufacturers whose waste ended up at Southeastern Michael Wall
Research's site by the end of the month. Once the site is more manageable, he will ask the companies to form a group and take over the cleanup.
Tracking down the source of the fetuses will be difficult, unless investigators find a tracking or shipping receipt in the mounds of paperwork left in the Southeastern Research offices.
"It's very odd, because if nothing else, if you're going to throw away human remains for whatever reason, throw them away correctly," Rosen says. "The idea that they were just discarded like that that was pretty cold."