Granted that each of us is entitled to our own opinion, we probably can all agree that not all opinions are equal. Some pack more punch from a writer’s or speaker’s prominence, while others are potent from logic or emotion. Gratefully, we are free to be wrong about things. But getting something wrong cannot be validated simply by our say-so. “You are not entitled to your own facts,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said. Nevertheless, smart, savvy people can draw differing conclusions from the same set of facts.
Clifford Lippitt, a certified geologist in Maine, has worked at S.W. Cole Inc. since 2003. Years earlier, a landfill owner had engaged Cole for technical assistance in closing its facility, which included coordinating the work with officials at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (MDEP). In 2002, Richard Behr, an MDEP employee and certified geologist, had visited the site and tested nearby residential drinking water wells. Based on his conclusion that contaminants were leaching from the landfill, MDEP installed water treatment systems on the affected wells.
Lippitt later submitted a report to MDEP with data indicating that the neighboring wells showed sodium, manganese and iron at concentrations that exceeded safe drinking water standards. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were also present, but at levels that met drinking water regulations. Notably, he contradicted Behr’s conclusion about the source of VOCs, finding “no conclusive evidence to link elevated [VOC] levels detected in the [wells] with the landfill.” The report recommended no further action, referring to “recent groundwater sampling” and “previous investigations” substantiating that “bedrock groundwater flow does not impact the residential wells.”
Behr responded to the report with memos to his supervisor, Karen Knuuti, calling for additional hydrogeological studies. As he saw it, the water quality data clearly showed that “landfill derived contaminants” had infiltrated the water supplies of nearby residences. Lippitt acquiesced; Cole would drill additional wells and collect data at locations selected by MDEP.
In 2006, Lippitt submitted a 338-page report on the results of the supplemental tests. Nearly two years later, Behr informed Knuuti that Lippitt’s “interpretations and conclusions are fundamentally flawed and not supported by the data.” Not content to merely express this opinion, Behr also filed a disciplinary complaint against Lippitt with the state board that certifies geologists and soil scientists.
The board conducted a hearing where it heard testimony from Lippitt, Behr, Knuuti and the board’s own expert, Andrew Reeve, a geology professor. Behr faulted Lippitt’s interpretation of the data. Lippitt “lack[s] understanding of the importance of characterizing the groundwater quality immediately adjacent to the landfill and sampling the homes,” he testified.
Similarly, Reeve scoffed: “[I]t is unreasonable to indicate there is no evidence that the landfill is responsible for the . . . compounds in the residential wells.”
For his part, Lippitt shrugged off the challenges, saying that he had expected MDEP to dispute his findings and demand more testing. The report, as he intended it, was to note that, despite the migration of compounds from the landfill to the wells, neither the investigation nor the closure need be prolonged because the readings did not exceed acceptable drinking water contaminations levels in the landfill closure regulations.
Barry Shanoff is a Rockville, Md., attorney and general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.