On the afternoon of May 12, 1987, Jack and Veda C. Downs went to feed the cattle on their farm in Pasco, Wash. As they cut twine off some hay bales, their senses were assailed by a stench that smelled like "a skunk and rotten eggs combined," recalls 73-year-old Veda Downs. By midnight, the Downses could hardly breathe. Soon, nearly two dozen of their neighbors came down with headaches and other ailments. A year later, at age 71, Jack Downs died of a heart attack.

A four-year probe by state and federal officials determined that the odors stemmed from a toxic brew of pesticides that PureGro Co., a West Sacramento (Calif.) agricultural chemicals maker, was dumping on a field next to the Downs's property. A federal grand jury in 1990 indicted the company and four executives on five felony counts and one misdemeanor offense involving the illegal dumping of toxic wastes.

But last year, the Justice Dept. dropped the felony charges and let PureGro plead guilty to one misdemeanor and pay a $15,000 penalty. That didn't clear the air in Pasco. "Justice didn't do their duty," charges Veda Downs. "I'm afraid it will happen again."

So are some Democratic lawmakers. They're concerned that the Justice Dept. is going soft on green crime. A House Science, Space & Technology subcommittee is looking at the government's settlement with Rockwell International Corp. last March. The company paid a record $18.5 million fine for illegally dumping waste at the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant in Golden, Colo.--but cleanup costs are estimated at $200 billion. And the House Oversight & Investigations subcommittee, headed by Representative John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), plans to hold hearings in September on Justice's environmental record.

There's more to the controversy than partisan wrangling. For one thing, the Bush Administration's own Environmental Protection Agency is among Attorney General William P. Barr's critics. A lawyer at the EPA in Washington drafted a list of 20 cases whose handling raised questions about the Justice Dept.'s aggressiveness. Some Republican officials outside Washington, such as Washington State Attorney General Ken Eikenberry, are complaining, too.

Justice is perplexed by the charges. Roger B. Clegg, acting assistant attorney general for the Environment & Natural Resources Div., notes that in the most recent fiscal year, his agency returned 125 indictments, resulting in 96 guilty pleas or convictions, figures that have been fairly stable for the past five years. And so far this year, the department has notched a $250 million fine against Exxon Corp. for the Valdez oil spill and a $6.5 million penalty against Chevron Corp. for illegal waste disposal off the California coast.

`FRUSTRATING.' Critics, though, remain troubled by the PureGro case. Investigators learned from PureGro workers that for five years, the Unocal Corp. unit had disposed of leftover pesticides in an open tank in Pasco--without keeping records of what was dumped. To avoid classifying the chemicals as hazardous waste, PureGro in May, 1987, sprayed them on a Pasco cornfield it had leased. Soon after, 23 neighbors in addition to the Downses complained of ailments ranging from headaches to heart problems.

In 1989, state prosecutors referred the case to the Justice Dept., because federal law carries stiffer sanctions than state laws. Before the indictment, PureGro offered to plead guilty to one felony. Robert H. Whalley, the company's attorney, said the company wanted to settle the matter and protect employees.

The federal prosecutors refused, and days later a grand jury returned a six-count indictment against PureGro and four employees. But in the spring of 1991, over the vigorous objections of senior EPA officials, the Justice Dept. settled the case. Senior Justice officials say that linking the chemicals to the illness in Pasco proved too difficult.

In a letter to Barr, Eikenberry called the episode "frustrating and unrewarding." And Democrats on Capitol Hill are looking for more such cases in Justice Dept. files. They plan to air their findings in the fall, just as voters start to firm up their choice for President. It may not cost George Bush the election. But it could take some of the edge off GOP assaults on the Clinton-Gore ticket's "environmental extremism."

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