Environmental Protection Agency crews are working to clean up a former military salvage yard on North Beck Street, removing potentially dangerous drums of acid, cyanide and other toxic material.

In addition to immediately dangerous substances, tons of soil that may be contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are to be taken from the Pearce Equipment Co. site, located between Beck Street and the Amoco Refinery, near Victory Road.A lawyer for family members who inherited the site in 1987 say the EPA has notified them that they may be responsible for cleanup costs. He contends that most of the material came from the military services, which should pay for the project.

The cleanup is going ahead under the federal government's Superfund Program.

The EPA is stabilizing hazardous material and removing some immediately, "so there won't be an acute problem," said Kenneth Alkema, director of the Utah Division of Environmental Health.

Nola Cooke, spokeswoman in the EPA's Denver regional office, said the emergency response team is headed by Don Shosky, who was on the scene directing operations.

Investigations have been conducted for the past nine months, Alkema said. The removal action is required immediately to protect the public, and the EPA will not charge state officials anything for this part of the project.

The project should take two weeks or less and cost about $400,000 - inexpensive by Superfund standards. But the later removal of material less immediately hazardous may cost much more.

Robert G. Pruitt III, who represents relatives of the late Richard O. Pearce, said the family inherited the site when Pearce died two years ago. The operation was similar to a war surplus business, he said.

"He would procure things from the military in their reutilization program, in the hopes of reselling it. A lot of the things he did resell. Some of the things he didn't."

Much of the material is now classified as hazardous, he said.

"Most everything out there is green; it has green military paint on it." Some of the items are marked as coming from Hill Air Force Base, others from Defense Depot Ogden and Tooele Army Depot.

According to Pruitt, military officers say many of their records on the material were destroyed because it was sold so long ago. "Some of the drums were marked 1954, some 1945."

"There's a lot of cases of saddle soap," presumably dating from the days of America's horse cavalry.

In fact, the saddle soap is a special problem because it's marked "poison," probably to distinguish it from C-rations and keep GIs in the trenches from mistakenly eating it.

But because it's marked that way, the soap is considered a hazardous material. And landfills won't take it because it's classified as a liquid.

When Pearce's family inherited the property, they put it on the market, he said. But then the material was tested and found to be dangerous, and the soil was found to be contaminated with PCBs.

PCBs are in coolant once commonly used in electrical equipment like transformers. But the chemical is now recognized as a dangerous pollutant, possibly capable of causing cancer.

"They had nothing to do with the property," Pruitt said. "It was their dad's and they hoped that they could inherit something."

He contends that the Superfund law has an exemption to free those who inherit property from liability, but said the EPA hasn't recognized that exemption in this case. "The intent of the Superfund law is to deal with abandoned waste sites and not pass them on to future generations," he said.

Pruitt contends that those who generated the material in the first place "are the generators that escaped the cost, and that they would be better equipped to pay for it than these people."