Two emergency releases of dioxin-laden pollutants at the Times Beach incinerator have residents burning mad
First published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), April 3, 1996
BY C.D. Stelzer
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) predicted it
would happen. But no one on either side of the
contentious issues surrounding the Times Beach dioxin
incinerator was totally prepared to deal with the
reality of watching thousands of pounds of dioxin-laden
particulate matter spew into the air.
Two emergency releases, which bypass the Superfund
incinerator's pollution control system, have already
occurred in the first two weeks of what is expected to
be a seven month burn. The latest accident occurred last
Saturday morning when a valve failed. On March 20, an
electrical power outage resulted in a discharge of
dioxin-contaminated pollutants that lasted for about one
hour, according to a spokesman for the Missouri
Department of Natural Resources. Environmental
activists, on the other hand, claim the same incident
lasted three-and-a-half hours.
The eminent danger posed by emissions is the main
legal argument of a federal lawsuit filed earlier in
late March by the Citizens Against Dioxin Incineration
(CADI). CADI is comprised of Eureka-area residents and
the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG), a group of
"We are convinced that incineration is releasing
substantial amounts of dioxin and other dangerous
poisons into the environment both from the stack and
from other sources at the incinerator," says Mick
Harrison, the attorney for CADI. Concerns over public
health is reason enough, according to an existing
federal environmental law, to take the issue to court,
Harrison says. In a separate legal action, CADI will
also ask the court this week to allow the group to
intervene and become a party to the 1990 consent decree
that mandates the cleanup, Harrison adds.
For its part, the EPA continues to maintain that
emissions from the incinerator will have a negligible
impact on the health of nearby residents. Those
reassurances, however, contradict the agency's own
studies, which estimate that the population of the
entire country has already been overexposed to dioxin.
That opinion is further bolstered by a 1994 EPA analysis
that indicates dioxin is a probable human carcinogen and
is responsible for immunological and reproductive
According to the EPA's initial Times Beach risk
assessment, a typical emergency venting "may occur at a
frequency of once per week and last for several minutes.
... Because of the absence of a gas cleaning system,
approximately 350 pounds of treated particulate matter
may be emitted during a typical ... release." This
means, by conservative estimates, more than a ton of
toxic material escaped from the dump stack on March 20.
The EPA euphemistically refers to such occurrences as an
"Environmentally Safe Temporary Emergency Release
In a subsequent risk assessment published in late
February, the EPA called ESTER events "hypothetical."
The same report downplayed both the potential effects of
such accidents and even the possibility of them
Nevertheless, the pollution control system has now
been acknowledged to have been circumvented twice.
Unfortunately, ESTER events are only one of the
potential hazards tied to the incinerator's inefficient
operation. Video tapes made by incinerator opponents
clearly show repeated incidences in which billowing
plumes of brown clouds can be seen escaping from the
foundation and intake conveyor.
But the DNR denies any knowledge of these fugitive
"Obviously, we had the ESTER events," Jim Silver of
DNR told a group of local residents last Saturday
afternoon. The impromptu meeting at the agency's office
near Times Beach took place after the second emergency
in as many weeks. Silver told the concerned residents
that he was unaware of any other problems at the site.
When asked about the brown smoke pouring out of the base
of the incinerator, Silver replied: "I'm not sure
what you're talking about."
The DNR official admitted no one from the state
regulatory agency or the EPA monitors the incinerator
site 24 hours a day. Instead, they rely on data provided
by Syntex. Syntex has in turn contracted IT Corp. to
construct and run the incinerator.
Chesley Morrissey, a member of the St. Louis County
Dioxin Monitoring Committee, has accused the DNR
official of not responding to the March 20 emergency in
a timely manner. Morrissey, who was appointed to the
watchdog group by County Executive Buzz Westfall, says
the Silver did not inform her of the first emergency
release until well after it happened. It then took three
days of repeated telephone calls for her to reach him,
The Monitoring Committee member is concerned about
the frequency of the emergencies given the brief time
the incinerator has been operating. "It's very alarming
that you don't know what's going on," Morrissey told
Silver on Saturday.
Morrissey and other residents of the area have been
observing the incinerator operations occasionally from a
bluff overlooking the site. "This is kind of amazing. We
don't go up there that often to see what is going on and
just the few times we have gone up there we've got this
on tape," she says, referring to multiple instances of
both fugitive emissions and emergency releases that
bypass the pollution controls.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Charles A. Shaw
transferred the CADI lawsuit to Judge John F. Nangle,
the senior jurist in the 8th Circuit who oversaw the
negotiations of the 1990 consent decree. In August,
Nangle upheld the limited terms of that court-ordered
agreement by outlawing a St. Louis County ordinance that
imposed stricter emission standards on the incinerator.
Both the EPA, and Syntex, which entered the CADI
suit of its own volition, are asking Nangle to dismiss
the case. According to their arguments, Superfund law
prohibits all litigation until after cleanups are
completed, making any citizens' objections to such
projects a moot point.
Not surprisingly, Harrison, the attorney for CADI,
disagrees with that legal stance. "There is a provision
of the Superfund statute that says consent decrees can
be challenged, set aside, or modified not withstanding
any other provision of the Superfund law," says
Harrison. This interpretation of the law has been upheld
in other federal cases, according to the environmental
attorney. As of yet, the Supreme Court has declined to
take up the issue, he says.
As the legal fight continues, the
dioxin-contaminated soil continues to roll into Times
Beach from some of the 26 other sites in Eastern
Missouri that are a part of the cleanup. All together
more than 100,000 cubic yards are scheduled to be
An observer can see all this activity quite well
from up on the bluff overlooking the Meramec Valley. The
vantage point is populated by a small colony of prickly
pears that cling precariously near the edge of a rock
outcropping. These dwarfed cacti are evidence of a
botanical transition zone. Human influences on the
environment are far less subtle.
In the background, an EPA air monitoring station hums
incessantly. Earlier in the day, workers installed a
second cyclone fence around this equipment, and topped
the new barrier with three strands of barbed wire. New
roads are being bulldozed along this ridge, too. The
3-acre wooded lots here sell for more than $50,000. Soon
houses will be built and foraging deer will move
Meanwhile, in the flood plain below, a column of
white smoke rises from a tall stack and then drifts away
on the whims of the wind.
Some days it blows toward the high school in Eureka,
other days it drifts toward Sacred Heart elementary.
Next to the smokestacks at the incinerator site, the
U.S. and Missouri flags also wave in the breeze.