BY. C.D. STELZER
first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), August 3, 1994
White noise, faint piano notes and Nina Simone's voice
all bled through the audiotape, obscuring much of my
recording of Barry Commoner's speech and making a full
transcription of it impossible. But last Saturday,
hundreds of environmentalists, unencumbered by jazz or
technical difficulties, heard the biologist's message
loud and clear.
Commoner gave the keynote address at the Second
Citizens' Conference on Dioxin, which was held at
Tegeler hall on the St. Louis University campus.
The Environmental Protection Agency's draft
reassessment on dioxin, due to be released this month,
reinforces what Commoner and other scientists at the
conference have warned for decades.
"The report acknowledges that we have all now been
sufficiently exposed to dioxin to worry about the
various effects that have already occurred," said
Commoner, 77, a former Washington University professor
and presidential candidate.
"Stated more simply: The general spread of dioxin
and dioxin-like chemicals in the United States today has
already exposed the entire population to levels that are
extremely toxic," Commoner said.
Dioxin is a likely carcinogen, and is now suspected
of increasing susceptibility to disease and of damaging
the immune system and sexual and embryonic development,
according to a summary of the EPA report leaked earlier
More alarming perhaps is scientific evidence that
these ill effects are passed to future generations.
"What this does is to raise a profound moral issue about
the toxicology of dioxin," said Commoner. "Any parent
raising a child is intimately concerned about their
ability to do it well. Dioxin is a threat to that
Because of this, Commoner supports the move to ban
chlorine-based chemicals that create dioxin as a
byproduct. "Not a single chlorinated compound has been
found to be natural," Commoner said. "The chemical
industry has violated this biological taboo, and we are
all paying dearly for this transgression. ... The
chemical industry must drastically change its methods of
production and where necessary halt -- beginning with
the elimination of chlorine.
"The (chemical) industry will use its enormous
wealth and political power to resist such change,"
cautioned Commoner. "Chlorine is essential to at least a
third and maybe half of the processes that the chemical
industry now carries on. ... It means an enormous
But the scientist is optimistic that other
affiliated corporate sectors will pressure the chemical
industry because of their own potential financial
liability. Chlorine-based petro-chemical manufacturing,
which has developed since the 1940s, is tied to a wide
array of other industries, including pesticides,
herbicides, paints, solvents, plastics and waste
I think we are on the verge of beginning to win
this battle," said Commoner, gripping the lectern as he
has done so often in the past. He began teaching at
Washington University in 1947 and became involved with
the dioxin issue in the 1970s. Commoner ran for
president in 1980 on the Citizens Party ticket. The
following year, he joined the faculty of Queens College.
The biology professor with the shock of white hair and
bushy eyebrows has been called the "Paul Revere of
ecology," but he doesn't claim credit for any future
"What brought us to this point," said Commoner, "is
the environmental movement at its powerful grassroots:
the newest campaigns against trash-burning incinerators,
... the struggles at Times Beach and Love Canal, the
campaign for justice for the veterans exposed to Agent
Steve Taylor, a local organizer of the dioxin
conference, may have been too busy to hear Commoner's
accolade last Saturday. His hectic week began Tuesday,
when he walked into the ST. Louis County government
center on Clarkson Road in West St. Louis County
carrying a briefcase and Exhibit A -- a Duraflame log.
Taylor 30, had been issued an air-pollution
nuisance summons by the St. Louis County Police
Department on May 28 for burning a Duraflame log near
Eureka (Mo.). On that evening, members of the Times
Beach Action Group (TBAG) and the Gateway Greens had
assembled on a bluff overlooking I-44 to protest the
planned Times Beach dioxin incinerator. They unfurled a
banner that read, "Stop EPA Lies -- No Incinerator." The
Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the
EPA have refused to halt the project despite the passage
of a non-binding referendum against the incinerator and
opposition by both the district congressman and the St.
Louis County Council. the incinerator is being built
after a consent decree was signed by the EPA, DNR and
Syntex, the company held responsible for the cleanup.
The irony of being cited with an air-pollution
violation while opposing a dioxin incinerator wasn't
lost on Taylor. "One of the things that they're burning
down at Times Beach is the idea of representative
government," he said. "When it comes to the redress of
grievances, everyone's been left out of the consent
decree other than the Missouri Department of Natural
Resources, the EPA and Syntex..
When Taylor showed the fake log to the judge and
explained the situation, she wisely dropped the charges.
Others have been listening lately, too. Rep. James
Talent has recently proposed an amendment to the
Superfund reauthorization bill that would call for a
moratorium on the Times Beach incinerator until a
government study of health and environmental risks is
The woman who wants Talent's job has also talked to
Taylor. Margaret Gilleo, the leading Democrat in
Tuesday's primary, collared the activist last Saturday
on the plaza outside Tegeler Hall. Gilleo asked him
whether he was interested in working the polls. But
electoral politics are not the forte of the former Earth
Taylor later caused a minor stir at the conference
when he helped hold up another banner that said, "Smash
the EPA." At the time of the incident, Dwain Winters,
the director of the EPA's Dioxin Policy Project was on
On Sunday night, Gov. Mel Carnahan was burned in
effigy at the site of the previous TBAG and Gateway
Greens protests. The anonymous telephone caller who
reported the action to an RFT reporter identified
himself as "Deep Throat of the Second Citizens'
The voice sounded familiar.