Doxins aren’t the only problem in Missouri. PCB contamination continues to be overlooked or denied by both public regulators and Monsanto
BY C.D. STELZER
first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Feb. 14, 1996
First, hundreds of birds started dropping from the
rafters like so many miners' canaries. Then dogs and
cats began to die. By September 1971, seven horses had
perished at the Shenandoah Stables in Moscow Mills, Mo.
Before the scourge abated, scores more would die.
Humans also succumbed, developing flu-like symptoms
and skin rashes. On August 22, Judy Piatt, the co-owner
of the stable, admitted her 6-year-old daughter to St.
Louis Children's Hospital. The girl, who played
frequently inside the equestrian arena that summer, had
lost 50 percent of her body weight and was hemorrhaging
from the bladder. On a hunch, her mother filled an empty
Miracle Whip jar with dirt from the arena floor. That
soil ended up at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
in Atlanta, where in 1974 scientists confirmed it
contained trichlorophenol and a related waste byproduct
-- 2,3,7,8 tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD) -- commonly
known as dioxin.
After the CDC announced its find, dioxin became the
buzzword that grabbed headlines, spurred by its links to
Agent Orange and the Vietnam War. The resulting clamor
allowed the additional discovery of highly-toxic
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the same soil to
escape the media's attention.
This single detail is a clue in a mystery that
challenges the conventional history of Missouri's long
sordid affair with hazardous waste. It also raises
doubts about soil characteristics at other sites, the
origins of the toxins and the consequences of the
Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) plans to burn
them soon at Times Beach.
The legal authority for the EPA and the Missouri
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to mandate
incineration hinges on protecting public health. But
test burns conducted in November show problems
foreshadowing their plans, including the malfunctioning
of an important anti-pollution device. The EPA's
inability to fully account for PCBs and other pollutants
at nearly one third of the designated cleanup sites adds
another potential danger to an already uncertain
These are among the reasons the Times Beach Action
Group (TBAG), a group opposed to the
incinerator,contends the consent decree authorizing the
Eastern Missouri Superfund cleanup is void. TBAG also
asserts the EPA failed to address PCBs in its 1994 risk
assessment.The activists' position is supported by a
recent report prepared by the Environmental Compliance
Organization (ECO), the firm hired through an EPA grant
to represent citizens interests. In addition, Rep. Jim
Talent (R-Chesterfield) has raised questions about PCBs
at Times Beach, and again asked the EPA to delay
incineration so alternative technologies can be given
more consideration. Last week, the congressman's voice
was muted, however, by the release of a General
Accounting Office study favoring incineration. The
decision corresponds with the deregulatory mood of the
Republican-controlled Congress, and the trend of
delisting Superfund sites.
Turning a blind eye on the environment may be in
vogue among certain special interests, but an
investigation by the Riverfront Times has turned up
long-neglected facts that warrant consideration.
* No PCBs were found at the facility in Southwest
Missouri, where the dioxin in the St. Louis area
supposedly originated. This means PCBs that are present
came from another source or sources. Monsanto
exclusively manufactured PCBs in the United States until
* As early as 1972, an EPA official informed
Monsanto about PCB levels at the Bliss Waste Oil
Co.tanks in Sauget, Ill., according to a copy of a
correspondence obtained by the RFT. This contradicts the
EPA's own chronology.
*Russell Bliss, the owner of the company blamed for
the dioxin contamination in Eastern Missouri, signed at
least two contracts to haul hazardous waste from
Monsanto facilities in the mid-1970s. In 1977, a Bliss
driver dumped hazardous waste at a site in Jefferson
County. The sludge included PCBs that state officials
suspected came from Monsanto's research lab here. The
cleanup took six weeks and cost taxpayers approximately
* More recently, the EPA failed to provide relevant
information to the independent laboratory hired to
analyze soils from the Eastern Missouri dioxin sites. In
an appendix to the federal agency's 1994 risk
assessment, the lab cites multiple instances of missing
data, and states PCBs were found at four locations that
had not previously been listed by the EPA.
The predisposition of federal and state regulators to
underplay PCB contamination has led some local
environmentalists to muse that governmental concerns lie
not so much in protecting the environment as in
The Times Beach dioxin incinerator near Eureka is
scheduled to begin burning some 100,000 cubic yards of
dioxin-contaminated soil from 27 sites in Eastern
Missouri perhaps as soon as March. Plans for the burn
are proceeding despite the independent ECO report, which
questions whether current EPA methodology for measuring
stack emissions "leads to a vast underestimation of
risk." The citizens watchdog group also warns that
because of ambient levels already found in the
environment "further exposure by populations to any
dioxin should be avoided." ECO concludes that "(EPA)
data ... is insufficient to demonstrate that the sites
have been adequately characterized to all potential
constituents and the various congeners of dioxin."
In a pointed 3-page letter sent to the EPA regional
administrator Dennis Grams on Dec. 27, Rep. Talent takes
issue with the legality of burning PCBs without a proper
permit. In addition, he asks why sampling data for some
of the sites is missing.
These are all legitimate concerns. Incinerating
PCBs can actually create dangerous dioxins and furans.
Nevertheless, the EPA and the Missouri Department of
Natural Resources (DNR), say the project poses
absolutely no threat to human health.
"We're not saying that PCBs are not dangerous, but
it's an issue of risk, and the risk associated with very
low levels of PCBs is not significant," says Feild.
"It's not like PCBs are not suitable for incineration,
that's the way you deal with them."
For its part, Monsanto denies any poisonous past
relationship with Bliss, the man responsible for
spreading the waste. "To the best of our knowledge
Bliss's company did not haul PCB or dioxin-contaminated
material from any of our St. Louis area facilities,"
says Monsanto spokeswoman Diane Herndon. "We're not
saying that we didn't use him, but to the best of our
knowledge, we don't believe that he hauled any PCB or
Nevertheless, PCBs are undeniably present in some of
the contaminated soils. There existence is a toxic
subject that remained buried until the environmentalists
uncovered it. "It wasn't until we discovered the
Kimbrough report, which showed very high levels of PCBs
in the arena soils, that they (the EPA) gave us any site
specific data at all," says Steve Taylor, an organizer
Taylor is alluding to a scientific article by
Renate D. Kimbrough, a physician for CDC. She first
wrote about dioxin and PCB contamination at Shenandoah
Stables in 1975. Kimbrough then cited dioxin as the
cause of the Shenandoah Stables catastrophe -- but she
also said the contaminated soil contained up to 1,590
parts per million (ppm) of PCBs. The federal cleanup
standard for PCBs has been set at 50 ppm.
Earlier this month, Feild of the EPA admitted that
priority pollutant data was missing on six of the 27
sites that are a part of the Times Beach cleanup, nearly
one third of the total. This revelation follows the
release of EPA data sheets to environmentalists that
were missing PCB test results. The gaps in PCB data
raises serious doubts about the status of hundreds of
other locations in Eastern Missouri that are known or
suspected to have been sprayed by the Bliss Waste Oil
"If they (EPA) are saying they didn't test for
those (pollutants) or a percentage of the them are lost,
I find that hard to believe," says Nina Thompson, a
spokeswoman for the DNR. But when asked if the DNR is
aware of all the sites that Bliss may have sprayed with
PCBs, the department spokeswoman replied: "Have we gone
out and tested every site in Missouri? No, we didn't do
that." Instead, the state agency depended on the EPA.
But despite the EPA's missing data, Thompson is
confident regulators followed proper protocol and
tested for required priority pollutants other than
Nevertheless, there is a chance contaminated sites
may have been overlooked. According to research by
former DNR official Linda Elaine James: "State and
federal officials ... investigated over 375 sites in the
St. Louis area based on information that Bliss may have
sprayed there. About 45 of these sites were never
sampled because the investigation could not substantiate
Bliss at the site. Thirty were ruled out without
sampling because they appeared to have been sprayed by
Bliss after 1972 or 1973, the assumption being that
Bliss had used up all of the (dioxin-contaminated)
wastes by this time. Over one hundred (other) sites were
sampled and dioxin was not discovered." But the PCB
levels at these locations remains, for the most part, an
Interestingly, the environmentalists were not the
first to be denied information on PCB levels at the
Eastern Missouri dioxin sites. Mantech Environmental
Technology Inc., an independent laboratory that analyzes
soils for the EPA, refers to missing data in an
appendix to The appendix also states that four different
Aroclors -- Monsanto's commercial name for PCBs -- were
found at sites, where the compounds had not been
originally indicated on spreadsheets.
"It's disturbing that these data are not available
given the amount of money that they (the EPA) spent in
the early 80s gathering samples," says Taylor. "It's
rather like going to the moon and losing the rocks at
taxpayers' expense. It would appear that they were
trying to keep certain other sources of pollution from
All Roads Lead to Verona, or do they?
When CDC officials began investigating at Shenandoah
Stables, they suspected either PCBs or nerve gas. After
finding dioxin, however, health officials turned their
attention toward Agent Orange, a defoliant used in
Vietnam. Information from the Defense Department
narrowed the search to four sources, including Monsanto.
Syntex, the company ultimately held liable for the Times
Beach cleanup had purchased Hoffman-Taff Inc., one of
the suspected firms. Hoffman in turn implicated the
Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Co. (NEPACCO),
which leased part of its Verona, Mo.plant. NEPACCO
created dioxin as a waste byproduct of hexachlorophene.
Hoffman-Taff had hired another responsible party,
Independent Petrochemical Co. (IPC) of St. Louis, to
dispose of the toxic material. IPC sub-contracted the
work to Russell Bliss.
In six 1971 trips, Bliss hauled more than 18,000
gallons of dioxin-tainted sludge from Verona to his
Frontenac storage tanks. His drivers then sprayed the
toxic mixture as a dust-suppressant on horse arenas,
unpaved roads, truck terminals, and parking lots.
However, the CDC's soil analysis from Shenandoah
Stables, raises questions about this standard version of
events. That's because tests conducted on contents of
the "black tank" at Verona, where all of the
contaminants allegedly originated, indicated the
presence of dioxin -- but no PCBs. If PCBs found at
Shenandoah didn't come from Verona, then there had to
have been one or more other sources.
One of the conclusions of the ECO report is "there
is insufficient data to support the contention that a
single tank in Verona, Mo. is the sole source for all
dioxin contamination." Besides Monsanto, Bliss collected
waste from: Union Electric, Wagner Electric, Signet
Graphic, Benjamin Moore (Paint Co.), Edwin Cooper,
White-Rogers, Jackes-Evans, American Can, General Cable
, Carter Carburetor and the Orchard Corp, according to
court records. Some, if not all of these companies,
generated PCB-laden waste.
In September 1971, after she had sued Bliss,
Piatt, the co-owner of Shenandoah Stables, and her
partner Frank Hampel began tailing Bliss drivers on
their daily routes. Their surveillance would continue
for more than year. During that time, the pair
sometimes disguised themselves: Hampel donning a woman's
wig and Piatt wearing a man's cowboy hat.
The undercover work paid off. The pair observed
Bliss' drivers wantonly dumping waste into streambeds,
and fields. On one occasion, Piatt watched a Bliss
driver pick up a load at the Monsanto facility in St.
Peters, Mo. and dump it in a Mississippi River slough.
In another instance, she witnessed chemical wastes being
dumped at Times Beach.
In late 1972, Piatt compiled an 18-page report on
her investigation. Her dossier cited 16 different
companies whose waste had been dumped by Bliss drivers.
Piatt's list also included 31 locations that had been
sprayed. She submitted the report to the EPA, DNR and
Missouri Department of Health (DOH).
Piatt's case would reveal that one of Bliss'
Frontenac tanks contained PCBs. A decade later, the
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found
trichloroethylene and PCBs in a Bliss storage tank in
Private tests conducted in Times Beach in late 1982
detected not only dioxin and PCBs, but ethyl benzene,
acetone,toluene, xylene and other hazardous substances.
Depositions from 1972 through 1988 also indicate Bliss
and his drivers picked up waste products at the Monsanto
research laboratories on North Lindbergh and the
company's silicon wafer plant in St. Peters. Bliss
claimed his company disposed of its toxic cargo at a
landfill in East St. Louis. But the loads didn't always
make it there.
Most telling -- Bliss himself testified on Nov. 20,
1972 that he had sprayed the streets of Times Beach.
Despite this early knowledge, nothing happened. It
would be 10 more years before any attempt would be made
to deal with the problems. Unfortunately, the CDC
informed state authorities erroneously that dioxin had
an estimated half-life of only one year. While officials
waited for the disaster to disappear on its own accord,
the dilemma would be compounded by the excavations and
movements of contaminated dirt to other sites, including
"There's clearly PCBs everywhere," says Gerson
Smoger,an attorney who has been involved in Times Beach
litigation."They didn't test, because dioxin was the
chemical of concern. They weren't looking for it, but it
was there -- everybody knew it was there. So to say it's
not there is ludicrous." Originally,the Times Beach
personal injury suits included Monsanto as a defendant,
Smoger says, but the plaintiffs' attorneys later dropped
Monsanto because "it complicated the case too much."
Bliss' widespread activities also complicated
cleanup efforts.In 1983, Fred Lafser, then-director of
the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) told
The New York Times: "The feeling is why go look for more
problems when we do not have the staff to solve what we
know about?" More revealing are comments Lafser made to
the RFT that same year. "Most of our hazardous waste
problems (in Missouri) can be traced back to him (Bliss)
-- including problems with PCBs, solvents and inks,you
The EPA now defends its inaction by claiming
ignorance. "We didn't even discover Times Beach or any
of the Eastern Missouri dioxin sites until after 1980,"
says Feild, the agency's current Times Beach project
manager. "There was no work being done except for the
Centers for Disease Control, who were investigating some
horse deaths starting in about 1974."
But there is evidence that both the EPA and
Monsanto took an early interest in PCB contamination in
eastern Missouri relating to Bliss' activities. In one
letter dated Sept. 12, 1972, an EPA official provided
details to a Monsanto executive about testing for PCBs
at Bliss' oil storage tanks in Sauget, Ill. The letter
is from W.L. Banks, chief of the EPA's Oil and Hazardous
Substance Branch. It is addressed to W.B. Papageorge at
the Monsanto research labs on North Lindbergh.
When asked to comment on the Papageorge letter,
Herndon of Monsanto read this statement prepared by the
company's law department: "The 1972 letter to Papageorge
in no way implies that Bliss was hauling Monsanto PCBs.
Since PCBs had only recently been identified as an
environmental concern, it might be very likely that
Bliss and many waste haulers would have PCBs in their
storage containers at that stage."
The EPA letter to Papageorge is, nevertheless,
noteworthy given the Monsanto executive's background.
During his more than 30-year-career with the company,
Papageorge managed a PCB plant. By 1972, he had moved up
the corporate ladder to become Monsanto's director of
The Dittmer Incident
A record of the fire is preserved in a routine report
filed away at the Cedar Hill Fire Protection District
headquarters in Jefferson County.
There is nothing ordinary, however, about the call
the rural department received at 5:21 p.m. on March 11,
1977. When firefighters arrived at the Albert Harris
property near the town of Dittmer, they were greeted by
a toxic maelstrom. Gusty 25 mph winds fanned flames that
licked the sides of a recently dug pit near a small
tributary of Calvey Creek. The searing heat inside the
10-foot-deep trench had caused toxic waste drums near
the edge of the excavation to explode. Investigators
later found 125 other barrels scattered at the site.
Working in the rain, 20 firefighters battled the blaze
almost an hour before bringing it under control.
After receiving complaints about more pollution
problems at the same location, the DNR and EPA began
investigating lot number 21 of the Greenbriar
subdivision. Testing of the pit's contents revealed high
concentrations of PCBs -- up to 20,000 ppm. The
agencies found other toxins at the site, including
bromophenol chlorophenol, a chemical produced only by
Monsanto in 1964, according to the EPA.
"It was a real chemical soup," recalls Robert
Zeman, a former DNR official who now works for the
Metropolitan Sewer District. "This pit was just about
every color of the rainbow from stuff that was in it.
The guy who was bringing the materials out there was an
employee of Russell Bliss. In the ensuing investigations
and discussions, (we determined) that Bliss was likely
involved in the activity."
Bliss later testified that bottles found in the
toxic pit came from Monsanto's research lab. When asked
from what major source he acquired his hazardous waste,
Bliss stated: "Oh, I would say Monsanto." The waste oil
hauler said that his company was regularly paid $200 to
pick up a 40-barrel load from Monsanto's research lab.
The cleanup of the Dittmer site cost the federal
government more than $500,000.
Despite indications that much of the Dittmer waste
came from Monsanto, the chemical company is certain the
PCBs did not. "Monsanto's records indicate that PCBs
were not in the materials mishandled by Bliss," says
Herndon, the Monsanto spokeswoman.
The composition of the waste will never be known,
however, because Bliss took steps to literally coverup
the incident.After the DNR discovered the site, the
waste oil hauler pumped out an estimated 4,000 gallons
of sludge without the state agency's approval, and then
hired a contractor to fill in the pit. The nearby creek
continued to be polluted by runoff from the buried
wastes, however. So despite further warnings by the DNR
to leave the site alone, Bliss returned again before
dawn one morning. The same contractor opened the pit
back up. Bliss, his son and one employee then hauled
away contaminated soil and barrels. When neighbors
tried to follow one of the trucks, another Bliss vehicle
blocked their way.
At a 1977 DNR hearing, Monsanto bills of lading
signed by a Bliss driver were entered as evidence. The
receipts identify the wastes from the Monsanto research
lab as "one truckload (of) organic non-toxic solvents."
"I just tell them I don't want nothing toxic; that's why
I have them put on the tickets non-toxic," Bliss
The transcript of a later hearing , however, shows
that the "non-toxic" classification contradicted the
wording of legally binding agreements between Monsanto
In 1983, the DNR's Hazardous Waste Management
Commission met to consider granting Russell Bliss's son
a hazardous waste hauler's permit. At the meeting, the
DNR brought up the Dittmer incident as a reason not to
issue the license. The agency also submitted two
contracts, from 1975 and 1976, between Russell Bliss and
Monsanto. According to one contract:
"...Organic solvents waste from the Research Center
consists of ... trace amounts of almost any conceivable
chemical (organic or inorganic). ... Contents of the
drum are accumulated from literally hundreds of
laboratory samples and organic and inorganic solvents
present in the drum are not known or controlled. Since
it is probable that the total content of any particular
drum is at least as toxic as the solvent mixture,
CONTRACTOR SHOULD EXERCISE EXTREME CAUTION IN THE
HANDLING OF THE WASTE. CONTRACTOR IS HEREBY WARNED THAT
SUCH WASTE MAY BE TOXIC. ..."
In addition, the contracts stipulated Bliss
possessed necessary skills to perform his duties, that
he would abide by the law and dispose of the waste
properly. It is evident the waste hauler broke the terms
of the contract. It is also arguable that Monsanto's
actions were not above reproach. Even if the company
followed the letter of the law, it still made the
dubious assumption Bliss was qualified to handle such
hazardous materials in the first place. There is no
proof the chemical company asked the waste hauler about
his qualifications. If Monsanto had inquired, Bliss
might have responded as candidly as he did later to the
DNR. The waste hauler told the agency his knowledge of
chemistry amounted to an understanding of BS&W --
"bullshit and water," a term he used to describe
adulterated waste oil. Bliss also stated he had only
two methods of testing the contents of the waste he
hauled: "I sometimes taste it, or put it on a napkin
and see if it will burn."
The Politics of a Hazardous Waste Coverup
Rep. Talent is not the first congressman to sound the
alarm over PCBs. Rep. William F. Ryan (D-NY) raised the
issue in 1970. Monsanto officials responded to Ryan by
saying they were "well aware of the concern" over PCBs
(see sidebar). The company also said steps had been
taken to insure public safety, but denied knowledge of
whether any PCBs had been released from its Krummrich
plant in Sauget. The next year, Monsanto began burning
PCBs at a liquid injection incinerator at its Sauget
facility.The burning of the toxic waste continued for
most of the next decade.
The PCB controversy resurfaced again in 1980, when
Missouri Gov. Joseph P. Teasdale made a campaign stop
near Ellisville, at a place that is now one of the EPA's
27-designated dioxin sites in Eastern Missouri. With the
TV news cameras rolling, the top elected official in the
state railed against the hazardous waste dumped at the
location. Teasdale, however, directed his attack at PCBs
not dioxin, and his lambaste placed the onus for the
toxic contamination on Monsanto.
"I request that you help pay the cost of the
sampling and analysis work, and that if PCBs are
discovered that you pay for the cleanup of the site,"
the governor told Monsanto. Newspaper coverage of the
event failed to divulge that the site in question was on
or near property owned by Bliss. Teasdale wanted
Monsanto to pay for the cleanup of three Bliss
Ellisville sites, and all other PCB-contaminated
locations in Missouri. Monsanto later claimed their own
analysis showed insignificant PCB levels at the
Ellisville sites. The company refused to consider
covering the cost of other PCB cleanups.
In 1981, the DNR paid to dispose of more than 100
barrels at the Ellisville/Bliss sites that contained
traces of PCBs. According to a report issued by the EPA
last summer, more waste is still buried there.
Teasdale was not alone in his attempt to make
political hay out Missouri's hazardous waste crisis. On
Oct. 31, 1982, while running for re-election, Sen. John
Danforth (R-Mo.) announced a promising new method for
cleaning contaminated soils. The technique involved
spraying the effected areas with sodium hydroxide and
polyethylene glycol. The method had only been previously
successful in treating PCB contaminated soil -- not
dioxin. The idea to use the technique in Missouri had
been suggested to Danforth by Rita Lavelle, the
controversial EPA assistant administrator.
Prior to her dismissal, Lavelle allegedly used the
billion-dollar Superfund program for political ends. In
addition, congressional investigations in 1982 and 1983
revealed Lavelle had private discussions with officials
at Monsanto and other corporations concerning regulatory
matters. When Congress subpoenaed documents -- including
those related to Times Beach -- the EPA initially
withheld the information on the advice of the White
House and Department of Justice. The level of
stonewalling reached a crescendo when Congress
discovered EPA officials had ordered the wholesale
shredding of sensitive files.
The showdown with Congress ultimately forced
Reagan to replace EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch with
William D. Ruckelshaus, who had headed the agency at its
Ruckelshaus' resume, however, contains more than
one entry to that has received criticism.
Environmentalists point out that during his career,
Ruckelshaus has had many close ties to polluting
industries -- including a directorship at Monsanto.