DEATH ON THE HIGHWAY

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Aug. 30, 1995

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has its way, thousands of dump-truck loads of dioxin-contaminated soil will begin rolling through the St. Louis area as soon as November.

The time schedule for excavating and transporting the toxic material from 26 sites in Eastern Missouri is contained in the Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis (EE/CA), published late last month by the EPA. The little-publicized study includes the proposed routes and estimated costs of burning the waste at Times Beach, where a temporary incinerator is now under construction. The cleanup of individual sites over the next year is expected to take anywhere from a few days to several months. The total cost of this portion of the project is earmarked at $113.6 million, according to the EE/CA. The EPA has extended the public comment period on its transport plan until Sept. 7.

On Aug. 15, following the release of the EE/CA, federal district Judge John F. Nangle turned aside an effort by St. Louis County to regulate dioxin emissions through a local ordinance passed in February. Nangle ruled the EPA and Syntex, the company liable for the cleanup, are bound only to applicable standards in force at the time of the Record of Decision (ROD), in 1988. The judge has jurisdiction over the settlement by way of a 1990 court-negotiated consent decree.

“What he (based) his decision on is what we have been trying to say,” says Martha Steincamp, the chief counsel for Region VII of the EPA. In 1988, “the county didn’t even have a dioxin standard on the books,” Steincamp says.
The EPA’s own health standard is supposed to limit exposure risks to no more than one additional cancer case per million population. The agency and Syntex both complained to the court that the county ordinance set an unattainable goal that was six-times more stringent. Nangle concurred.

In his 16-page opinion, the judge failed to mention one cogent fact: the county based its emissions standard on data from the EPA’s own health risk assessment for Times Beach. Fred Striley, a member of the Dioxin Incinerator Response Group (DIRG), views that omission as untenable. “The judge is basing his decision on false information,” says Striley, a physicist who has been studying the technical data for years. “I can get up at the blackboard and write the equations out for you. The county ordinance is probably about twice as strict as the (EPA’s) — not six times.” Furthermore, Striley maintains “the number that the county used is directly taken from an EPA document about this site (Times Beach), which said … (it) would be the worst-case emission.”

Striley and other opponents argue that incineration itself creates dioxin as a part of the combustion process and then disperses it into the environment. Dioxin is a suspected human carcinogen and is known to cause human immunological and reproductive problems, according to the EPA itself. Local environmentalists favor storing the toxic waste indefinitely at its present locations or using newer alternative technologies to destroy it. In response to their latest legal setback, incinerator opponents are advocating the county appeal Nangle’s decision.

For his part, Nangle, has remained unswayed by mounting public opposition to the incinerator. In his ruling, the judge decreed “exclusive jurisdiction for direct or indirect challenges or attacks concerning the response action pursuant to the consent decree. …” President Richard M. Nixon appointed Nangle to the federal bench in 1973. The 75-year-old jurist, who retains an interest in Republican politics, currently holds senior status in the 8th Circuit here, and spends considerable time away from St. Louis. Evaluations by lawyers, appearing in the 1995 Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, praise Nangle, but also find him to be “patronizing and imperious.” “He’s a little prima donna. He’s arrogant and procedure oriented,” commented one attorney. ” He has federal-itis. He always did think he was important even before he got on the bench …,” said another lawyer.

As a part Nangle’s consent decree, Syntex has agreed to pay for the incineration and the clean up of Times Beach. The EPA is responsible for excavating and transporting the dioxin-contaminated soil from the other 26 locations. The insurance litigation involving Times Beach and the other Eastern Missouri sites is far from over, however. Steincamp, the EPA’s Region VII counsel, wouldn’t hazard a guess as to when it will be all resolved. The case has produced staggering amounts of paperwork, hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, she says. “This case has already been to the Supreme Court of the United States, I think, twice,” says Steincamp. The U.S. Justice Department has taken the unusual step of submitting court briefs in some of the insurance cases, she says. “The Superfund is not going to cost recover very much unless somebody wins the insurance litigation, or somebody decides just to give up and settle,” says Steincamp.
The clean-up sites were contaminated in the early 1970s, when Russell Bliss hauled dioxin residues from a chemical plant in Verona, Missouri and then combined them with waste oil before spraying the mixture as a dust suppressant on horse arenas, parking lots and roadways in this part of the state.

Eleven of the locations, including Times Beach, have already been excavated. According to the terms of the consent decree, the dioxin tainted dirt is supposed to be stored at those sites “pending final management.” In addition, two other sites were partially excavated in the past year, after water main leaks forced emergency responses.

At the six residential sites, the plan is to excavate all soil containing one part per billion (ppb) or more of dioxin, and transport it to Times Beach for incineration. There are less stringent plans, however, at some other locations. “For the non-residential sites … the agency’s generally preferred response action is to excavate those areas exceeding 20 parts per billion and to cap the areas where remaining dioxin levels exceed one part per billion with a maintained impermeable cap,” the EE/CA states. Those restricted areas would then be placed on the state Hazardous Waste Registry.

One exception to the commercial-site guidelines is the 1.9 acre Bonifield Brothers Trucking location near St. Louis University Hospitals, where the EPA plans a more thorough job. The location at 3529 Hickory St. contains dioxin levels of more than 800 ppb, according to the EE/CA . Nevertheless, the university wants to develop the property. There are residences nearby even though the EE/CA lists the site as a primarily commercial area. A nursing home that is associated with the university hospitals has also been built adjacent to the site within the last year. Another variance, according to the EE/CA, involves the planned clean-up of the Southern Cross Lumber Co. in Hazelwood. At that location, some of the dioxin contaminated-soil, which measured less than 20-parts per billion, would be merely covered with soil or gravel rather than capped with concrete.

In yet another instance, a site is listed as both a residential and non-residential location in the EE/CA. The plan calls for paving over some the contaminated sections of the access road to Old Highway 141 rather than removing the waste even though the southern portion of the location is within 50 feet of a residential area, according to the EE/CA.

A random tour of three of the Eastern Missouri dioxin sites last Saturday showed only one to be fenced. None of the locations were marked by warning signs.

The EE/CA also cites a litany of concerns over the proposed transportation routes, while it defends the safety of putting 80,000 ton dump trucks filled with dioxin-contaminated soil on area roads and highways. For example, the report favors the use Interstates as the safest routes for transporting the waste, but routinely warns that “the accident rate on the freeway(s) exceeded the statewide average in 1990.” EE/CA also raises caveats about planned road construction along some of the routes in near future, and, in some cases, advises that the transportation of the waste itself will demand infrastructure improvements.

Moving the dioxin-contaminated soil along the hilly roads of western St. Louis County and northern Jefferson County sounds particularly risky, according to the EE/CA. Here is a typical description of such a ride: “Traffic along this segment can be expected to be heavy during peak periods. Also, the roadway has some rolling grades and relatively sharp curves with virtually no shoulders in several places.”

Public comments regarding the EPA’s plan should be mailed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 726 Minnesota Ave., Kansas City, Kan., 66101. The telephone number for the EPA’s site office at Times Beach in Eureka is 938-6869.

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