EXECUTIVE INACTION

St. Louis County’s top elected official, Buzz Westfall, refuses to heed the advise of his own citizens watchdog group , which now recommends a new stack emissions test is needed at the Times Beach incinerator

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times, (St. Louis) Dec. 18, 1996

Despite mounting evidence of wrongdoing, St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall refused last week to call for a retest of stack emissions at the controversial Times Beach dioxin incinerator near Eureka. The St. Louis County Dioxin Monitoring Committee voted unanimously in favor of such a measure on Dec. 10.

Committee members — who are all Westfall appointees — recommended the county executive ask the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to shut down the incinerator until new test results confirm whether the project is safe. The committee’s recommendation follows the release of an EPA ombudsman’s report last month calling for a similar course of action (“Taking a New Stack,” RFT, Nov. 27). Questions regarding the November 1995 stack emissions test surfaced earlier this year, after opponents of the incinerator discovered numerous violations of scientific protocol, including the alteration documents and the unexplained disappearance of sample tubes.

“As of yet, he is not sending a letter to the EPA to shut the thing down,” says Max Scott, a spokesman for Westfall. “I mean it would be a public relations move anyway. The county executive has no power to shut this thing down.”

Scott, however, is exaggerating Westfall’s impotence. The EPA ombudsman has called for public comments on this matter, and a locally elected official’s opinion would certainly be handled with deference. Westfall’s reticence also contradicts his own past position on the incinerator. During his 1990 campaign, he repeatedly attacked his opponent, incumbent H.C. Milford, for not taking a stronger stand on the issue. At that time Westfall wooed Eureka-area voters by telling them: ”The federal government is doing something bad to St. Louis County, and H. Milford is sitting silently by.”

Westfall  and his minions now routinely condemn critics of the incinerator as conspiracy theorists. In a telephone interview last Friday, for example, Scott repeatedly referred to Republican Councilman Greg Quinn as a conspiracy theorist for suggesting anything might have gone awry with the Times Beach project. Quinn represents the district in West St. Louis County where the incinerator is located.

Another Westfall partisan, county counselor John Ross, used the conspiracy theory stigma to discredit a resolution offered by Quinn at the County Council meeting last Thursday. The Democratic majority on the council subsequently defeated the measure 4-2.

Quinn had proposed the council urge the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to order a shut down of the incinerator until the state health department released data on a blood study of residents who live near the facility. Instead, the council passed a measure asking for the data, but not demanding a shut down or retest. The health department has claimed average dioxin levels have decreased among Eureka-area residents, but refuses to turn over the raw data so it can be independently analyzed (“Blood Feud,” RFT, Nov. 13).

After the adoption of the watered-down resolution, Quinn told the council: “What you’re seeing here in this resolution is a misguided effort by the majority party to support the county executive who wants incineration to continue at Times Beach in spite of the fact that we’ve had a unanimous recommendation from his own Dioxin Monitoring Committee. He’s willing to disregard that.”

Westfall was absent from the proceedings, as is often the case when Times Beach is on the agenda. If he had been there, the county executive may have been heartened by the testimony of EPA project manager Bob Feild, who defended the safety of the incinerator based on air monitoring data.

After the meeting, Feild and EPA lawyer Martha Steincamp deflected questions by saying, “We have to catch a plane.” Gary Pendergrass of Agribusiness Technologies Inc., the company liable for the clean up, had even less to say. When asked about his knowledge of a possible cover up of misdeeds during the stack test, Pendergrass stared vacuously at the RFT reporter and remained mute (“Why the Times Beach Incinerator Should be Shut Down,” RFT, Nov. 20).

Members of the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG) have charged that a conflict of interest exists because International Technology Inc. (IT), the incinerator operator, owned half of Quanterra Environmental Services when the stack test was conducted. Quanterra is known to have mishandled sample tubes following that test (“Twice Burned,” RFT, Aug. 28).

The irregularities at Times Beach now raise larger questions. Two thirds of IT’s contracts are with the federal government, including the Departments of Defense and Energy. Revenues from this work in fiscal 1996 are estimated at more $250 million. In the past, Quanterra’s William C. Anderson, the quality assurance officer at Times Beach, has also been involved in a trial burn at the U.S. Army chemical weapons incinerator in Utah. The Army is now investigating the safety of that incinerator, after whistleblowers there have repeatedly alleged that the incinerator isn’t operating properly. In 1993, IT’s St. Louis lab also did sampling for a radioactive waste clean up in Alaska, The Riverfront Times has learned.

Closer to home, incinerator critic Fred Striley — who is a member of the monitoring committee — isn’t satisfied in regard to the accuracy of the air monitoring at Times Beach. “Citizens groups have pointed out over the last couple of years numerous problems with the risk assessment that was prepared for the Times Beach site by CH2M Hill at EPA Region VII’s direction — problems like failing to account for fugitive emissions,” say Striley. Last week, the EPA notified the monitoring committee that its request for an air monitor at the incinerator site itself had been denied, according to Striley.

In 1992, CH2M Hill, one of the EPA’s most frequently relied on contractors, fell under the scrutiny of the White House Office of Management and Budget, the congressional General Accounting Office and the EPA itself. Investigators found the Corvallis, Ore.-based engineering firm had overcharged the government by $5 million for parties, baseball tickets, liquor and country club fees among other things. In addition, more than 95 percent of CH2M Hill’s time sheets were altered. Nonetheless, EPA Region VII choice CH2M Hill to do the Times Beach risk assessment completed in 1994.

Last Tuesday, one TBAG member was arrested at the monitoring committee meeting, which was held at the clean up site offices. Another TBAG protester locked her neck to the entrance gate with a kryptonite bicycle lock.

None of thedemonstrators swayed Retired Army Lt. Gen. Kenneth E. Lewi’s opinion, however. At 66 years of age, the former officer is arguably the most conservative member of the monitoring committee, and he expresses confidence in the safety of the incinerator. Nevertheless, Lewi sided with the other committee members in asking for a shut down and retest.

“The committee has a responsibility to tell Mr. Westfall what we think based on the information we have,” says Lewi. “The reason I voted that way was to remove doubt from the public as to whether or not the (original ) test was valid.”

It remains to be seen whether the Westfall administration will label the general a conspiracy theorist, too.

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