The EPA plows ahead With its dioxin cleanup despite workers’ concerns
first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Nov. 1, 1995
(Beep) Carl, my name is Art Compton. I am an employee of NW (Nationsway Transport Inc.). My father died at Jones Truck Line next door of dioxin-related cancer. We are very upset because the federal government is going to remove that dirt starting next week. And we’ re very concerned about what’s going to happen to the people at NW when they do this. They are going to do this while we are working.They’re having a meeting Monday at NW; the EPA is going to meet with some people. I would like very much to talk to you.
The week after receiving my first telephone message from Art Compton, he called again. This time his voice sounded a little weaker, the words came a bit slower, but the 50-year-old Teamster's resolve hadn't lessened a bit. "I don't die easy," said Compton. The Vietnam veteran had a heart attack at the office of the Nationsway (NW) truck terminal on the morning of Oct. 23. The seizure occurred shortly after Compton had argued strongly with federal and state officials over their plans to excavate dioxin-contaminated soil at the nearby Jones Truck Lines, one of the 27 sites that are a part of the Times Beach Superfund cleanup in Eastern Missouri. Compton has since been released from the hospital and is now convalescing at home. "I think that I brought a lot of awareness ... to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) that this is more serious than they thought, " he says. At the hastily arranged meeting on Oct. 23, representatives of the EPA, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the Missouri Department of Health (MDOH) fended a barrage of questions from Compton and other NW employees. About two dozen employees attended the meeting. The workers and their representatives from Teamsters Local 600 asked the EPA to delay excavation at the nearby Jones site. The labor union also requested that the interior of the NW terminal itself be tested. After the Teamsters brought in their own health experts early last week, the EPA acceded. Initial test results have now verified the presence of dioxin-contaminated dust at levels as high as 1.18 parts per billion (ppb) in the rafters at the truck terminal, union officials say. Last Friday afternoon , NW management sent workers home early so the EPA could do further testing, union officials say. At press time on Monday, a union spokesman told the RFT that most of the latest test results from the had been determined to be invalid. Further sampling is anticipated. Despite the discovery, the EPA is plowing ahead with the excavation of a contaminated section of roadway behind NW. At the same time, the agency has now acknowledged the existence of dioxin-contaminated soil at yet another location -- Gully Transport -- a truck terminal immediately south of the Jones site. This latest revelation comes as local environmentalists are alleging the possible presence of polychlorinated biphenyls (pcbs) and other toxic substances in the soil at some of the cleanup sites, including Jones. If proven true, the additional toxins could invalidate the EPA's projections on stack emissions at the incinerator. Contaminated soil at the abandoned Jones truck terminal on Hall Street was scheduled to be removed beginning last week. The Times Beach project involves transporting an estimated 100,000 cubic yards of dioxin contaminated soil from more than two dozen locations and burning it at a temporary incinerator that has been constructed at the site of the former town of Times Beach in St. Louis County. On Oct. 13, the St. Louis County Counselor's office asked Judge John J. Nangle to temporarily halt use of the incinerator pending appeal. It is unlikely the judge will grant the stay, however, since the appeal seeks to reverse an earlier decision by Nangle in which he overturned a county ordinance that would have set a strict emissions standard for the incinerator. Meanwhile, NW truck terminal employees are concerned about potential exposure from additional airborne dust once the asphalt lot at Jones is dug up. The Nationsway terminal is directly adjacent to the Jones site.The EPA belatedly acknowledged that dioxin contamination has migrated from Jones onto the property where Nationsway is located (Toxic Migration, the RFT, Oct. 11). Workers at Nationsway were not informed until early last month about the imminent cleanup or the migration problem despite test results being completed more than a year ago. According to the EPA's tentative time schedule, the excavations on this portion of Hall Street are to be finished in a few weeks. The original plan included excavating soil both on and off of the Jones site, vacuuming the interior of the defunct terminal warehouse and filling in a large sinkhole in the Jones truck lot. Officials from the EPA, MDOH and ATSDR all tried to convince the workers on Oct. 23 that levels of dioxin at the Jones site are so low that they pose little or no health risk. Dioxin levels of more than 400 parts per billion (ppb) have been found at the site. The established industrial standard requires excavating and removing dioxin-contaminated soil that exceeds 20 ppb. The officials stressed that long term exposure to the toxin is the real danger. Gale Carlson of MDOH told the workers that diesel fumes they breathe daily contain higher levels of dioxin than the contaminated soil that is to be removed. Carlson's assurances, however, came before the discovery of the dioxin-contaminated dust in the NW terminal's rafters. At the same meeting, Gregory R. Evans, a community health expert at St. Louis University, spoke to the employees at the request of the NW management. Evans, who lays claim to more than 20 years of experience in dioxin-related research, told the workers there is nothing to be concerned about. "I don't care what physician told you what there has not been a person who has ever been documented to have died from dioxin. I don't care what any physician has told you. I've been doing this work for 20 years.We have evaluated every single person that ever lived in Times Beach. Every person that has lived in sites that has levels 1,000 times higher than levels next door there, and we followed them for years. There has never been a person who has ever even come down sick with anything done with dioxin," says Evans. "I'm not saying that there aren't reports out there that don't say that it's not dangerous. ... I'm not saying that if I go out and spray myself with pure dioxin that there might not be a problem with that. I'm talking about the site next door. I'm talking about most of these sites around here in which we are talking about low-levels of dioxin that for whatever legal purposes there are, they got to get rid of," Evans says. Not all health professionals or scientists agree with Evans, however. Paul Connett, an environmentalist and chemist at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., is among those who feel that dioxin exposure, at any level, is more than a legal problem. "He can't even see the evidence in front of his own eyes," says Connett of Evans. "There has been a lot of documented sickness in the people that have lived in Times Beach. Now whether they've done a good enough epidemiological study to satisfy themselves, that's a different issue. The fact is that many people in the Times Beach area have shown a litany of sickness, which has not been explained." The EPA's recently finalized reassessment of dioxin found it to be a probable human carcinogen and responsible for reproductive and immunological disorders. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognized an association between Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide containing dioxin, and a number of illnesses. Those dioxin-related maladies include: soft-tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease, chloracne and porhyria cutanea tarda (a liver disorder). Other diseases are suspected of being associated with dioxin exposure. In 1991, a St. Louis jury awarded the family of the late Alvin Overman $1.5 million. Overman, a Hall Street truck-terminal employee, died in 1984 of soft tissue sarcoma. Syntex, the corporation responsible for the Times Beach cleanup along with Northeastern Pharmaceutical Chemical Co (NEPCCO), and Independent Petrochemical Co. (IPC) were found liable in the case. The truck terminal that employed Overman had been sprayed with dioxin-contaminated waste oil in the early 1970s. Given that fact alone, the Teamsters have reasonable cause to doubt Evans' reassurances. NW employees are uncertain why there is a need for the EPA to now rush ahead with the cleanup. If the agency would temporarily hold off on the Jones excavation, workers say the potential for further human exposure could be lessened because NW's lease expires early next year and the company has had longstanding plans to relocate to a larger facility. In defense of the agency's plans, Mark J. Thomas, the EPA's on-site coordinator, claims the 1990 federal consent degree, which mandated the cleanup, requires the EPA to begin excavating at Jones. There is, however, no time schedule for individual site cleanups included in the consent decree. "These guys probably have been exposed long term, because before they paved these lots, the dust was there," says Rick Schleipman, a business agent for Local 600. "In my heart, I believe that they (the EPA) were just going to come in there, dig it up, move it and be on there way without our involvement, whatsoever." Since the union interceded, the agency has agreed to excavate the areas closest to the NW facility over the weekend, when none of the employees are there. The EPA has also now decided to store the excavated soil temporarily in a building on the premises, instead of simply covering it with plastic, Schleipman says. Compton, the worker who had the heart attack, is one of two NW employees who say they have deceased family members that worked at the Jones terminal. In 1971, Russell Bliss sprayed the then-unpaved truck lot with dioxin-contaminated waste oil as a dust suppressant. "My father passed away while he was working for Jones Truck Lines," says Compton. "He had multiple cancers. Whenever they diagnosed him, they gave him six months and he died in 29 days."