HURRY UP AND WAIT

After quickly identifying two new dioxin sites in St. Louis County last year, the EPA has lagged on the clean ups

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), March 25, 1998

BY C.D. STELZER

From the picture window of her ranch-style home, Lorraine Jordan has a view of James S. McDonnell Park across Adie Road, where an eight-foot tall cyclone fence is now being constructed.

During the past few months, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken more than 2,000 soil samples from the park, which is located near the North St. Louis County municipality of St. Ann. Surveyors have also staked out a section of the park near Jordan’s residence with bright orange flags. But nobody from the federal agency has bothered to walk across the street and inform her about the purpose of these actions. Instead, she has learned the little she knows from the scant newspaper coverage afforded the subject.

McDonnell Park, which is part of the St. Louis County Parks system, is the most recent dioxin site discovered in the metropolitan area. Regulatory authorities became aware of the contamination in October. The discovery followed an announcement earlier last year of another suburban dioxin site in Ellisville on Lemar Drive. Clean ups at both places have remained at a standstill for several months now. However, the EPA is expected to release its Engineering Evaluation and Cost Analysis (EE/CA) for the two projects this month. After a 30-day public comment period, the agency will then decide which means of remediation to pursue.

The discovery of the Lemar and McDonnell sites came after the closing of the controversial Times Beach dioxin incinerator in June, which precluded burning the waste locally. Another possible alternative was eliminated in December, when the only available commercial incinerator licensed to accept dioxin-contaminated waste was shuttered in Coffeyville, Kan.

Shipping the waste to Coffeyville would have been prohibitively expensive even if it had remained an option, according to one local official. In the short term, the federal agency has settled for containment and fencing off the contaminated areas. Due to budgetary constraints, long-range solutions now under consideration include alternative technologies shunned by the EPA during the Times Beach clean up. The EPA has refused to reveal the list of alternatives prior to the publication of its EE/CAs, but according to Ellisville city manager Jeff LaGarce, the choices will likely include a technique called “thermal desorption,” an unproven process that allows the waste to be detoxified on site.

Although the LaGarce lauds the EPA for its quick initial response, he expresses concerns about any further delay in cleaning up the Lemar site. “Our city adopted a resolution asking them to remedy this problem as quickly and efficiently as possible,” says LaGarce. “For four or five months, that site has been standing there idle. It has caused a great deal of concern for people. It’s good to put a lot of thought into a process such as this, but when are we going to see some outcome? We feel that our residents should not be subjected to having that site next to them for an excessive period of time.”

On the other hand, the director of the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Department, expressed unqualified satisfaction with the EPA’s handling of the McDonnell Park site. “I’ve felt that the steps that we’ve taken and the timeliness of those steps have been appropriate,” says Hall. “The EPA has taken all those necessary steps and there are no problems relative to any exposures to the public at this point. You want to make sure you do it right, and, in the process of doing it, safeguard the public. My (goal) is to have a park that is presentable to the public and that is safe to the public and doesn’t put them at any risk. I think they’ve done that.”

Essentially, Hall is asserting confidence in the clean up before it has started.

The highest measure of contamination found at McDonnell Park is 275 parts per billion (ppb). Remedial action is mandated by the EPA in a residential setting at one ppb or higher. In this instance, however, because the highest level of dioxin is believed to be buried more than a foot deep, it has been deemed safe by the EPA. The greatest surface concentrations, 169 ppb, are present in a wooded ravine, which is currently being fenced off. Adjacent to the ravine, in a playing field, dioxin has been found at more than 9.5 ppb. The EPA intends to cap that area with soil and sod to limit human exposure and soil erosion.

At the Lemar site, the dioxin levels are even higher. The top level found beneath the surface in Ellisville was 1,173 ppb, according to the EPA. One residence has had to be evacuated because of interior contamination. The area has been fenced off and excavated. Additional dioxin that migrated off-site has been removed from the roadside and an area next to a nearby pedestrian walk. The contaminated soil is being stored in a pile at the site and covered with a tarp.

“The fencing is certainly just an interim measure, while we are preparing the final alternative,” says Bob Feild of the EPA. “Once we receive the public comment then we’ll be in the position to move forward with remedy selection. But at this point, I can’t really discuss the alternatives.

Both locations are suspected to have been contaminated by waste-oil operator Russell Bliss sometime in the early 1970s, according to the EPA. Bliss sprayed dioxin-contaminated oil on unpaved roads, parking lots, truck terminals and horse arenas as a dust suppressant.
Jordan, who has lived in her home for 43 years, recalls the late Odie Greenspon, once operated a breeding farm for trotters at the location of the present park.. Her children helped walk the horses and worked in the stables, she says. One of her adult sons has since contracted a lupus-like disease, says Jordan. Dioxin is known to cause damage to the human reproductive and immunological systems. It is also a probable carcinogen.

“I’ve been looking for answers, and I don’t know what direction to go in,” says Jordan, who was belatedly informed by a neighbor of an EPA informational meeting held on March 12. “There are probably a lot of people who are unaware,” she adds.

Across the street in the park, a family of four walks with their two dogs along the asphalt trail that skirts the dioxin-contaminated site. A trio joggers run past them. There are no signs to warn these park users that they are trekking through a hazardous waste site.

For information about the McDonnell Park and Lemar Drive dioxin sites, call Hattie Thomas, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator, at 1-800 223-0425.

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