KEEPING A SAFE DISTANCE

Last year, EPA boss Carol Browner withdrew from decision-making about Times Beach. Meanwhile, inquiries about the dioxin incinerator continue to rage

BY C.D. STELZER

First published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Sept. 11, 1996

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)administrator Carol M. Browner has withdrawn from all decision-making responsibilities concerning the Times Beach cleanup, The Riverfront Times has learned.

Browner recused herself from addressing any aspects of the controversial Superfund project in an internal agency memorandum dated April 5, 1995. The administrator’s office in Washington, D.C. provided the RFT with a copy of Browner’s statement last week upon request.

The recusal statement does not specify why Browner bowed out of the case. An EPA spokeswoman now says Browner relinquished oversight because the administrator’s sister works for the corporation liable for the cleanup. Michelle Browner, the EPA chief’s sibling, is a research scientist for Roche Bio-Science in Palo Alto, Calif. Roche, a Swiss pharmaceutical conglomerate, purchased Syntex Corp. in 1994. Syntex, the responsible party, must burn the dioxin-contaminated soil at Times Beach and 26 other sites in Eastern Missouri, according to the to the 1990 federal consent decree with the EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR). A subsidiary of Syntex, Agribusiness Technologies Inc., is carrying out the plan.

News of Browner’s withdrawal follows the initiation of a DNR inquiry into whether stack emissions samples were handled properly last November, after a trial burn at the Times Beach dioxin incinerator near Eureka. Earlier this year, the DNR issued a permit for the burner based in part on the results of those tests. Opponents of the incinerator, including the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG), raised concerns last month about a potential conflict of interest, after they discovered International Technology Corp. (IT), the incinerator operator, partially owns Quanterra Environmental Services, the lab that handled the samples (Twice Burned, the RFT, Aug. 28) .

“I am aware of the allegations by TBAG, and we are checking on those allegations,” says DNR director David Shorr. “I don’t believe there were any shenanigans here. The only question that I am looking into is whether there was a prospect of a breach in the chain of custody (of the stack emissions samples). … It’s not that we believe that there was a breach in the chain of custody, but we’ve have had that inquiry made to us.”
Shorr expresses equal confidence in Browner’s hands-off policy. “I am not aware of her ever being involved in Times Beach during her tenure,” says Shorr. “She has properly recused herself. All decisions from EPA, at least that we have had, have been through either Elliott Laws, the assistant administrator for waste or deputy (administrator) Fred Hansen.”

Martha Steincamp, chief counsel for Region VII of the EPA in Kansas City, views Browner’s recusal as insignificant. “Frankly, there have been no decisions that would be made at the administrator’s level on this case, anyway,” says Steincamp. “The decisions are made out here in the Region.

“The really important thing to remember is this is what one does, when one wants to take one’s self out of the decision making process — you recuse yourself,” says Steincamp. “She didn’t consult with me when she did it. Until you told me, I didn’t know that it was her sister or what this person’s name was. That’s not what I need to know to do my job. What I need to know to do my job is don’t go looking to Carol Browner on decision making on Times Beach.”

The EPA administrator, however, does wield statutory power over the Times Beach Superfund project. According to the consent decree:

EPA shall review the remedial action at the Facilities at least every five (5) years after the entry of this Decree to assure that human health and the environment are being protected by the remedial action being implemented. … Settling Defendants shall be provided with an opportunity to confer with EPA on any response action proposed during the EPA’s 5 year review process and to submit written comments for the record during the public comment period. After the period for submission of written comments is closed, the Administrator shall, in writing, determine if further response action is appropriate. …

In other words, the EPA could have reviewed the safety of the project and implemented changes to the plan at any time since the 1990 decree was signed, but the agency was required to do so within five years. The decree mandates that based on that review the EPA administrator take appropriate steps to protect public health and the environment, if necessary.

It didn’t happen. The five-year deadline expired July 19, 1995. According to the EPA internal memo, Browner recused herself on April 5, 1995.

Steincamp, whose signature appears on the consent decree, says the Times Beach agreement is superseded by a clause in the Superfund law, which requires that the “remedial action” (in this case incineration) be completed before the review takes place.

A high-ranking official at EPA headquarters in Washington, on the other hand, says the Superfund provision means the Times Beach project can’t be reviewed because the incinerator hasn’t been operating for five years. The cleanups at Times Beach and other Eastern Missouri dioxin sites, however, have been going on for well over five years.
The two interpretations of the law share one thing in common — they thwart any review of the project until after the incineration is completed. Here is how the pertinent Superfund clause actually reads:

If the President selects a remedial action that results in any hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants remaining at the site, the President shall review such remedial action no less often than each 5 years after the initiation of such remedial action to assure that human health and the environment are being protected by the remedial action being implemented. …

Hugh Kaufman, an EPA whistleblower, is candid in his opinion as to why Browner chose to distance herself from the project. “Well, Times Beach is getting hot now,” says Kaufman. “Carol Browner tries to find a reason to recuse herself from any sticky wicket case,” he adds. “She did that with the WTI (Waste Technologies Industries) incinerator. Apparently, her husband works for a group called Citizen Action, where she used to work. Citizen Action, at one time, … signed a letter asking the state of Ohio to relook at this mess. … The real reason she recused herself is because it’s a big sticky wicket issue involving Jackson Stephens … and the Clinton/Arkansas connection.”

Kaufman is referring to the WTI commercial hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. Stephens, who founded WTI in 1980, is a Little Rock financier who has padded the campaign coffers of both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in the past. Stephens and WTI have also been linked to the Union Bank of Switzerland, which has been implicated along with the CIA in the BCCI and Nugan-Hand banking scandals. The WTI incinerator was permitted to operate even though it emitted despite unsafe levels of dioxin.

In 1983, Kaufman felt the heat from Times Beach himself. The whistleblower then appeared on the Phil Donahue TV talk show and alleged that U.S. Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) had received a list of potential dioxin sites in Missouri, while state attorney general, and had failed to do anything about it. During that period, Kaufman was the EPA’s chief hazardous waste investigator. His inquiry here led him to suspect that Russell Bliss, the waste hauler responsible spreading the dioxin, had connections to the “power-elite culture” in Missouri. “When I raised the issue of him being part of the old boy network of which Danforth was a member, Danforth screamed bloody murder,” says Kaufman.

The current dilemma with the incinerator has parallels with the past, according to Kaufman. He compares the political and social climate in Missouri to a banana republic. “Nothing changes, ” he says. “Especially, when you’ve got Ralston Purina and Monsanto. You’ve got an elite club, and the disposal boys are a part of that club. It’s like Arkansas — you’ve got an aristocracy — and then you’ve got everybody else.”

Confirmation of Kaufman’s jaded view can now be seen billowing from the stacks at the Times Beach dioxin incinerator, where state and federal regulators continue to turn a blind eye to an obvious public health risk. Studies by the EPA itself indicate dioxin is a probable human carcinogen and the cause of immunological and reproductive problems. The agency also acknowledges that incineration is one of the means by which dioxin is created.

Nevertheless, the EPA and DNR claim the Times Beach incinerator is safe. These assurances have continued despite a series of toxic releases at the incinerator this spring that bypassed pollution control devices and dispersed contaminants into the air. The odds of similar accidents occurring increased in July, when Syntex pushed back the completion date of the burn until next year because an estimated 70 tons of additional dioxin-tainted dirt will need to be destroyed.

Prior to firing up the incinerator, federal Judge John F. Nangle, the jurist responsible for the consent decree, ruled in the EPA’s favor, outlawing a St. Louis County ordinance that would have required that stack emissions meet the agency’s own stringent standard of 99.9999 percent destruction efficiency.

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