TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

The EPA belatedly calls for a retest of stack emissions at the Times Beach incinerator

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Jan. 1, 1997

On Christmas Eve, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assistant administrator Elliott P. Laws ordered a retest of stack emissions at the Times Beach dioxin incinerator to determine whether the facility is operating safely. The test results are due by the end of January, according to an internal EPA memorandum released by the agency.

Robert Martin, the EPA national ombudsman, recommended the new test based on irrefutable documentary evidence showing samples from the original 1995 stack test were mishandled. The ombudsman — who represents citizens’ interests — began investigating the Superfund project last spring, after local residents complained of unsafe conditions at the cleanup near Eureka.

The Times Beach Action Group (TBAG) and other incinerator opponents later charged that a conflict of interest existed at the time of the original stack test because International Technology Inc. (IT), the incinerator operator, then owned half of Quanterra Environmental Services, the laboratory that mishandled the test samples.

In his final report on Dec. 21, Martin stated a new stack test and corresponding analysis would take under two week to complete. No shut down of the facility is anticipated, according to the report. The ombudsman estimated the test would cost approximately $100,000. The report recommends that the federal agency’s Environmental Response Team along with EPA Region VII, and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) oversee the new test. The report further recommends that the St. Louis County Dioxin Monitoring Committee, a citizens watchdog group, select a technical advisor to independently access the new test. Last Friday, an EPA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. said the agency was unprepared to release the names of possible laboratories that may analyze the new test samples.
Martin’s final report roundly criticized a separate DNR inquiry, which had concluded earlier this year that problems with the original test were insignificant.”The findings of the DNR investigation are troubling,” Martin wrote. “The explanations offered by ATI (Agribusiness Technologies Inc., the company responsible for the clean up) and thus far readily accepted by DNR and EPA are grossly inadequate. Clearly, there are significant problems with the original test.”

The ombudsman’s report repeatedly relies on the opinion of Michael Bollinger, who is cited as an expert in environmental chemistry and public health. Bollinger is quoted as saying that inconsistencies in the original test “indicate either incompetence, blatant carelessness, or potentially criminal deception on behalf of the sampling and analytical contractors.” The Martin report goes on to list a litany of snafus during the original stack test, including: “modified quality assurance records, missing time periods, unaccounted for sample traps, and a lack of documentation on possession and transfer of samples.”

None of the state or federal officials responsible for overseeing the Times Beach clean up were available for comment last week. But spokeswomen for the EPA and DNR vowed that both agencies would cooperate fully in carrying out whatever measures necessary to assure future protection of public health and the environment.

Those promises may be a little too late, however.

More than 177,480 tons of dioxin-contaminated waste have already been burned at the incinerator, according to the latest estimates by the DNR. Moreover, despite the order for a retest, plumes of smoke continue to roil from the incinerator stacks. During the week preceding the issuance of the ombudsman’s final report, the incinerator burned 6,351 tons of toxic materials. At this late stage, only five of the 27 Eastern Missouri dioxin sites remain to be cleaned up, and the EPA has projected the burn itself could be completed as soon as March.

Although the federal regulatory agency is ostensibly accepting the ombudsman’s recommendation for a retest, the rush to burn the remaining dioxin-tainted soil is obvious. As a result, two traffic accidents have occurred in the past month. In the first case, a truck hauling dioxin contaminated waste from Timberline Stable overturned on Highway J in Callaway County. On Dec. 21, another dump truck crashed on Rock Creek Road near Highway 21 in Jefferson County.

In his Christmas Eve edict, Laws, the assistant EPA administrator, recommended the new stack test be conducted in a manner that creates only “minimal interference with ongoing incinerator operations.” In addition, the EPA official stated the agency has “an obligation to ensure that a protective cleanup is conducted in an efficient and expeditious manner.” The assistant administrator defends this hellbent policy by citing available air monitoring data, which he claims proves the incinerator is operating safely.

Bill Elmore, a member of the St. Louis County Dioxin Monitoring Committee, isn’t buying the agency’s latest line. “What they’ve done is shift the burden of proof to residents,” says Elmore. “They should have to prove to us that this is not harmful — and they cannot do that. In fact, every time you take a close look at the data you find even more reason to not believe what they say.”

Although the EPA now claims there has been a 1.1 percent average decrease in airborne dioxin levels in the vicinity of the incinerator from March through November, the data actually show significant increases at three of seven air-monitoring sites. Elmore attributes the increases — including a whopping 22.5 percent jump at one location — to prevailing seasonal wind patterns. The EPA “should cross reference the direction of the wind where these increases in average airborne dioxin concentrations occurred,” asserts Elmore.

Laws doesn’t appear to have the time to authorize such prudent calculations. Instead, the assistant administrator busied himself last week accusing incinerator opponents of promulgating “irresponsible allegations of conspiracy and criminal activity.” Laws’ shrill denunciations of EPA critics were laid out in his Dec. 24 memo, which almost as an aside called for the retest of stack emissions. The three page screed also attacks ombudsman Martin for implying criminal misconduct may have occurred in relation to the Times Beach cleanup.

Steve Taylor of TBAG finds the official protestations mildly ironic, but he is more concerned about the possibility of history repeating itself. “For the EPA and the DNR to handle a retest without an investigation into those who allowed contractor (wrongdoing) to occur in the first place is like allowing a convicted child molester to do community service in a daycare center,” says Taylor. “It is irresponsible of Elliott Laws to refer to our allegations of wrongdoing as unfounded. There is no validity to the stack test. The incinerator should be immediately shut down given the fact there is no evidence that it is operating appropriately. They (the EPA and DNR) have violated the law. They have permitted an incinerator (to operate) with no evidence of it meeting its permit requirements. We will not be satisfied with a new stack test until the DNR and EPA are investigated by an independent arm of the government, possibly the Department of Justice or the FBI or a congressional subcommittee to determine why contract (improprieties) are being embraced by these agencies.”

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