By C. D. Stelzer
first published in the Riverfront Times (St.Louis), Oct. 16, 1995
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has discovered dioxin contamination on property in St. Louis that the federal agency had previously listed as clean, the Riverfront Times has learned. Soil tests conducted in June 1994 at the Nationsway Transport Service Inc., a truck terminal at 5701 Hall St., revealed dioxin levels of up to 15 parts per billion, according to an EPA correspondence and sampling data provided to the RFT by an anonymous source. Despite the lapse of more than a year since the test results were issued, employees at the terminal and their union representative were never officially notified of the contamination by the EPA or the company. In September, Bob Feild, the EPA project manager for the Times Beach dioxin cleanup, repeatedly told the RFT that samples taken at four sites in 1994 had uncovered no further dioxin contamination. "They were found to be clean, ..." said Feild. When asked last week about the Nationsway terminal, Feild admitted the property was among those he had previously identified as uncontaminated. Feild and Martha Steincamp, the regional counsel for the EPA, now maintain it is likely that the newly discovered dioxin-tainted soil migrated from the adjacent Jones Truck Line lot, and, therefore, cannot be considered part of a separate site, according to the terms of the 1990 federally-mandated consent decree. "I guess we're having a little semantical problem about whether there are other sites," says Steincamp. "Superfund doesn't care about property boundaries, they clean up contamination. ... There is migration at a lot of the sites," adds Steincamp. Officials at the EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) say the concentrations of dioxin at Nationsway are well within health-based standards for industrial or commercial properties and pose little risk because the contamination is limited to the periphery of the property. Nevertheless, the EPA says it will to excavate and burn the toxic soil at Nationsway. The abandoned Jones Truck Line property, at 5601 Hall St., is one of the 27 designated sites that are part of the EPA's Times Beach Superfund cleanup. The project involves transporting and burning 100,000 cubic yards of dioxin-contaminated soil in Eastern Missouri. As a part of the plan, an incinerator is now being built at the site of the former town of Times Beach in West St. Louis County. Test burns may start before the end of the year. The EPA intends to use some of the contaminated soil from the Jones site as feedstock for those burns, which will require that the cleanup at the Hall Street location begin soon. As of last week, no one yet had informed Nationsway employees about the imminent excavation. In 1983, the EPA deemed the site -- formerly known as Trans Con -- to be clean, but workers at the terminal have long been concerned about potential dioxin exposure. "As far as I know there hasn't been any announcement of any plans to clean it up," says Rick Schleipman, the business agent for Teamsters Local 600, who represents many of the workers at the Nationsway terminal. "If there is something wrong on the property, they should definitely let them know," says the labor official. When risk manager Jerry Baer was contacted at Nationsway's corporate headquarters in Denver, he denied any knowledge that dioxin contamination had been found at the company's St. Louis facility. "Our understanding is that there is dioxin at the site next door," Baer says. He refused to talk about the company's policies regarding notifying employees of potential dioxin exposure. He would only say: "I know that they are aware of it, (but) I don't know how they became aware." Nationsway -- an international transport company -- is controlled by Jerry McMorris, the owner of the Colorado Rockies baseball team. The property on which the Nationsway terminal is located is owned by Justin Williamson III of Ladue. In a letter dated August 8, 1994, the EPA notified Williamson of the dioxin contamination. "A review of the data shows that 2,3,7,8-TCDD (dioxin) was detected on your property ranging in concentration from 0.336 to 15.0 parts per billion (ppb)," the letter states. Williamson, a prominent St. Louis businessman and philanthropist, also owns Midwest Transfer, another transport company located on Hall Street. He says he informed the management of Nationsway about the dioxin contamination, and otherwise bears no responsibility in the case. Williamson has owned the property for four or five years, he says. He refused further comment. "He is essentially an innocent landowner," Steincamp, the EPA lawyer, says of Williamson. "In other words, the contamination came to be located on his property through no fault of his." An estimated 3,278 cubic yards of toxic dirt is supposed to be dug up at the 5.65-acre Jones site and hauled to Times Beach for incineration, according to the EPA's Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis (EE/CA). Excavation, at this site alone, will cost more than $1.3 million. The total price tag for incinerating the tainted soil at Jones is expected to be more than $4.2 million. In addition, more than 182,000 square feet of the contaminated soil will at capped with asphalt and remain at the location. The cost of capping the remaining soil will be more than $500,000. The ostensible purpose of the scorched-earth-and/or-asphalt policy is, of course, the protection of human health. Established EPA and ATSDR standards require residential property be cleaned up to below one part per billion (ppb). The same guidelines, however, allow dioxin levels of up to 20 ppb in certain commercial or industrial areas. The reasoning behind the double-standard is that children are more vulnerable to the effects of dioxin. The toxin is a suspected human carcinogen and is known to cause immunological and reprodcutive problems. "Children are just more sensitive and they also, through their play habits and eating habits, ingest more dust, more soil than a worker does," says Denise Jordan-Izaguirre of the ATSDR. The federal health official says that studies "have shown that adult, healthy men, in a work place, are exposed to much higher levels (of dioxin) without any impact on their health." Opponents of the EPA's plan see things differently. "It's a liability removal project," says Steve Taylor, an organizer for the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG). "It's very suspicious that these sites haven't been cleaned up for 20 years. TBAG has long demanded that public officials help us to uncover the dioxin coverup." Fred Striley of the Dioxin Incinerator Response Group (DIRG) shares a similar view. "The plan says that they can cap over dioxin-contaminated soil, and that will be safe. They've capped over a lot of soil and its been that way for ten years," says Striley. "I don't see why they have to burn it, if it's safe to cap it. Why not cap it all, if it's safe? I don't believe it is safe in the long term," says Striley. "I think the sites should be cleaned up and the stuff should be stored." The dioxin-contaminated soil in the St. Louis area was created as an unwanted byproduct at the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Co. (NEPACCO) plant in Verona, Mo. in the late 1960s and early 1970s. NEPACCO manufactured hexachlorophene, an antiseptic, which has since been banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. At the time, the company also leased part of its facility to Hoffman-Taff, a producer of Agent Orange, the herbicide used in the Vietnam War. Syntex Agribusiness Inc. later acquired Hoffman-Taff. During this period, NEPACCO contracted Independent Petrochemical Corp. (IPC) to dispose of the dioxin. IPC then hired Russell M. Bliss. Beginning in 1971, Bliss mixed some 18,000 gallons of the dioxin residue with waste oil and sprayed it as a dust suppressant at horse areas, parking lots, truck terminals and the unpaved streets of Times Beach. Bliss' folly did not become publicly known until late 1982. Six of the 27 confirmed sites sprayed by Bliss were truck terminals in the city of St. Louis. In late 1994, more than 50 former dioxin-exposed employees of Jones Truck Lines or their surviving family members received an out-of court settlement for a suit filed in 1983. The defendants in that case included, NEPACCO, IPC and Syntex -- the company liable for the Times Beach cleanup. The same parties were defendants in a 1991 civil trial. In that case, a St. Louis Circuit Court jury awarded the family of deceased truck terminal employee Alvin Overman $1.5 million. Overman died of soft tissue sarcoma, a rare form of cancer associated with dioxin exposure. "We are not more worried about company owners than the people that work there," says Steincamp, the EPA counsel. The lawyer remains firm in her conviction that the agency she works for stnads by its name and is more concerned about public health than private interests. Steincamp, however, would probably have a difficult time convincing former Teamster Ken Manley of this. In the early 1980s, Manley helped run a dioxin task force for Local 600. He recalls the Teamsters' investigation initially received the support of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and got favorable coverage in the daily newspapers. A health study proposal sponsored by the union identified 700 members who had worked at three St. Louis truck terminals that were then known to have been sprayed by Bliss. "Then all of a sudden it just stopped," says Manley."I can't tell you exactly what happened, but somewhere along the line the issue just got shut down. I mean it literally got shut down." Not long before the task force folded, Manley received a tip that a playground on the near Southside by Ralston Purina had been contaminated with dioxin, he says. "I informed CDC and EPA, (but) by that point they weren't doing any further testing."