As a prelude to snuffing the flames at the Times Beach dioxin incinerator, the EPA moved more than 4,000 tons of “special” waste from the clean-up site to a controversial landfill in St. Louis County
published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis) July 9, 1997
BY C.D. STELZER
In late May, when the dump trucks began rumbling down Vance and Sulphur Springs Roads in southwest St. Louis County, residents along the route had no way of knowing that the vehicles were hauling chemically- contaminated soil from Times Beach. That’s because no one from the federal, state or local government bothered to tell them.
Ultimately, over a two-week period, a total of 4,466 tons of non- dioxin-contaminated waste, which had been excavated from the site of the former Times Beach city park, wound up at the nearby Superior Oak Ridge Landfill. The soils contained dangerous volatile organic chemicals, including ethylbenzine, toluene, xylene, tetrocholorethylene and trichloroethylene.
No less than three sources reached for this story refused to comment on the transfer of the waste, citing a confidentiality agreement with the EPA — an agreement the EPA doesn’t even acknowledge exists. An EPA attorney, who did go on the record, said she had no idea how much the city park clean up cost. A public affairs spokeswoman for the agency asked that all questions pertaining to landfill shipments be placed in writing. Although a Freedom of Information Act request was submitted, there have been no answers yet.
The stealthy manner in which the tainted dirt was relocated and the silence since then has led opponents of the Superfund cleanup to further criticize the project, which is now near completion. In advance of a media event to publicize the final snuffing of the flames at the Times Beach dioxin incinerator, the public affairs office at the site disconnected its phone. (park here)
Officials who have been contacted have attempted to diffuse the issue. The word from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the St. Louis County Health Department is that there is nothing to worry about because the soil that went to the landfill contains only low-levels of contamination. Indeed, they emphasize that the latest tests show negligible amounts of toxic chemicals at the city park site. By contrast, the EPA’s own 1986 draft feasibility study claimed that soil contamination at the park went20 feet deep and ground water was contaminated with 13 different chemicals.
In the latest tests, the EPA didn’t search for highly-toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) because none were recorded to have been found in tests conducted in 1991. But earlier tests conducted in 1982 showed PCBs present at the same location, according to sources close to the Times Beach clean up. This apparent discrepancy may be explained to a degree by the natural breakdown of the chemicals over time. Public confidence in the reliability of EPA data has also broken down over time, however, and PCBs are known to be persistent in the environment. Aside from not informing the public in a timely manner, the transfer of the waste to the landfill raises other concerns. The Riverfront Times has learned the following:
* The landfill that accepted the waste from the Times Beach city park has repeatedly been cited for operating violations by the DNR. Superior Services Inc. of Wisconsin, the new landfill owner, has yet to fully rectify the latest problem, according to the Missouri Attorney General’s office. Interestingly, Superior also controls a subsidiary specializing in hazardous waste cleanups. That company has done work for the EPA in the past.
* James B. Becker, who owned the landfill until last year, headed a consulting engineering firm that did survey work at the Times Beach clean up, according to the DNR. Records show his son is still the managing operator for the landfill. The elder Becker, a heavy campaign contributor to County Democrats, has been involved in past political controversies.
* The former mayor of Times Beach and a civil attorney with knowledge of the case both say the city park tested positive for highly- toxic PCBs in 1982. Sampling at that time also found other hazardous chemicals. Tests conducted nine years later, however, somehow failed to find any PCBs In May, the EPA chose not to sample again for the persistent chemical and claims to have found only insignificant levels of other contaminants.
* A driver for Russell Bliss, the waste hauler who sprayed Times Beach with dioxin-contaminated oil, admitted dumping liquid chemical waste at the same site (then called West County Landfill) in the early 1970s, according to copies of government documents obtained by the RFT.
“What’s really strange about this whole thing is they took Superfund money to take material they were afraid was going to leach into the ground water at Times Beach, and dumped it into a municipal waste landfill in West County that has been out of compliance for the lastdecade,” says Steve Taylor of the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG).
Taylor and other local environmental activists have long charged that incineration — the mandated method of disposing of dioxin- contaminated waste in Eastern Missouri — falls short of meeting the EPA’s own stringent emissions standards and thereby endangers human health and the environment. Evidence uncovered by TBAG late last year cast doubt on the reliability of a crucial 1995 stack emissions test, which was conducted to verify the operational safety of the incinerator.
Now that Syntex, the liable party in the dioxin clean up, has finished burning 265,000 tons of dioxin-contaminated soil (more than twice the amount originally estimated), TBAG is concerned about the remaining waste. This separate phase of the remediation has until now received little or no attention. Under the terms of the 1990 consent decree, non- dioxin contaminated materials could not be burned at the Times Beach incinerator. In some cases, barrels of hazardous waste have been shipped out of state for disposal. Soil deemed to contain only low levels of contamination, however, could be legally moved to an ordinary sanitary landfill for disposal.
In the case of the Times Beach city park, the EPA sought and received permits from both the state and county to haul “special waste” to the Superior Oak Ridge Landfill. To move the waste, the EPA circumvented its own strict regulations by deferring to more lenient guidelines imposed by the DNR, according to Martha Steincamp, an EPA attorney. Steincamp referred to the city park clean up as a “removal action not a remedial action.” She compared the landfill shipments to the disposal of other non-hazardous waste at the site such as flood debris and abandoned household goods. When asked why such seemingly benign materials needed to be disposed of at all, Steincamp replied: “Because Times Beach is going to be a park and we want to clean it all up.”
Unlike the high-profile incineration project, shipments of the contaminants to the landfill went virtually unnoticed. The press release relating to the project failed to mention the destination of the waste other than to say, “the contaminated soil will be transported off-site to a licensed disposal facility.”
A spokeswoman for the St. Louis County Health Department doesn’t see why local government should have been any more vigilant in alerting citizens than the EPA has been. “If we put out a news release every time somebody shipped properly handled waste, that’s not news, says Ellen Waters. “What benefit would it be to the citizens to know the waste is being properly handled? It’s good to know, but it almost goes withoutsaying. The assumption is always there — that’s what we do day in and day out.”
If the current name of the landfill — Superior Oak Ridge — seems unfamiliar that’s because up until September of last year the facility was formally known as West County Disposal Ltd. Among area residents it is still simply referred to as West County Landfill. Superior Services Inc., the new owner, is a Wisconsin-based solid waste management firm.
The current violation at the landfill dates back to November 1991, when the Missouri Attorney General’s office filed suit on behalf of the DNR. The DNR had cited the landfill for exceeding its vertical limits because trash had piled up 680 feet high, 40 feet over the limit. Last year, a $30,000 fine was imposed on the prior landfill operator. Since acquiring the landfill in September, Superior Services has not brought the facility into compliance with state requirements, according to Joseph P. Bindbeutel, chief counsel of the environmental division of the Missouri Attorney General’s office.
“From our standpoint as enforcers, … they bought a pig in a poke,” say Bindbeutel. “And they are continuing to sort of pay the dues of operational confusion out at that landfill. There are so many plans, and so many intentions, and so many maps, and so many management techniques out there nobody knew how they were going to operate. … Becker (the prior owner) actually committed the violation,” says Bindbeutel. “But we will be demanding remediation and penalties from the new operator. They bought the overfill. They’re responsible for it.”
Despite the tough talk, Bindbeutel indicates the state appreciates what Superior has contributed — namely a $4 million assurance bond to cover any emergencies or future closure. Bindbuetel also credits Superior for actively seeking to make improvements at the site. “They redesigned the active part of the landfill completely, including a methane recovery system that will very much benefit the environment.”
Peter J. Ruud, vice president and chief counsel for Superior, refused to discuss the sale terms, and cited a confidentiality agreement with the EPA concerning the contaminated waste from Times Beach. But it’s no secret the company has expanded lately through a series of acquisitions in the Midwest. The solid waste management firm also owns a subsidiary, Superior Specialty Services that handles hazardous waste cleanups, including contracts with the EPA
In essence, Superior bought the former West County Disposal Ltd., changed it name and acquired the same operating permit held by the previous owner. The Wisconsin company acquired all potential liability associated with the landfill, too. Mitch Stepro, the special waste coordinator for the landfill, also refused to discuss the Times Beach waste, citing a confidentiality agreement with the EPA. Because both sides are remaining mum, it is unclear why the out-of-state company would buy into a landfill that faces possible further sanctions by the state.
Becker, the former landfill owner, referred all questions to his attorney, Brian McGovern, who accused the DNR of dragging its bureaucratic feet. “There was an exceedence of the vertical elevations, but they’re was also a counter claim alleged,” says McGovern. “Plans had been submitted at the landfill that would have allowed access to additional areas.” But the DNR put off looking at the landfill’s expansion plans for four years, according to McGovern, thus stymieing the operator’s ability to contain the waste in a more appropriate manner.
Problems at the landfill go back more than four years, however.
West County Landfill acquired its first operating permit in December 1972, and public protests started immediately. One early critic, geologist Charles Felt of St. Louis University, told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat : “My research indicates that the area is not suitable for a landfill. In the first place, rocks underneath the area would allow water to pass through.” In 1973, Martin D. Baron of the Coalition for the Environment voiced more opposition, telling the County Council the water quality of the nearby Meramec River needed to be protected.
The pleas fell on deaf ears. The County approved the license for the 129-acre landfill and problems at the site began to mount. In 1983, the state ordered the landfill closed, alleging Becker had failed to take adequate steps to protect ground and surface water from pollution. But West County continued to operate while it appealed the case. Two years later, DNR finally reached a settlement agreement that imposed strict guidelines on the landfill. A DNR official then said the stiff requirements had been imposed because soil conditions at the facility allowed waste to seep into the ground.
In recent years, neighbors of the landfill complained to the St. Louis County Council about odors. Other residents notified authorities of dumping late a night. But the County did little. Perhaps the most telling evidence of official disdain for citizens’ concerns is found in complaint log #8071 on file at the St. Louis County Health Department. In a letterdated May 11, 1996, residents of Greenfield Crossing Court asked for help to stem “the pollution, strong unpleasant odors, noise and traffic caused by the operators of the landfill.” In response, an unknown official jotted in the margin, “What pollution? (These are) all conditions associated with normal landfill operations. Why did they buy property next to a landfill, if they did not like these conditions?”
In 1991, when West County community activist Angela Dillmon started checking out local candidates, she found Becker had contributed heavily to Democrats on the County Council, particularly, the campaign of County Executive Buzz Westfall. By Dillmon’s tally, Becker and individuals and companies connected to him gave Westfall tens of thousands of dollars. “It was serious money,” says Dillmon.
It wasn’t the first time Becker had become involved in local politics. In 1974, he pled the Fifth Amendment 58 times in the perjury trial of then-St. Louis Building Commissioner Kenneth O. Brown. Brown was charged with lying to a grand jury about a $1,500 check he had received from Becker. The prosecution alleged the money was paid to Brown for steering work to Becker’s consulting engineering firm.
Later, from 1984 to 1987, the late St. Louis County highway director Richard F. Daykin got the County Council to give more than $800,000 in no- bid contracts to James B. Becker Consulting Engineers, according to press accounts. At that time, Daykin’s son, Richard J. Daykin, worked for Becker’s engineering firm. While employed by Becker, the younger Daykin helped survey the Times Beach site.
After his father’s death, Daykin befriended Taylor, the TBAG activist. He then told Taylor of irregularities in soil sampling he had observed at Times Beach. He also mentioned safety violations at the site. Daykin repeated his allegations in an interview with an environmental attorney who was preparing a federal suit to try and halt incinerator operations.
But Daykin never got a chance to go on the record. In August 1995, Federal Judge John F. Nangle reaffirmed Superfund clean ups can’t be sued until after they are completed. That judicial ruling is not what permanently silenced Daykin, however. He died of injuries received in a one-car accident early last year.
Taylor is hesitant to broach the subject of his friend’s death. “There was no indications of foul play,” he says. “It is presumed by friends and family to have been an accident. We don’t really know because there weren’t many questions asked. Rich was always hesitant about bringing up things,” says Taylor. “But he came to his own realization things weren’ton the up and up at Times Beach. He thought a lot of things that happened down there were suspicious.”
For its part, the EPA claims ignorance of all these details. “I don’t keep up on St. Louis politics that much,” says Martha Steincamp, the regional counsel for the EPA. “The most important thing to us, of course, is that we are selecting a location that is properly licensed and approved by whomever the licensing authorities are to receive this waste. In this case, there were discussions with the county officials and it was a properly licensed landfill to receive special waste and they did have the conditional use permit.”
In 1995, Marilyn Leisner, the former mayor of Times Beach, told the RFT the city park site contained PCBs, albeit low levels. Her recollection is based on private testing done in 1982 prior to the evacuation of the dioxin-contaminated town. “When the testing was completed, it was determined the PCBs were only at the city park,” said Leisner. “In the cleanup at Times Beach, Syntex is not responsible for the PCBs. So the park cleanup is not being done by Syntex; it is being done separately by the EPA.”
As Leisner and Steincamp both explain it, dioxin at Times Beach fell under Superfund regulation, which made Syntex, the liable party, responsible for its clean up. But the PCB contamination at the city park came under the auspices of another federal law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). RCRA regulations allow the states to set the contamination guidelines.
Gerson Smoger, an attorney who represented former Times Beach residents, couldn’t corroborate Leisner’s recollection exactly, but he did remember the presence of PCBs at the city park, as well as, elsewhere in Times Beach. “When they were doing the testing, the assumption made in the early 1980s was that dioxin was of such extreme harm that anything else was irrelevant.” Nevertheless, according to Smoger, the concentrations of PCBs alone were high enough to declare Times Beach a hazardous waste site. “One would assume there would still be PCBs there, ” says Smoger. But, according to sampling conducted in 1991, the PCBs — a persistent environmental pollutant — had somehow vanished.
PCBs or no PCBs, significant levels of volatile organic chemicals were indisputably detected at the city park as early as 1982. Private tests conducted at that time for the city of Times Beach showed thepresence of toluene at 120,000 part per billion (ppb), ethyl benzene at 170,000 ppb, acetone at 82,000 ppb and xylenes at up to 510,000 ppb. A Centers for Disease Control spokesman commented then that the contaminants were “of concern, ” but pronounced there was no emergency response necessary. As a result, the chemicals continued to leach into the ground water for another 15 years before they were transported to the Superior Oak Ridge Landfill in late May and early June. Although the landfill now uses pumps and liners to prevent seepage, there is still a chance some of the remaining contaminants could potentially pollute water entering the Meramec River.
Of course, if the waste isn’t hazardous, as the EPA contends, there would be no reasonable cause to move it in the first place. On the other hand, if it does warrant disposal, there seems little logic in shipping it to a landfill in the same ecologically sensitive watershed.
Anne McCauley, the EPA on-site coordinator for the city park clean up says several factors weighed into the decision to send the waste to Superior Oak Ridge. “One was the location relative to the site we were cleaning up,” says McCauley. “It was very close to the city park site. The transportation route was very short in addition to the fact that the facility is permitted to accept this kind of waste.”
Not surprisingly Taylor of TBAG has a diametrically opposed view. “We believe this is more of a toxic-waste shell game than a clean up,” he says. “We feel there’s a lot of secrets. That this whole incineration project was about preserving secrets and protecting commercial interests more than protecting public health.”
One well-kept secret is contained in the files of the Collinsville office of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA). In late 1982, after the extent of Bliss’s toxic spraying binge became known, the IEPA asked its federal counterpart for information on sites in Illinois that Bliss may have contaminated a decade earlier.
In one document handed over by the EPA, there is a reference to the West County Landfill. At the time, there seemed to be some confusion by state officials as to whether the landfill was in Missouri or Illinois. The IEPA summary lists the source of the information as Stephen P. Krchma of the Missouri Attorney General’s office. Krchma had in turn based his report on an interview with David Covert, one of Bliss’s drivers. The summary citation reads:
Wastes were also reported by Covert to be hauled to the West County landfill in Sulphur Springs (IL or MO?) where the operators were paid off to accept the wastes.”
The reference to Sulphur Springs most likely denotes the St. Louis County road on which West County Landfill (now Superior Oak Ridge Landfill) is located.
On December 23, 1982, IEPA officials interviewed Covert themselves. During the interview, Covert talked about picking up ink from a company in St. Louis County. “It smells terrible and I don’t think it burns,” said Covert. “You just haul that stuff into the west county landfill and open the valve and let it run out.” Before they were banned, PCBs were used in the manufacture of ink.
The reason the EPA and DNR passed over the West County Landfill in their own search appear to be twofold. For one, another Bliss driver changed his story. According to the EPA’s dioxin site tracking list, Gary Lambarth “indicated he had oiled the road in the landfill around 1972.”
Lambarth made that statement in the spring of 1983. By fall, however, he reversed himself, claiming he had confused West County with another landfill. In addition, the EPA dioxin tracking list states that DNR was “deferring action until (the) relationship with ongoing litigation is determined.” As already mentioned, the state agency had attempted to close the landfill in 1983 because Becker had failed to adequately protect ground and surface water from pollution.
In a sense, the waste from the city park completes the contamination circle. Two Bliss drivers initially confessed to dumping waste at West County Landfill in the early 1970s. Only one is known to have retracted the admission. The state cited the landfill for water pollution violations in 1983, but has continued to allow the landfill to operate. Complaints by citizens have been dismissed by the County. Meanwhile, those involved in accepting contaminated waste from Times Beach refuse to comment, citing a confidentiality agreement with the EPA. The silence extends to the U.S. attorney’s office in St. Louis. “We don’t confirm or deny the possible existence of an investigation,” says Jan Diltz, a local Department of Justice (DOJ) spokeswoman. She declined to comment further on whether there is a current federal inquiry into activities at Time Beach.
In 1982, the DOJ — acting on behalf of the EPA and the White House — withheld documents from a congressional investigation, citing executive privilege. Among the documents the DOJ refused to hand over were handwritten notes of EPA attorney James Kohanek, pertaining toproposed activity on Missouri dioxin sites. In a published account, then- U.S. Rep. Elliott Levitas, D-Ga., who sat on House Public Works Committee, remembered exactly when the stonewalling began. “As far as I was concerned, it was just a routine exercise in oversight,” said Levitas of the congressional inquiry. “Right in the middle of it there was a decision made by the EPA … permitting sanitary landfills to be used to receive liquid waste. … Then boom — the door got shut.”