WINDS OF SHAME

Fugitive toxic emissions at the Times Beach incinerator reveal lax safety policies of Syntex, the DNR and the EPA

BY C.D. STELZER

First published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), May 8, 1996

Gary Pendergrass stood before the St. Louis County
Council last Thursday and tried to explain the latest in
a series of snafus at the Times Beach incinerator, which
have resulted in the releases of unknown quantities of
dioxin into the environment.
      It was not an easy task for Pendergrass, who is
the Times Beach project coordinator for Syntex, the
company found liable for the Superfund cleanup.
Defending the project's already questionable safety
record  became even less tenable due to the belated
actions of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources
(DNR).  Earlier in the day, the state agency announced
it had shut down the controversial incinerator in the
wake of the most recent incident, an electrical power
outage on April 28. 
     DNR Director David Shorr could not be reached on
Monday. Nina Thompson, a spokeswoman for the department,
said the amount of the dioxin released during the
emergency had not been determined as of yet. "We don't
think that it was a health risk, but we still want to
know for sure," she said. The DNR does not know how long
the shut down will be in effect, according to Thompson. 
     At the council meeting, Pendergrass blamed an
unforseen act of God for the latest debacle. "As you can
see the wind velocity range went from the 20 to 30 mph
range very quickly up to a maximum of 62 mph," he told
the council, referring to a chart he had brought with
him.  
     "When this happened, the high winds extinguished
the pilot lights on the standby combustion system,"
Pendergrass added. Less than a minute later, the
electricity went out, according to Pendergrass. The
combination of the high winds and electricity outage
prevented the full burning of dioxin-contaminated
materials and thereby allowed toxic matter to spew
untreated out of the dump stack reserved for such
emergency releases.
     "Honestly, the events were very unfortunate the way
things worked,"  Pendergrass said.  The Syntex official,
nevertheless, reassured the council that the release
posed no danger to public health. To prevent a similar
occurrence, a wind screen has been installed to shield
the pilot lights, and a private weather forecaster has
been hired, Pendergrass said.
     The incineration of dioxin-contaminated soils is
scheduled to continue over the next several months,
according to the terms of the 1990 federal consent
decree. The plan -- signed by Syntex, the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) and the DNR -- calls for burning
toxic waste from Times Beach and 26 other sites in
Eastern Missouri.  
       Under questioning from Councilman Gregory Quinn, 
Pendergrass testified that IT Corp. -- the incinerator
operator contracted by Syntex -- would calculate the
amount of toxins released and provide their estimate to
the DNR and the EPA for further evaluation.  
     Quinn then asked why air monitoring data on the two
previous emergency releases, which occurred on March 20
and March 30,  had not yet been provided to the St.
Louis County Health Department. Pendergrass responded by
saying the data would be forthcoming and added: "There
has been no attempt to hide anything on this project."      
     Opponents of the incinerator disagree. Dan
McLaughlin, who spoke to the council prior to
Pendergrass, alleged that "air monitors that surround
the site are ... either by accident or purposely shut
off during these releases."
     Joe Taykowski, the local resident who has been
videotaping the emergency releases from a bluff
overlooking the incinerator, says he has documented
other problems with the project. "They (Syntex) don't
want to talk about the fugitive emissions that are
coming out of the bottom of this stack at least five
times an hour -- every day," said Taykowski. 
      Reached for comment over the weekend, Steve
Taylor, a spokesman 
 the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG), criticized the
state and federal regulators for permitting incinerator,
which he says is an inherently dangerous. "The only
people surprised that this happened are the DRN and EPA,
the agency's that have been charged with safeguarding
public health. The community anticipated this," said
Taylor. 
      Last month, federal Judge John F. Nangle, the same
jurist who cobbled the 1990 consent decree, dismissed a
suit brought by the Citizens Against Dioxin Incineration
(CADI), a group affiliated with TBAG. By so doing, the
judge sided with the lawyers representing the  EPA and
Syntex,  who contend that Superfund law prohibits any
court challenges until after cleanups are completed.
Nangle's latest decision follows an earlier ruling in
which he overturned a St. Louis County ordinance that
sought to impose stricter emission standards on the
incinerator.

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