St. Louis Radioactive Waste Legacy

From here to eternity

Buried History


Does radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project and Cold War still lurk near or under the dorms at Washington University?

first published in the Riverfront Times, May 27, 1998

Photo from a 1952 Wash U Alumni Bulletin shows two engineers burying radioactive waste from the cyclotron in the South 40.

 

An official Washington University photograph from 1952 shows two engineers — who donned lab coats and gas masks for the occasion — dumping radioactive waste out of galvanized steel trash cans into a hole in the ground. Other photos from the same series show the duo setting fire to the waste. The photo caption identifies the burial site as being behind then-Chancellor Arthur Holly Compton’s residence. The university published the photograph in its Alumni Bulletin to assure the public that radioactive waste from the school’s atomic cyclotron was being disposed of properly.

What may have been considered proper nuclear etiquette in the 1950s, however, is subject to question nowadays, and the answers have proven to be more than a little elusive. Indeed, nobody really even knows exactly what is buried on the South 40 of the Washington University campus, where dormitories are now located. But for decades, recurrent stories have alluded to the internment of radioactive waste at the site. Late last year (1997), after the university began building a series of new residence halls, in the southwest corner of the tract, a spokesman for the university dismissed the allegations as unfounded.

“We’ll categorically deny all of that,” says Fred Volkmann, the spokesperson. “I can assure you that everything that was there was removed, but that, at the time it was removed, it had no measurable radioactivity. I don’t think that you’ve got a story.”

Washington University alumnus Martin Walsh, however,  thinks otherwise.

“I don’t know if there is anything there or not,” says 62-year-old Walsh. “But why the hell would they run us out of there in 1955?”

In the spring semester of that year, a university administrator ordered members of his military drill group, the Pershing Rifles, to avoid the area, Walsh said. Before the edict, Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) cadets had roamed the woods near the corner of Wydown Avenue and Big Bend Boulevard on nocturnal maneuvers. When the university forced an end to these forays, Walsh worried that he and his comrades might be disciplined for lighting campfires or worse. “To be frank, we had trouble with fellows who took binoculars and wanted to look into the girls’ dorms at Fontbonne College,” says Walsh, referring to the then-exclusively women college south of the site.

Instead, the administrator warned the cadets that the site had been used to bury radioactive waste created by the cyclotron — the university’s World War II vintage atom smasher.

Walsh’s memories of the incident were jogged recently by the sight of the new dorms going up at the location. He speculates that the sinkhole, over which the new dorms have been built, is filled with 60 feet of dirt. Walsh, a civil engineer and former St. Louis building commissioner, expresses concern that excavation work could possibly have brought some of the radioactive waste back to the surface. 

Although documents eventually furnished by the university tend to support its contention that radioactive materials dumped on the campus in the past were not hazardous, nothing indicates they were ever removed, as Volkmann claims. Moreover, substantiation of the university’s position depends heavily on two former cyclotron staff members who provided, at best, sketchy recollections. Both men possessed only partial knowledge of the cyclotron’s operational history because they began their careers long after the machine had been placed in service.

The university further cast doubt upon itself by restricting access to Chancellor Compton’s files. In another instance, a relevant dissertation, which could disclose important details, has somehow been misplaced or lost by the university.

By any reasonable standard, the record of radioactive waste disposal on campus is incomplete. Nonetheless, for more than 40 years, the university has assured the public that there is no danger.  [Former] University Chancellor William H. Danforth, for example, made such a statement in a letter to local environmentalist Kay Drey in 1978.

Drey accepted the chancellor’s word then; she is less sure now.

“If the materials were so short-lived that they would have decayed in a short period of time, why were they buried in the first place?” Drey asks. “And if they were short-lived, why were they dug up decades later? What proof is there that they were dug up? Where were they sent, and when?”

A long forgotten legacy

The legacy of radioactive waste, which Walsh stumbled onto as an ROTC cadet in the mid-1950s, began long before his college days.

In September 1938, Arthur Hughes, then chairman of the physics department, began preliminary inquiries into how to expand Washington University’s role in the burgeoning field of nuclear physics. By this time, American scientists were aware that recent discoveries had advanced the knowledge necessary for Germany to build an atomic bomb. This led to a sense of urgency among researchers before the United States entered World War II.

After Hughes recommended that a cyclotron be built, the Rockefeller Foundation provided a $60,000 grant. Additional funding for the project had already been committed by the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology of Washington University Medical School. The institute was named after the founder of Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, the company that ultimately supplied the Army with the refined uranium necessary to build the atomic bomb.

During its construction, the university publicized the 80-ton, electromagnetic device as the latest medical weapon in the battle against human disease. Researchers, indeed, used the radioactive isotopes created by the cyclotron for experimental cancer therapy. From the beginning, however, the medical applications overlapped with military interests. By early 1942, only a few months after its completion, Washington University scientists had already started employing the machine for secret atomic-bomb work under a contract with the federal government’s Office of Scientific Research and Development.

Using the 50,000-watt cyclotron, a Washington University team bombarded hundreds of thousands of pounds of uranyl nitrate, which had been refined at Mallinckrodt, to create microscopic quantities of plutonium. The cyclotron staff then sent the uranium and plutonium to the University of Chicago to be separated. By this point, the specially created Manhattan District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had taken over the supervision of the atomic-bomb program, which later became known simply as the Manhattan Project.

Secrecy surrounded the entire endeavor. Scientists acquired pseudonyms; the nascent bomb became known as “the gadget”; coded log-book entries referred to uranium as “band-aid box, “gunk” or “special stuff.” The secret work at Washington University continued for the next two-and-a-half years. But another eight years would pass before the university itself openly discussed the radioactive cyclotron waste.

Finally, in October 1952, the university’s Alumni Bulletin published a photograph showing the two cyclotron engineers dumping radioactive waste on the southern part of the campus, hoping to assure the alumni and the public that radioactive waste from the cyclotron was being disposed of properly. Within a few years, however, the school changed its policy and began shipping all of its irradiated materials in special containers to an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) site in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

This decision to move future waste off campus dovetailed neatly with the university administration’s plans to build student housing in the vicinity of the radioactive burial site. When construction began in 1958 on the tract behind the chancellor’s residence, university officials tried to find out where the waste had been dumped by asking the two cyclotron engineers who had posed for the photographs. Details of those interviews are contained in internal memorandums, which the university allowed a reporter for the The Riverfront Times to read but not photocopy. The following account is based on information culled from those memos.

The late John T. Hood Sr., who ultimately became director of cyclotron operations, was one of the two engineers known to have been questioned. He and his colleague, Bradbury Phillips, were the two individuals who had earlier been featured in the Alumni Bulletin photos. Before his death in 1996, the university called on Hood to answer questions about the early disposal practices at the cyclotron facility. Hood invariably calmed concerns over the issue using his personal knowledge.

However, an Aug. 18, 1958, internal university memo indicates Hood was absent from the campus during his military service and on return could not remember exactly where the waste had been buried. According to the memo: “Mr. J.T. Hood, electrical engineer at the cyclotron, helped with some of the waste disposal work although he was in the Army during a large fraction of the interval of interest. … Mr. Hood has surveyed the terrain in the neighborhood of the burial ground and reports that it has been altered as to make the identification of the exact burial spots impossible.”

By 1958, Phillips, the other source on which the university relied, had moved to the University of Colorado. In a written response Phillips provided his recollections on the subject. He, too, prefaced his words with doubt.

“That’s a rough set of questions,” wrote Phillips. “I’ve racked my brain all day trying to recall the answers. It must be close to ten years since our first burial. As an initial date somewhere in 1949 or 1950 sticks in my head. I don’t think any burials were made later than early 1955. After that we shipped the stuff out in 50-gallon paper-board barrels.”

Phillips also expressed uncertainty on the number of burials in which he had participated, guessing that total to be between five and eight. He suggested that log-book entries be checked to verify the number of burials, but there is no mention of whether the log books were ever examined. The engineer then attempted to locate the burial sites on a rough map of the area. He stated, however, that a more accurate diagram of the burial locations had been drawn up by the cyclotron staff in the past. Investigators failed to find that diagram, according to one of the memos. When a search team uncovered a discrepancy between Phillips’ recollection and their records, they chose to accept Phillips’ version rather than their own. Investigators subsequently dug test holes and scanned the area with a Geiger counter, detecting only normal background levels of radiation.

But trying to pinpoint the exact burial sites on a 40-acre wooded tract of land proved futile.

Phillips estimated the size of the dumping ground as 50 to 70 feet in diameter. “The ground fell off to a ravine running north and south, which intersected the old creek bed,” he wrote. “Trash and dirt were filled in from the east side of this ravine. Our procedure was to bury at the foot of this hill so the next few loads would cover it. Within a week, this surface was 8 to 10 feet under the surface of the trash and dirt.” Phillips’ description is similar to what a sinkhole would look like that was being used as a landfill, which is what the university used the property for in those days.

The burial rites for the radioactive waste followed a pattern that rarely deviated. According to Phillips, the waste was dumped and then burned “so that the final volume of material never exceeded 2 cubic feet. All laboratory glass was broken. With one exception, no containers were used. The exception was a one-gallon can; its contents were poured into the hole, and the can punctured. All other waste was uncontained.”

Most of the radioactive waste was paper used to prevent surface contamination at the cyclotron facility, Phillips wrote. Included among the buried artifacts, however, were a few 8-by-10 pieces of brass. “We never buried large amounts of (radio)activity and any long-lived (materials) had been set aside to decay to low levels before burial,” wrote Phillips. Although the half-lives of the materials were allegedly determined in advance of disposal, Phillips confessed he didn’t know what exactly he was burying. “I would say the bulk of the radioactive material was unidentified,” he wrote.

Nothing in Phillips’ account alludes to the waste ever being dug up and removed as the spokesman for the university now asserts. Moreover, the cyclotron engineer’s chronology only covers the last six years that radioactive waste is known to have been disposed of on campus. Contrary to Phillips’ statement, the cyclotron began operating in early 1942, not 1945. The omission leaves a seven-year gap for which there is no apparent record.

Whereas, Phillips claimed radioactive materials were buried as few as five times in six years, another cyclotron technician’s estimates suggest that disposal may have occurred more frequently. The late Albert A. Schulke, who began working at the cyclotron during World War II, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1952 that it wasn’t unusual for the accumulated radioactive waste to fill three standard-size rubbish cans in a two-month period. Schulke’s estimates — added over a 13-year period — indicate the possibility of 234 separate waste-disposal occurrences.

Similar to Phillips’ account, Schulke vouched for the benign nature of the waste, although the 1952 news story mentions that cyclotron burial squads took the precaution of wearing respirators to keep from breathing radioactive dust. The nuclear gravediggers were also reported to have dressed in rubber boots and gloves and handled radioactive materials with long, “non-magnetic” tongs. Several years later, Schulke complained to another reporter of recurring pain in his fingers caused by radiation burns he received in 1948. The cyclotron technician, nevertheless, praised the safety of burying the waste on the South 40, an area he considered secure. “We can be sure no one is ever going to build there, and dig up the waste materials,” said Schulke.

After the war, Washington University published a booklet that boasted of its role in the production of the first atomic bombs. The work included the following statement:

“Certain investigations of a scientific nature, not yet released, were carried out for the Metallurgical Laboratory. Among these was an investigation which constituted the dissertation for the degree of Ph.D awarded to Harry W. Fulbright.”

The Metallurgical Laboratory was the code name for the secret atomic-weapons research facility at the University of Chicago, where Compton oversaw the first controlled nuclear chain reaction on Dec. 2, 1942. Although Chicago acted as the hub for the research, Washington University supplied the initial plutonium.

Fulbright’s dissertation, which would provide precise details of how early cyclotron experiments were conducted here, appears to have never been declassified. The doctoral paper is absent from the catalogue of Olin Library at Washington University. It’s missing from the physics department library on campus, too. A search of two national databases turned up nothing more than a brief citation. Fulbright, who is now an emeritus professor at the University of Rochester, says he doesn’t even have a copy.

In his written reply to an inquiry by the Riverfront Times, Fulbright wrote: “I have carefully gone through my papers without finding a copy. … In the late 1940s, while at Princeton University … I recall vaguely having received a partially declassified copy.” Fulbright further stated that the goal of his experiment at Washington University was to establish a nuclear energy scheme for plutonium 239. I think the average reader would fine it dry as sawdust.”

The subtleties of sawdust, of course, are infinitely more discernible than atomic particles. Discarded radioisotopes can come in hundreds of varieties and contaminate soil, water or air. The resulting radioactivity may decay in minutes or days or last forever.

“When uranium or plutonium undergoes fission, there are about 700 or 800 different ways that those two pieces can come into existence,” says John W. Gofman, a professor emeritus at the University of California Berkeley. Gofman, who took part in the Manhattan Project research at Berkeley, later became an outspoken critic of the nuclear power juggernaut. Gofman cites strontium 90 and cesium 137 as two common radioactive isotopes that could be created during fission. Each of these substances possesses a half-life of approximately 30 years. This means half of the radioactivity emitted from these isotopes decays within three decades. So any strontium 90 or cesium 137 created during World War II would still be emitting more than one-fourth of its original radioactivity today (1998).

But Arthur C. Wahl, a former Washington University chemistry professor, insists that low-level radioactive waste created by the cyclotron, during World War II and the postwar era, would pose no current health or environmental danger. He is less certain, however, about the exact location of the waste. “I don’t know about it,” says Wahl, who is living in retirement in Los Alamos, N.M. “I’ve been questioned about this before by environmentalists and so forth. This (the dumping of the radioactive waste on the South 40) was done before I was associated with the cyclotron, if it was done at all.”

Wahl joined the faculty after the bomb hit Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. By this time, Compton had already accepted the chancellorship, although his role as a Manhattan Project consultant would continue covertly for more than a year. In addition to Wahl, Compton recruited Joseph W. Kennedy directly from the Los Alamos laboratory, where both had worked on the atomic bomb under J. Robert Oppenheimer. Earlier in their careers, the two scientists had collaborated with Glenn T. Seaborg and Emilio Segre at the Berkeley radiation laboratory of Ernest O. Lawrence. Compton also drafted a bevy of other talented chemists from Los Alamos, including Lindsay Helmholtz, David Lipkin, Herbert Potratz and Samuel Weissman.

Arthur Holly Compton

In part through Compton’s military connections, the university began nuclear experiments financed by the Office of Naval Research in 1946. Then in 1947, the AEC contracted the university to produce isotopes not obtainable at nuclear reactors. Other research on campus involved investigating the possibility of creating nuclear-powered aircraft, warships and submarines. Meanwhile, the university constructed a radiochemistry laboratory adjacent to the cyclotron with $300,000 from an anonymous donor, according to the February 1947 issue of the Washington University Aumni Bulletin.

Besides military work, the cyclotron continued to serve medical researchers and also private corporations, including Anheuser-Busch, Phillips Petroleum, McDonnell-Douglas, Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) and General Electric.

Not surprisingly, by the time Walsh entered Washington University’s civil-engineering program in the mid-1950s, the military-industrial complex was well-ensconced on campus. No one then doubted the propriety of this menage a trois anymore than they questioned the disposal of radioactive waste on the South 40. But Walsh does remember receiving a warning from professor Kennedy, the co-discoverer of plutonium. “I had him for Chemistry 101 and Chemistry 102,” says Walsh. “He said, ‘We buried a lot of stuff (radioactive waste) up there. You guys shouldn’t be going up there.’ He told us that after a lecture, when I asked him about it.”

Within two years of issuing the caveat, Kennedy himself died of cancer.

By 1960, the federal government established the first comprehensive radiation standards. For materials that cause genetic damage, the guidelines set protective limits 100 times higher for the general public than for atomic-industry workers. Five years earlier, T.C. Carter, a British researcher, had pondered the genetic consequences of radiation exposure in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

“In my opinion, we cannot today make any useful quantitative assessment of the genetic consequences of exposure of human populations to ionizing radiations at low dosage rates; we know far too little about human population structure and the induction of mutations in man,” wrote Carter. “But we know enough to be apprehensive about genetic dangers!”

Compton included this quotation in his memoir, Atomic Quest. It appears in the chapter titled “Hope.”

 

 

 

 

 

Spy vs. Spy?

In 2015, the Russian news service landed in North County to cover the troubles at West Lake Landfill and Coldwater Creek. The question now is whether the CIA mounted a counter-intelligence operation here.

KWMU reporter Vérinique La Capra aims a microphone at  Mary Oscko as cameras captured the moment in August  2015 at the Hazelwood Community Center.

It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely place for an espionage operation to take place than the Hazelwood Civic Center. But recent revelations by the U.S. intelligence community suggest that it may have been one of the locations in North St. Louis County where a secretive propaganda battle quietly played out in August 2015.

Hundreds of people gathered at the civic center for a community meeting that month had no inkling they were bit actors in this Cold War revival. The overflow crowd that jammed the conference room on August 20 attended  out of concern for the health of their families and the safety of the community. Radioactive contamination leftover from the Manhattan Project and its aftermath still plagued the St. Louis suburbs and residents wanted answers from government officials about the long-delayed clean ups.

Questions were asked, testimonials were given and frustrations were vented at the event, all captured on video by camerapersons, including at least one with ties to RT America, the Russian foreign news service.

In the heat of the moment, those present were not aware that they were pawns in a larger political struggle between the U.S. and Russia. Evidence of the covert chess game didn’t surface until January of this year, long after the meeting had faded in the community’s collective memory.

That’s when the CIA took the unprecedented step of releasing a classified report on alleged Russian interference in American politics. The unusual act by the agency was spurred by the continuing controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Those allegations remain the focus of  congressional investigations, and a probe by an independent counsel appointed by the Justice Department.

Allegations of the hacking of email accounts of Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and her campaign staff by Russian operatives prompted the CIA’s release of the report. But the majority of the declassified information in the report is unrelated to the furor over whether Donald Trump and his cronies benefited from the alleged Russian intrusion.

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RT honcho Margarita Simonyan briefs Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in October 2012 in Moscow. (photo courtesy of the CIA’s declassified report)

Instead, the CIA released an intelligence assessment put together in 2012  that details how RT America is allegedly used by the Kremlin as a propaganda tool to cast the U.S.  government in a bad light.

The obvious question this now raises is whether the CIA mounted a domestic counter espionage campaign to offset the perceived damage being inflicted by the negative image that the Russian news service allegedly broadcast not only in America but to a global audience via the Internet.

The CIA report was compiled in 2012 three years before the Russians showed up in North St. Louis County and four years before the U.S. presidential campaign. Though classified, it can be assumed that its contents were shared with the White House and other federal departments and agencies.

It is therefore reasonable to surmise that the CIA and other government agencies were not simply monitoring Russia’s interference in America — but actively combatting it with their own surreptitious operations.

If this is true, it begs the question as to whether American intelligence assets were present at the Hazelwood Civic Center that sultry, late summer evening back in 2015.

Only The Shadow knows.

Correction: Originally, this story identified the meeting as taking place at the Machinist Union Hall in Bridgeton. Instead, the meeting took place at the Hazelwood Community Center. 

 

When Security Itself Becomes a Threat

Republic Services, owner of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake landfill,  employs a security guard service with historical ties to the CIA, DOE and State Department.  

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The motto emblazoned on its vehicles is “Securing Your World.”  But G4 Security Solutions’ job in Bridgeton, Mo. is a tad more parochial: It guards Republic Services’ polluted property.  The gig sounds like little more than a standard rent-a-cop deal. But there are reasons to suspect otherwise.

As the underground fire continues to burn unimpeded towards the radioactive waste at West Lake, things have heated up on the surface as well.

Vigilance became a corporate imperative following protests staged by the Earth Defense Coalition on March 31. In the wake of that demonstration, Republic, the owner of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill, pledged to prevent future disruptions of its business from occurring, and G4S Security Solutions is responsible for keeping that promise.

The protest shutdown Republic’s trash sorting operations at the location for 12 hours, after environmental activists blocked the entrance of the troubled landfill, demanding the EPA relinquish control of the site and handover the clean up duties to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The security company finds itself in the middle of a battle between private interests and public health. Despite its central role in the controversy,  G4S’s presence has garnered little attention until now.

Patrolling the perimeter of the West Lake Superfund site is the most obvious part of G4S’s job description.  Whether the security company has additional duties related to protecting Republic Services’ interests is unclear. But if the history of the security company’s operations are any indication, G4S’s role at West Lake may involve more than just manning the guardhouse at the front entrance.

That’s because the British corporation inherited the cloak and dagger reputation of Wackenhut Security, after merging with the notorious American espionage firm in the early 2000s.  The cost of that buyout was pegged at $500 million.

Besides offering guard services, Wackenhut specialized in intelligence gathering, and keeping tabs on millions of American citizens suspected of being left-wing subversives or communist sympathizers.

George Wackenhut, a former FBI agent, founded the company in the 1950s during the McCarthy era.  In the intervening years, Wackenhut Security grew in size and influence, scoring hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts from federal agencies, including the Department of Energy and U.S. State Department. By the early 1990s, Wackenhut Security was known as the “shadow CIA,” because of the clandestine services it offered to the intelligence community both at home and abroad.

G4S, Wackenhut’s successor, was founded in 2004, when the British multinational security company Securicor merged with a Danish counterpart, Group 4 Falck.

Today, G4S Security Solutions is inextricably tethered to Wackenhut’s tainted legacy. Its British parent company boasts more than 60,000 employees in 125 nations, and is reputedly among the largest employers in Europe and Africa.  Closer to home, its American operation has the dubious distinction of being the employer of Omar Mateen, the mass murderer who killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at an Orlando nightclub last year.

Not surprisingly, G4S Security Solutions denies any culpability for that horrid act.  The Jupiter, Florida-based company, after all, can attribute the mass shooting by its longtime employee as being a random act of violence. It’s not quite as easy to deny the nefarious legacy of Wackenhut Security, however.

G4S now owns it.

By the mid-1960s, Wackenhut was known to be keeping dossiers on more than four million Americans, having acquired the files of a former staffer of the House Committee on Un-American activities. In response to congressional reforms in the post-Watergate era, Wackenhut donated its cache of blacklisted individuals to the virulent anti-communist Church League of America in Wheaton, Illinois, but didn’t give up access to the information. The league cooperated closely with the so-called “red squads” of big city police departments from coast to coast  that spied on suspected communist agitators.

By the early 1990s, Wackenhut was the largest provider of security services to U.S. embassies around the world, including U.S. State Department missions in Chile, Greece and El Salvador, where the CIA was known to have colluded with right-wing death squads.

Wackenhut also guarded nuclear sites in Hanford, Wash. and Savannah River, S.C.  and the Nevada nuclear test site for the Department Energy and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission.

As the company gained more power, it recruited an influential board of directors that included former FBI director Clarence Kelley and Defense Secretary and CIA deputy director Frank Carlucci. William Casey, President Ronald Reagan’s CIA director, served as Wackenhut’s lawyer before joining the Reagan administration.

There is also evidence during the Iran-Contra era of the 1980s that Wackenhut worked for the CIA to supply the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with dual-use technology that could be utilized to make chemical and nuclear weapons.

It could be argued that G4S Security Solutions’ current services at West Lake are unrelated to its predecessor’s tainted past. But many of the residents of St. Louis whose lives have been impacted by Republic Services’ radioactively-contaminated landfill would likely not agree that history is inconsequential.

They already know better.

 

 

To Russia with Love

At the height of the Cold War, the St. Louis city streets director took a hiatus to help build a chemical plant in the Soviet Union for a subsidiary of Slay Transportation. Meanwhile back in the Gateway City, the same company was busy developing a process for disposing of contaminated waste in area landfills.

If this were part of the plot of a spy thriller, it would be hard to suspend disbelief. Midwest business and politics have never been a hotbed of international intrigue. Nevertheless, despite  the anti-communist fervor of the Cold War era,  then-St. Louis Mayor John H. Poelker — a former agent in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI — granted a subordinate time off  to work in the Soviet Union.

In December 1975, William J. Wilson, then-director of the St. Louis Street Department, took a leave of absence to work on a chemical plant in the Soviet Union for Ecology Controls Inc., a subsidiary of Slay Transportation, a St. Louis-based company owned by Missouri Democratic powerbroker Eugene Slay. The local trucking magnate had no previous experience in international business, but his firm did transport materials for Monsanto and Mallinckrodt Chemical, two St. Louis companies that did.

Wilson, a Slay crony and a chemical engineer, was hired by the city in May 1973 by Mayor John H. Poelker — a former FBI agent. Prior to his work for the bureau, Poelker Poelker was employed by the DuPont Co. in St. Louis. He had hired Wilson at the urging of St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Francis R. Slay, Eugene Slay’s cousin. The late Francis R. Slay is the father of Francis G. Slay, the former mayor who left office earlier this month.

 

In 1979, Wilson’s close ties to Slay became the subject of  a federal grand jury impaneled to probe whether riverfront leases and mooring rights granted by the city to Slay Transportation received favored treatment.  By then, Wilson had quit his post as city streets director to become general manager of Bi-State Development Corp., St. Louis’ mass transit agency.

The Soviet chemical plant, which was located 800 miles southwest of Moscow, was built to produce synthetic parasecrol, a material used in rubber products. Ecology Controls Inc., the Slay subsidiary, was a subcontractor of Ste. Entrepose, a French corporation. Wilson was paid $30,000 by Ecology Controls for his work on the project. He spent approximately three weeks in the Soviet Union. Wilson did the remainder of his work from St. Louis, while continuing to work full-time as the city’s streets director.

At the same time, Ecology Controls was also pursuing other ventures, including a process for disposing of chemically-contaminated waste in area landfills without harming the environment. Collis C. Bryan, a former Monsanto chemical engineer and Parkway School District chemistry teacher, was involved in that project.

Ecology Controls Inc., which was incorporated in 1971, remained an active corporation in Missouri until April 2011, when it merged with J.S. Leasing Company Inc, another Slay-owned company.

The Mayor’s Partner

Gerhard J. Petzall, a former law partner of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, was a director of Spectrulite Consortium Inc., which owned and operated an Eastside plant contaminated with radioactive waste.  After the problem came to light, the company forced its union work force to strike, filed for bankruptcy, and then reorganized under a different name, selling half the business to a foreign conglomerate. 

I collared outgoing St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay at the Earth Day celebration in Forest Park back in 2013 and asked him for a spot interview. He  told me then that he didn’t have time to go on camera for even a few minutes to talk about St. Louis’ longstanding radioactive waste problem.  He was too busy that sunny Sunday afternoon promoting some other well-intentioned environmental cause. It might have been recycling. As a result, the mayor does not appear in our documentary, The First Secret City.

But Richard Callow, the mayor’s longtime political consultant, does make a cameo appearance in the film. Aside from representing the mayor, Callow has also been a local spokesman for Republic Services, the giant waste disposal company that owns the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill Superfund site in North St. Louis County. In that role, Callow has acted to tamp down public concerns about the severity of the environmental and health problems related to the troubled landfill.

Callow, however,  is not the only link between the mayor and the radioactive waste that has plagued the region since it first began piling up as a byproduct of Mallinkcrodt Chemical’s work on the Manhattan Project.

As it turns out,  Gerhard J. Petzall — the mayor’s former law partner — has past ties to the now-defunct Spectrulite Consortium Inc., a company that owned a plant  in Madison, Illinois contaminated with radioactive waste from the Cold War.  Missouri incorporation records  show that Gerhard J. Petzall, a senior partner in the politically-connected law firm of Guilfoil Petzall & Shoemake, sat on the board of directors of Spectrulite for years and continued  act as an attorney for the company until 2009.

By that time, Slay was in his second term as St. Louis mayor. Slay was a partner in Guilfoil Petzall & Shoemake for 20 years prior to becoming mayor.

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The problems at Spectrulite began in 1957 when the foundry was owned by Dow Chemical Co. Dow processed uranium at the plant between 1957 and 1961 under a subcontract with St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Chemical Co., which was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Dow’s work caused radioactive debris to accumulate on overhead girders — where it was ignored for decades. In 2000, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversaw a partial radioactive cleanup at the Spectrulite plant.

The Department of Energy conducted the first radiological testing at the facility in March 1989, which showed elevated levels of Uranium-238 and Thorium-232. A story published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the previous month had spurred the government to do the testing. The story was based  in part on the earlier research of Kay Drey. In 1979, the St. Louis environmental activist had interviewed a terminally-ill truck driver who had delivered uranium ingots from Mallinckrodt Chemical in North St. Louis to the Dow plant in Madison. The truck driver attributed his lung cancer to his occupational exposure to radiation in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The plant at Weaver and College streets operates today as Magnesium Elektron of North America, a non-union company and a subsidiary of Luxfur Group of Great Britain. After going bankrupt in 2003,  Spectrulite’s owners sold the company, but continue to hold a stake in the operation and the property itself.

Oddly enough, Spectrulite  remained an active corporation in Missouri — with Petzall’s name appearing in its annual reports long after the business had filed for bankruptcy in federal court in East St. Louis, Ill.  The records show that Petzall continued to be listed as a director of the corporation until 2003, and his name still appeared as a counsel for the by-then non-existent company until 2009.  Spectrulite never operated its manufacturing plant in Missouri. The plant was located across the river in Illinois. But the bankrupt, Illinois-based company, which had been sold to a foreign concern, remained an active corporation in Missouri for six years after its apparent demise; proof that there is life after death at least in the legal world.

Mayor Slay leaves office next week, after serving an unprecedented four terms.  Petzall, the mayor’s legal mentor,  will celebrate his 86th birthday in June.

A Secret Biological Intelligence Program

In 2007, the same congressional committee that years later refused to transfer authority for the clean up of West Lake Landfill to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, investigated the awarding of a Homeland Security bio-surveillance contract to SAIC, the giant defense contractor.

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Leidos offices in St. Louis at 2327 South Grand Blvd.

 During President George W. Bush’s administration, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce announced an inquiry into the National Bio-surveillance Integration System, an intelligence gathering operation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security administered by the Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC).

The House committee was then apparently interested in whether the bidding process was rigged.

In 2013, SAIC spun off a large portion of its classified government work by forming another company, Leidos. Both SAIC and Leidos have received  multi-million-dollar contracts to do clean up work  for the  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Formerly Utilized Site Remediation Program (FUSRAP) in St. Louis, including the continuing cleanup of Coldwater Creek in North St. Louis County.

In addition to its environmental engineering component, Leidos is the largest private cyber espionage outfit in the nation with estimated government contracts worth $60 billion. The company employs 80 percent of the private-sector work force engaged in contract work for U.S. spy and surveillance agencies, including Homeland Security, the CIA and NSA.

Leidos also has a contract with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources through its  federal facilities management division.

The earlier creation of the National Bio-surveillance Integration by Homeland Security through its contract with SAIC has received little subsequent attention. The program was authorized by President George W. Bush under Presidential Directive 10. Its stated mission was “to provide early detection and situational awareness of biological events of potential national consequence by acquiring, integrating, analyzing, and disseminating existing human, animal, plant, and environmental bio-surveillance system data into a common operating picture,” according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The Department of Homeland Security further describes the classified program as follows: “The National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) integrates, analyzes, and distributes key information about health and disease events to help ensure the nation’s responses are well-informed, save lives, and minimize economic impact.” 

Spurred by the outcries of concerned residents about potential health problems associated with chronic exposure to radioactive waste, the St. Louis County Health Department in conjunction with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have taken an active interest in the radioactive waste issue in the St. Louis region.  Whether Homeland’s Bio-Surveillance operation is monitoring conditions in St. Louis independently or with the cooperation of these other government agencies remains unknown.

Other community activists have long advocated taking away the control of the West Lake Landfill Superfund site in Bridgeton, Mo.  from the EPA and putting it under the control of the Corps of Engineers FUSRAP program, which has authority over the other St. Louis area radioactive sites.  But despite bi-partisan support of the St. Louis area congressional delegation, a bill slotted to shift control died in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last year.

The West Lake Landfill Superfund site is owned by Republic Services Inc., the second-largest waste disposal company in the U.S. The company’s chief spokesman is Russ Knocke, a former top spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

The presence of a top-secret operation inside an AT&T building near West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton adds another murky hue to an already cloudy picture. The facility is presumed to be controlled by the National Security Agency but may house some other unknown government covert operation.

 

 

What You Don’t Know About the Missouri Department of Natural Resources

Cadmus Group, the private EPA contractor that hosted a series of meetings for MDNR related to planning the state’s future energy policies, is now a major national security consultant, and some of its execs have past ties to British Intelligence.    

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources hired Cadmus Group, a consulting firm with longstanding ties to the EPA, to hold a series of public meetings across the state in October and November 2011. The gatherings in Rolla, St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia  convened with little fanfare,  bringing together various energy sector stakeholders to establish the groundworks for future energy policy development in the state. The mix included representatives from utility companies, state and local government agencies and environmental groups.

At the time, attorney G. Tracy Meehan III, a former director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, served as a principal officer in Cadmus Group.  He is a graduate of Saint Louis University Law School. Meehan served as an assistant administrator for water at the EPA in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, and is currently an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law. He  also sits on the  Committee on the Mississippi River and Clean Water Act of the National Research Council.  Meehan was previously a member of the council’s Water Science Technology board. He headed the MDNR between 1989 to 1992 under Republican Gov. John Ashcroft, who later served as U.S. Attorney General under President George W. Bush.

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G. Tracy Meehan III

Cadmus Group, founded in 1983,  is  EPA’s prime climate change consultant with offices in Arlington, Va.  The company is named after the mythological Phoenician  prince who brought the alphabet to ancient Greece. Cadmus’ operations expanded over time and by 2012  boasted annual revenues of $69 million.

In 2016, Cadmus diversified by  buying Obsidian Analysis, a Washington, D.C.-based  national security consulting firm, which had an annual revenue of $29 million at the time of the sale.  A month before the merger was announced in February 2016 veteran CIA analyst Christopher Savos joined Obsidian Analysis’ management.

The co-founders of Obsidian Analysis are Kevin P. O’Prey and Matthew K. Travis, who formed the company in 2010. Travis was formerly president of Detica Inc., originally founded in 1971 as Smith Associates, a UK government research and defense contractor. The company now focuses on cyber intelligence gathering. It acquired DFI International, a U.S. homeland security consulting firm in 2007. DFI’s board of directors was stacked with  retired U.S. military brass and a its lawyer was formerly general counsel to the CIA. Oddly, The firm’s website appears to be an English translation based on German text.

O’Prey is former president of another branch of the same company, DFI Government Services. Detica was  purchased in 2008 by British defense giant BAE Systems and is now called  BAE Systems Applied Intelligence. 

Travis and O’Prey, the founders of Obsidian Analysis, are now vice-presidents of Cadmus Group — the EPA’s climate change consultant.

In 2006, DFI Government Services, the branch then headed by O’Prey, hired retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper to head its defense program. Prior to joining DFI, Clapper served as the director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which has its main headquarters in St. Louis. Earlier in his career he had been director of the Defense Intelligence Agency

In 2010, President Barrack Obama appointed Clapper to be the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all the spy agencies, including the CIA and the National Security Agency. Clapper resigned from that post in January.

In 2013, Clapper came under criticism for allegedly lying to Congress about whether the NSA tracked telephone data of millions of American citizens. The allegations against Clapper were raised after CIA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was engaged in wide-scale surveillance operations. Snowden is now living in exile in Russia.

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Lt. Gen. James Clapper

The lines between environmental regulation and espionage have blurred.  Internet and telephone snooping are being carried out under the guise of national security. The same companies involved in dealing with terrorism threats are also involved in water quality and climate-warming issues. It is becoming increasingly difficult to figure out where one field of interest begins and the other ends.  Cadmus Group, the same company that facilitated energy-related seminars for the state of Missouri,  employs intelligence specialists in its highest ranks.

It appears as if the so-called “deep state” is embedded in the “show-me” state.

Devil on the Rock Road

Tax records suggest access by a giant trash-hauler to landlocked property inside an EPA Superfund site in Bridgeton may be due to special dispensation granted by the Catholic Church. But nobody is confessing to such a Faustian pact.

 

St. Louis County property tax records indicate that the more than 20 acres shaded in yellow inside the EPA Superfund site  are owned by West Lake Quarry & Material Co., which is owned by the Catholic Church.

St. Louis County property tax records indicate that the more than 20 acres shaded in yellow inside the West Lake EPA Superfund site are owned by West Lake Quarry & Material Co., which is owned by the Catholic Church.

 

The EPA website dedicated to the radioactively-contaminated West Lake landfill in Bridgeton offers a vague description of the Superfund site, describing its size as “approximately 200 acres.”

In that sense, the boundaries of the site are as uncertain as the exact location of the nuclear waste itself. On one hand, the uncertainty is due to the failure of the federal regulatory agency to pinpoint the hot spots. That failure comes despite 40 years of oversight.

But there is equal ambiguity related to the history of the impacted properties themselves and their current ownership status. It’s a mystery that the EPA and others, including the St. Louis Archdiocese, don’t seem to want to talk about.

As usual, the devil is in the details, and in this case the details involve the Catholic Church.

St. Louis County land records indicate that the main road leading into the site, as well as more than 20 acres in its interior are still owned by the West Lake Quarry & Material Co. The church took over the quarry operations after the business was bequeathed to it decades ago. Quarry operations ceased years ago, but the corporation itself remains active and charities tied to the church own the company.

St. Louis County real estate records indicate that the West Lake Quarry & Material Co. is the owner of land inside the EPA West Lake Superfund site in Bridgeton. The quarry company is owned by the St. Louis Archdiocese, but the tax bill is sent to a post office box in Phoenix.

St. Louis County real estate records indicate that the West Lake Quarry & Material Co. is the owner of land inside the EPA West Lake Superfund site in Bridgeton. The quarry company is owned by the St. Louis Archdiocese, but the tax bill is sent to a post office box in Phoenix.

In short, the church in this case holds the keys not to heaven but a radioactive waste dump, according to the county  records. But this is where it gets murkier.

Tax records reveal that the tax bill is not sent to the archdiocese or any other identifiable church entity.  Instead, the tax bill is sent to an anonymous post office box in Phoenix, Ariz., the headquarters city of site owner Republic Services, a responsible party for the EPA cleanup.  Since acquiring the property more than a decade ago, Republic has closed other operations, but continues to use the site as a transfer station.

A corporate registration report filed earlier this year with the Missouri Secretary of State’s office shows the president of West Lake Quarry as William Whitaker, a retired mining engineer who lives in O’Fallon, Mo. St. Louis attorney Bernard C. Huger is listed as the secretary of the corporation. The same two individuals are now the sole members of the board of directors. Both men say they have represent the church’s interests in the company.

Missouri Secretary of State records from this year show the officers and board members of the West Lake Quarry and Material Co. are longtime representatives of the Catholic Church.

Missouri Secretary of State records from this year show the officers and board members of the West Lake Quarry & Material Co. are longtime representatives of the Catholic Church.

After the church was bequeathed the company, it needed a qualified person to run the business. “They found me 1,200 feet underground,” says Whitaker, who previously supervised a lead mine near Viburnum, Mo. When he took over, the West Lake Quarry was one of a number of holdings owned by the company.

“All of a sudden they (the church) owned a bunch of quarries and they had nobody to run the operation because the owner who was running it had passed away,” recalls Whitaker. “They asked me if I would come up and run the operation. I’ve been in the mining business since 1960, how many years is that?”

When informed that the company was still on the St. Louis County property tax rolls, Huger expressed surprise and attributed it to governmental error.  “I think we sold all that and they don’t have the records right. I don’t know. But that’s a long time ago. I think it’s all long since been sold.”

But a clerk for the St. Louis County Recorder of Deeds office told StlReporter that  property tax recipients were based on information contained in the property deed, and the quarry company’s name appears on the tax bill.

“The quarry is not operating but we keep it open just in case anything would come up from time to time,” Huger says. “There might be some workmen’s comp case come up. Someone might make a claim that (was) an employee. We had one of those a couple years ago. We just keep it open. But it’s really not active. It’s not doing any active business. Let’s put it that way.”

The current shareholders “are several Catholic institutions,” says Huger. He estimates that the business has been dormant 20 years. “I don’t know the exact date. But it’s been a very long time,” he says. At the time the previous owners willed the business to the church, it was a thriving concern. “West Lake Quarry and Material Co. was a big quarry operator with quarries up and down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers,” says Huger. “The company had towboats and barges.” Incorporation records show that the company’s barge fleeting operations extended southward to states bordering the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans.

Spokespersons for the St. Louis Archdiocese, the EPA and Republic Services refused to comment.

Why Republic Services, a responsible party  for the cleanup, is allowed to conduct a profit-making business inside the site remains a matter of debate. While church and state remain mum on the issue, the question elicited a series of responses at a recent monthly meeting of the West Lake Community Advisory Group (CAG), which acts as a liaison with the EPA.

“I don’t know if the actual road that goes to the transfer station is (part of) the Superfund,” says Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “That’s not something I’ve thought about before. So it’s possible that the road is not a Superfund (site).”

Matt LaVanchy, an assistant chief of the Pattonville Fire Protection District, expressed little doubt where the lines are drawn. “It’s my understanding that the areas that are impacted by the radiological material are under the oversight of the EPA,” says LaVanchy.

One thing is for sure: While the public remains confused over the issue,  Republic trash trucks continue to roll in and out of the site as if they have God on their side.

Taking Care of Business

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When the DNR declared an emergency at the smoldering Bridgeton Landfill in 2013, the state agency skirted its formal bidding process, an out-of-state firm scored a sweet deal and the public was left none the wiser.

On March 18, 2013, environmental specialist Dan Norris and his boss Brenda Ardrey of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources quietly submitted a memorandum to Procurement of Services File RFP 3445-001. The memo shows that the department did not receive any bids that complied with the agency’s standards for air sampling services at the Bridgeton Landfill, where an underground fire has been burning near radioactive waste since 2010.

Nevertheless, a six-figure contract was awarded to SWAPE, an environmental firm from Santa Monica, Calif. The acronym stands for Soil Water Air Protection Enterprise. SWAPE, acting as a middle man, then hired a St. Louis-based subcontractor.  The paper trail indicates no complete bids were received even after the DNR extended the deadlines by more than two weeks. The DNR guidelines normally require a minimum of three competitive bids. Two companies ultimately proposed deficient offers. By its own admission, the DNR awarded the plum to one of those companies based on an incomplete proposal. The DNR was able to skirt its normal protocols by invoking an emergency clause in its procurement process.

“Essentially, there was a response to the bid, it just wasn’t complete,” says Norris, who recently left his job with the state regulatory agency.  “It was missing a couple things as far as the response to the actual form,” he adds. “DNR had not dealt with an event quite like this before. It’s not like there was just a playbook to go off of for sampling air around a smoldering landfill, at least not a playbook that Missouri had. “We were told to waste no time whatsoever on getting a contractor and getting boots on the ground out there to begin the air sampling. It was not the kind of thing that we wanted to hold up for administrative purposes. That’s why in early 2013 it was contracted out,” he says.

Finding an environmental company then willing to challenge the interests of waste industry behemoth Republic Services, the landfill owner, appears to have been a difficult task for the DNR, according to public records obtained by StLReporter.  So the agency turned to a trusted consultant to act as its de facto headhunter. The consultant contacted industry sources and ultimately recommended SWAPE. After getting the nod, SWAPE quickly lined up a subcontractor in St. Louis to do part of the work.  Nobody involved in the deal will talk about it openly, citing contractual obligations.

When asked how the DNR first became aware of an environmental firm on the West Coast, Norris says: “I can’t comment on how we came to know SWAPE.” The two-year-old memo he co-signed indicates the firm was recommended by another contractor. Speaking from an undisclosed location by phone he also refused to talk about the price tag of the emergency air-monitoring contract. “I can’t comment on payment or billing or anything like that.”

Following an-age-old American custom, Norris has moved out West. He now lives in the Rocky Mountain Time Zone. He prefers not to divulge exactly where. Norris has exited Jeff City. But questions swirling around his leave-taking still plague his former agency like a bad case of the winter flu.

A Letter from Dan

Dan Norris - DNR State ID card

Dan Norris – MDNR State ID card

Early last month, Norris wrote a broadside, condemning the agency for its cozy relationship with Republic,  the company responsible for the site in North St. Louis County that is the location of a pair defunct landfills: one that’s smoldering and the other that contains radioactive waste dating back to the Manhattan Project.  The two adjacent dumps are both part of a long-delayed  Environmental Protection Agency Superfund clean-up site. In his parting shot, the former DNR staffer alleged that politics unduly influences regulatory decisions within the state agency, and that DNR employees are under the gun not to talk about it. The revelations have caused a stir inside and outside of the DNR.

Activists and community members familiar with the situation tend to agree with the whistleblower’s assessment, seeing Republic–the second largest waste hauler in the United States — as their foe. They point to Bill Gates’ stake in the company as evidence of the power that it wields. They allude to the company’s checkered environmental record elsewhere, including another smoldering landfill fire in Ohio. They also agree with Norris’ contention that Republic’s generous campaign contributions have swayed state lawmakers.                           

In that sense, it is not what Norris revealed that is relevant so much as the act itself. He broke the code of silence inside a department that in recent years has operated more like the CIA than a state environmental regulatory agency. Unfortunately, Norris’ criticisms of the DNR  are vague, and his complaints raise more questions than answers. His account of agency wrongdoing is sketchy. He lays blame but buttons up when asked for details.

Under prevailing rules, DNR has been assigned the responsibility of containing an underground fire and reducing the noxious odors at the Bridgeton Landfill. The state maintains that Republic is liable for the expense of the emergency air sampling costs, but it’s unclear whether the company has ponied up. Reached at his office in Washington, D.C., Republic spokesman Russ Knocke was unaware of the contract and said he would have to do some homework to determine whether the state has been reimbursed.

The radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill next door is the bailiwick of the federal EPA. As the two bureaucracies advance their separate agendas at a glacial pace, the fire is heading in the direction of the nuclear materials.

In Norris’ absence, the status of the clean up has become more uncertain than ever. The building of a state mandated barrier to stop the fire from advancing has been indefinitely delayed.  In the interim, doubts mount, finger pointing increases, and nobody seems in control. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster recently expedited the state’s case against Republic for violations filed two years ago, but there is no sign of a settlement. If anything, the company shows indications of being even more resistant to DNR’s appeals. Meanwhile, the activists are stepping up their calls for Gov. Jay Nixon to take action.

From outside DNR’s closed doors, the scenario seems bleak. There would appear to be no winners. However, department documents and correspondence show one group consistently benefits from the intractable predicament — outside contractors.

A Quiet State of Emergency

Norris says he met DNR contractor Todd Thalhamer in 2008 at a training seminar. For the last several years, Thalhamer has given talks on landfill fires sponsored by Stark Consultants Inc., which is owned by Tim Stark, another DNR contractor. Thalhamer moonlights as a consultant, too, and owns Hammer Consulting Service in El Dorado, Calif. He works full-time as an environmental engineer for the state of California and is a firefighter in the El Dorado Volunteer Fire Department. Thalhamer received a bachelor’s degree in environmental resources engineering from Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. in 1992. His five-page resume indicates he worked on his first landfill fire in Sacramento County the same year he graduated from college.  He has been under contract as a landfill fire expert for the DNR for the last four years.

Reached by phone in California, Thalhamer says the reason the DNR retains his services is because he has a unique skill set. “The only other individual that I’m aware of that has my expertise is a colleague of mine in British Columbia, and he’s outside the United States,” says Thalhamer. “I have a very unique background. I’m a fireman [and] a registered civil engineer. I do environmental emergency response in California and with EPA,” he says. “I’m one of the guys who trains the landfill owners and operators throughout the United States. My name is known in the industry.”

“Once DNR got Todd Thalhamer on contract,” says Norris, “Todd was able to inform us about certain things that we needed to be watching as far as the gas extraction well field, [and] additional data that we should be tracking.” Besides Norris, the team included two other DNR staffers, consultants Thalhamer and Stark and, a graduate student. “We tracked the landfill gas data from that well field from month to month. We started plotting it on maps to see what the overall condition was. At some point, we started to see signs that the event was spreading and intensifying.”

Then the odors at the landfill increased.

“By 2012, I was making a push that we really needed to collect some air-monitoring data to get a better handle on what the potential risks were from the landfill smoldering event, as well as just what risk that might be as far as exposing the community,” Norris says.

The increased odors coming off the Bridgeton Landfill in 2012 gave DNR cause for concern as public complaints mounted over the stench. This set the stage for the events that would lead to the emergency procurement contract in early 2013 in which Thalhamer would play a pivotal role.

By this point, the California consultant had the DNR’s ear, and his suggestions  extended beyond the technical aspects of  fighting landfill fires. When odor complaints jumped in early 2013, Thalhamer told the DNR to openly request EPA air testing as a way of calming residents fears.  “We need to ensure the public that the odor is just that — an odor and not a health risk,” advised Thalhamer.  “The quickest way to reduce the environmental worry in the community is to request the US EPA perform community and facility air sampling. Contractor data should be as valid as US EPA but we need to show the community we are concerned enough to make this request.”

A few months earlier in December 2012,  the DNR had held a one-day training session presented by Thalhamer at Republic Service’s headquarters on St. Charles Rock Road. Those in attendance included, DNR staffers, representatives of the Pattonville and Robertson Fire Protection Districts, and officials from the St. Louis County Health Department. Brenda Ardrey of the DNR arranged the meeting and Republic, picked up the lunch tab for the sandwiches from a nearby Jimmy John’s restaurant.

Thalhamer charged $150 an hour for his services. Including various conferences calls, planning and travel expenses, the bill totaled $6,695.49.

His performance impressed Ardrey so much that she arranged for Thalhamer to speak the next summer at the Missouri Waste Control Coalition’s annual conference at the posh Tan-Tar-A resort on the Lake of the Ozarks. The 400-member coalition is comprised of private waste companies, government regulators and consultants.

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The conference setting had the trappings of a country club, including a golf course, where the MWCC held its annual tournament over the same weekend. The clubby atmosphere between business and government regulators goes beyond  the 18th hole, however.  Ardrey’s boss Chris Nagel, director of DNR’s Solid Waste Management Program, sits on the advisory board of the waste coalition, and Larry Lehman, DNR’s chief enforcement officer, is on its board of directors. Besides Lehman, other board members include Randy Tourville of Republic Services and Lisa Messinger of EPA Region VII.

After DNR decided to fund air sampling at Bridgeton Landfill in early 2013,  Thalhamer put SWAPE on DNR’s radar. Thalhamer and one of the owners of SWAPE had both worked on a case related to another Republic landfill fire in Ohio years earlier. Within a week, SWAPE had secured the DNR’s air-sampling contract without going through the regular bidding process.

That’s because a month earlier, DNR had quietly invoked an emergency clause in the state statutes and allocated more than a half a million dollars for the job. Internal DNR emails show officials carefully researched the matter to make sure the agency followed the letter of the law in declaring the emergency.

Few outside the DNR knew about the emergency. No sirens went off. The governor didn’t issue an evacuation order. Residents were not kept fully in the loop. Instead, agency insiders kept the situation hushed. The only other company that expressed interest in the contract submitted a proposal that was less acceptable than SWAPE’s.

Unlike others wary of consequences, SWAPE showed no fear of rousing the ire of Republic because it had already had a falling out with the waste giant in the past. On March 21, within 48 hours of receiving the contract, Paul Rosenfeld of SWAPE flew to St. Louis for a one-day meeting with DNR officials.

A subcontractor identified in an invoice only as JB also attended the talks. John Blank is the the owner of American Environmental Laboratories, a St. Louis-based firm that SWAPE hired as a subcontractor.  Blank says the terms of his company’s involvement remain confidential, but he does reveal that SWAPE issued the requirements for conducting the air sampling — “the what and the how” — and the St. Louis lab reported the results back to SWAPE and the DNR.

The meeting between SWAPE and the DNR lasted 11 hours, according to public records. Rosenfeld charged $195 an hour. The subcontractor charged $120. SWAPE billed DNR a total of  $5,821.86 for the day.

The terms of the emergency air-monitoring contract approved by DNR on Feb. 15, 2013 stipulated a 60-to-90 day deal valued at $600,000. SWAPE’s incomplete proposal submitted on March 29 totaled $594,060. After the contract was signed, invoices and purchase orders were issued in quick succession.

  • On March 29, 2013, SWAPE submitted an itemized invoice of $15,198.32 for services rendered.
  • On April 2, 2013 the state paid the company another $6,000 for expert testimony.
  • A state purchase order for SWAPE’s products and services dated April 3, 2013, shows a bottom of line of $349,000.

Whereas, SWAPE submitted detailed, line-item accounting of services rendered, the state purchase order only lists itemized expenses as “environmental, ecological and agricultural services: miscel [miscellaneous].”  SWAPE continued its emergency air sampling under the initial arrangement through August 2013.

Ardrey referred all questions about the Bridgeton Landfill to the DNR information officer Gena Terlizzi.  Voice and email messages left for Terlizzi went  unreturned. When contacted, Beth Glickman, office manager for SWAPE, said: “We typically don’t talk to the press. We are still under contract with them (the DNR) and won’t be able to answer any questions.”

When asked  about his role in the process, Thalhamer says: “As you probably know, I’m under contract with DNR so I can’t speak to  issues surrounding that. … I understand your plight. I work for a government agency and I fight the same thing that you’re asking me for. But I also know contract law and know I’d be in jeopardy of breeching the contract.” Toward the end of the conversation, Thalhamer suggests digging deeper, and offers journalistic advise, including filing a state Freedom of Information request.  Speaking about the SWAPE contract, he says: “There’s some interesting information there if you can get that Rubik’s Cube figured out.”

Less enigmatically, Norris concedes that there may be an appearance of  something amiss in the state’s handling of the emergency air-monitoring contract, but he has no doubt that the public’s interest was best served by the decision.

“SWAPE had the expertise, the history of sampling around landfill fires elsewhere” says Norris. “I think that they were probably in the best position at that point and time to do the air sampling whether it was done by them or a subcontractor that was progressing in a fashion that was protective of public health,” Norris says.

“There was additional concerns from the community living around the site in large part due to the increase in odors, Norris says.  Benzene and certain others [chemicals] were elevated in the landfill gas. There were certain chemical compounds that appeared to be elevated downwind versus upwind of the landfill at least slightly.”

Air sampling at the site measured  dioxins, furans, benzene, aldehydes, reduced sulfur compounds and volatile organic compounds, all of which can cause serious health effects through long-term exposure. But  test results at the Bridgeton Landfill analyzed by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found chemicals of concern to be below the threshold of concern for human health over the time frame of the emergency air sampling contract.

Norris doesn’t argue with those findings, but he does assert that politics is influencing science. “Politics seems to be invading the technical work to a greater extent than when I first started that’s for sure, [but] we were able to accomplish quite a bit even within the political confines during this event, especially in 2013,” he says.

Norris makes clear that his resignation and subsequent letter are unrelated to the SWAPE memo or the hiring of outside contractors in general.  “It was really kind of broader issues at the department,” he says. He mentions bureaucratic inefficiencies, the role of politics and lax enforcement as reasons for his discontent and departure, but stops short of placing the onus on anything specific, leaving the listener to turn Rubik’s Cube for himself.

Unit A at 205 Riverview Drive is vacant. A stack of native limestone blocks stands by the entrance, the only vestige remaining of the apartment’s last tenant. A for-rent sign is posted in the front yard and a sodden edition of the Jefferson City News-Tribune lies in the gutter. The brick duplex is located on a residential street in the sleepy Missouri capital, where on a mild January day a woman washes her shiny SUV in a nearby driveway. With a dog barking in the backyard and dinner on the stove in the kitchen, the occupant of Unit B leans against his front door jamb, warily answering questions about Dan Norris’ whereabouts. He is tight-lipped when it comes to the details, but says his neighbor of eight years moved out about three weeks ago and didn’t leave a forwarding address. — C.D. Stelzer

A War of Words

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“It just makes me sick,” say Kay Drey. The 81-year-old dean of the St. Louis environmental movement is sitting at her dining room table, which is scattered with various paperwork, including two dogeared reports issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency in the 1980s.

As the sun streams through a window of her University City home on this mild January morning, she bemoans the state of affairs related to the stalled clean up of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, a nearby St. Louis County suburban municipality.

The NRC reports to which she refers both candidly recommend the removal of the radioactively-contaminated materials from the landfill, which is located in the Missouri River flood plain upstream from water intakes for the city of St. Louis.

The waste, a byproduct of decades of uranium processing carried out by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works on behalf of the government’s nuclear weapons program, was illegally dumped at West Lake 40 years ago. Drey has been fighting various regulatory agencies to get it removed for almost as long.

On this day, Drey’s voice is failing. It can’t compete with Moxie, the family’s small dog, who yaps at a visitor’s feet. After the canine commotion subsides and breakfast dishes are cleared, Drey explains what is bothering her.

“They’re not talking about digging it up,” she says.

Removing the radioactively-contaminated materials from the St. Louis area to a federally-licensed nuclear waste depository in the sparsely-populated West has long been her goal.

In 2008, Drey and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment challenged the EPA’s record of decision on West Lake, which would have mandated a relatively cheap fix — capping the landfill with dirt and leaving the nuclear materials in place. Republic Services, the liable landfill owner, favors this remedy, which would allow the contamination to continue migrating into the ground water. The final decision is still up in the air along with noxious landfill fumes that have been the bane of nearby residents for the last four years.

Since 2010, public outrage over the issue has grown due to an underground fire at the adjacent Bridgeton landfill, which is part of the same EPA Superfund site. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is overseeing efforts to contain the fire, which is moving in the direction of the radioactive waste. To bolster DNR’s authority, the Missouri Attorney General’s office has filed suit against Republic for various infractions. Splitting responsibility for dealing with the problem between the state and federal agencies has led to further bureaucratic snafus. One of the impasses involves a state-mandated barrier wall to stop the fire from advancing.

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Drey and other activists advocate turning the clean up over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that has remediated other St. Louis radioactive sites under the Formerly Utilized Site Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), which targets sites contaminated with nuclear weapons waste from World War II. Gaining congressional approval for such a change has not happened, however, despite efforts by the activists to spur the St. Louis congressional delegation to sponsor the requisite federal legislation.

Meanwhile, Republic, the responsible party, keeps pushing the original capping proposal. The company’s public relations efforts have included backing a rural-based front group, the Coalition to Keep Us Safe which is against shipping radioactive material through the state. The Coalition to Keep Us Safe, via their twitter feed, routinely uses the words “capping” and “encapsulation” to mean the same thing. The terms are used interchangeably by the group, but “encapsulation” is not part of the 2008 Record of Decision issued by the EPA. The confusion of terms is not clear to a casual observer or to many members of the Coalition as seen in the tweets they post.

As the debate wears on, Drey sees support for removal of the waste waning. But she’s standing her ground. There is no compromise on this subject when viewed from her eyes. Those who consider capping as an option are abandoning the goal. In her opinion, it is indefensible to leave deadly radioactive waste to drain inevitably into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers forever.

Drey also sees how language is being used to obfuscate the issue. Supporters of capping the landfill often use the word “encapsulation” to describe the plan to leave the waste in the floodplain, leaking into the aquifer.

To make her point, Drey gets up from the dining room table and retrieves a worn dictionary from a bookshelf. She runs her index finger down the page to the entry and recites the definition: “Encapsulate: to encase in or as if in a capsule.”

“Does a capsule have just a top?” she asks.

C.D. Stelzer