Suburban builders plan to construct dozens of pricey houses on former hazardous-waste sites
first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis) June 23, 1999, Wednesday
by C.D. Stelzer
The rugged land has resisted development for a long time, so a rural atmosphere still clings to these verdant hills, despite the encroachment of affluent subdivisions on the remaining ridgetop farms. But it would be wrong to think that nature has only now come under attack in this part of West St. Louis County.
Just off Strecker Road, in the gully washes that feed into Caulks Creek, the first of thousands of barrels of toxic waste were discovered nearly 19 years ago. The initial unearthing of the contaminated caches led one state environmental official to say at the time, “People move out here to escape pollution. This is where you find it, though.”
Eventually several hazardous-waste sites would be identified in the area by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The federal agency would refer to them collectively as the “Bliss-Ellisville” site.
The first half of the name refers to Russell M. Bliss, the waste hauler responsible for dumping the pollutants. Bliss’ son still lives on a Strecker Road property once owned by his father, from which the EPA only a few years ago finally removed more than 900 truckloads of dioxin-contaminated dirt in addition to an estimated 1,500-2,000 barrels of toxic chemicals. The haul included drums laden with cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
The second half of the site’s name is something of a misnomer, because the locations of the Bliss farm and the other hazardous-waste sites are all outside the Ellisville municipal limits. Nowadays, much to its chagrin, all of this tainted history falls under the jurisdiction of the city of Wildwood, which was incorporated in 1995.
Wildwood residents originally voted to approve the creation of the municipality to control development, thereby ensuring that greenspace would be preserved. Now the fledgling city faces a dilemma: Two developers are asking for zoning variances so that they can wedge dozens of high-priced houses on either side of Strecker Road — on parcels of land that were once part of the Bliss-Ellisville hazardous-waste site. The next meeting on the issue is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 6, at Wildwood City Hall, 16962 Manchester Rd.
The requests to develop these two properties have dredged up a litany of questions that have never been adequately answered by EPA officials or by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Those same officials are now siding with the developers, claiming that the once highly contaminated land is no longer a threat to human health, that it is now safe enough for backyard swingsets and tomato patches.
If the city allows W.J. Byrne Builders Inc. to build Strecker Forest, 31 houses will be constructed on the 18.5-acre tract. As things stand, Byrne Builders holds an option to buy the land from its current owners, Gerald and Patricia Primm. The couple’s property is adjacent to the Bliss farm. An early EPA investigation found portions of the Primm property and three other adjacent parcels to be contaminated.
On the other side of the road, at 210 Strecker Rd., developer Larry Wurm of James Properties Inc. is proposing to build Wildwood Ridge, an 11-home development on 7.6 acres of land now owned by Jean Callahan. Her husband, Grover Callahan, worked as a truck driver for the Bliss Waste Oil Co. in the early 1970s. Before Times Beach — the most notorious of the sites contaminated by Bliss — became a household word, the EPA had already rated the Callahan property one of the most contaminated hazardous-waste sites in the nation. Although the state hastened to dispose of hundreds of barrels at the Callahan site in the early 1980s, the EPA did not close its case on the property until last September.
Wildwood currently zones the Strecker Road properties as “nonurban,” which requires a minimum lot size of 3 acres. When considering deviations from the existing zoning code, the city takes into account several factors, such as the availability of utility services, topography and road conditions, but nothing on the municipal books deals with building houses on top of former hazardous-waste sites.
“It’s a difficult position for the city,” says Joe Vujnich, Wildwood’s director of parks and planning. “We do not have the expertise that the U.S. EPA and Missouri Department of Natural Resources have. Obviously I have to depend upon them to do their job and hope that we do ours.”
Among those who doubt the EPA’s blanket endorsement is Tammy Shea, a Wildwood resident. “If they’re going to develop the Callahan property, then we need to know exactly what took place there. The version that the developer presented to Wildwood is pretty vague about what happened,” Shea says. “It’s very confusing, the fact that they’ve kind of lumped these properties together yet dealt with them differently. Why were they in such a hurry to clean up the Callahan site? They were in there in 1981, pulling out barrels and treating them differently from the rest of the waste. They didn’t take the barrels from the Bliss farm until 1996, when the incinerator was here. So why were they in such a rush to get the barrels off the Callahan property?” asks Shea.
As for developer Wurm, he believes the Callahan property has been cleaned up, but he’s counting on the findings of state and federal regulators to protect him against any future liability.
“It’s no problem. It’s clean as a whistle,” says Wurm of the Callahan property. “It’s clean as a whistle,” he repeats. “Look at the record of decision. I’ve got letters from EPA and DNR also stating that everything is cool on the property.” But Wurm says he doesn’t want to discuss the project in detail, fearing his plans will be misrepresented. “When I talked with the (St. Louis) Post-Dispatch, I got misquoted. It was an abortion. So I’ll just let the record of decision stand for itself, OK? Tom What’s-his-face at the Post-Dispatch, he didn’t have time. He didn’t want to look at all this shit. And blah, blah, blah. You got to do your homework on these pieces, otherwise you’re wasting your time.
“Nothing against journalists — some of them are my best friends,” Wurm adds.
Wurm is referring to Tom Uhlenbrock, who first reported the Wildwood development plans in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 11. Asked about Wurm’s criticism, Uhlenbrock says the developer was “bent out of shape because he wanted the article to say that the Callahan property never had any dioxin or Russell Bliss on it.” Uhlenbrock said he was unable to confirm whether dioxin had been found on the site or whether there was a Bliss connection to the property.
In 1994, the Post-Dispatch reported a dispute involving homebuyers in Turnberry Place subdivision, which abuts the Bliss farm. The buyers said they signed sales contracts without being told by their real-estate agents that their new homes were adjacent to a hazardous-waste site. Seven families sued the responsible Realtor, and they were awarded a cumulative settlement of more than $500,000. If the city approves their respective developments, Wurm and Byrne hope to avoid this legal pitfall by having buyers sign a disclosure form saying that they were told in advance of the land’s history.
The full history of the Callahan site and the others in the Caulks Creek watershed remains something of an enigma. Contacted by phone last Friday at EPA headquarters in Kansas City, Martha Steincamp, regional counsel for the EPA, could not provide details on the Bliss-Ellisville cleanups and referred all questions on the matter to Bob Feild, the agency’s project manager. Feild did not return phone calls.
From publicly released EPA documents, this much is known: In the winter of 1981-1982, the DNR and EPA excavated more than 1,200 barrels of toxic waste from the Callahan property. The cleanup crew immediately sent 592 drums to a landfill in Wright City, Mo., but more than 600 barrels were stored on-site, along with 500 cubic yards of soil. The EPA removed the remaining barrels in July 1983. The agency then backfilled the hole with the same soil that had been stored at the site. A Post-Dispatch story dated April 4, 1983, describes the 500 cubic yards of soil stored at the Callahan site as being “contaminated.”
A later EPA inspection showed that the land had subsequently subsided and would require stabilization. Despite evidence of erosion, the EPA’s investigation concluded that the “fill area of the Callahan subsite was not contaminated (and) that the original objectives of the remedial action had either been achieved through natural processes, or were no longer considered necessary due to the preference expressed by the site owner.”
Aside from groundwater contamination, the most serious threat to human health posed by the contamination at the Callahan site was airborne migration, according to the EPA. It would be better to err on the side of safety, says Shea, than risk exposing people to more hazardous waste by digging foundations on the Callahan property and inadvertently excavating a heretofore undetected layer of toxic waste. “I believe that the whole area there is littered with contamination pockets,” she says. “Sometimes it’s just best to leave well enough alone.”
Shea is being dismissed as an alarmist. Wildwood city officials have questioned her credentials, and she says a real-estate agent recently criticized the motives behind her activism. In both instances, the allegations were not based so much on environmental concerns as they were on the bottom line.
“I guess Wildwood is just going to have to look at it from a credibility standpoint,” says Shea. “What I’m going to ask is that they provide the citizens with some level of accountability, because we certainly aren’t getting it from the EPA and we shouldn’t have to depend on the developer to provide it.”
By the EPA’s count, the Bliss-Ellisville site contained at least seven separate waste-disposal locations. Sewer workers discovered the first batch of barrels on the property of the Rosalie Investment Co., near the intersection of Strecker and Clayton roads, in July 1980. The Callahan dump was discovered in August of that year.
Callahan started working for Bliss in the early 1970s, which would have been around the same time Bliss started hauling hazardous waste. After the discovery of the waste a decade later, Callahan testified in St. Louis County Circuit Court that he had used a lift truck to dump drums of waste, which Bliss had picked up at local industries, on the Callahan property. DNR officials described the location of the dump as a ravine, filled 15 feet deep with rusty barrels.
Three parties — Jean Callahan, Kisco Co. and Bliss — refused to pay for the cleanup. By 1982, the Missouri attorney general’s office had entered negotiations with two other firms, American Can and GK Technologies. Ultimately, the state accepted $94,000 in 1988 as its part of a $660,000 settlement with several companies, a fraction of the estimated overall cleanup cost.
The biggest fish appears to have either slipped off or broken the line, however. In September 1980, Gov. Joseph P. Teasdale wrote a letter to Monsanto chairman John W. Hanley, requesting that the St. Louis-based chemical company pay for the cleanup. In his bid for re-election that year, Teasdale also made a campaign stop at the Bliss-Ellisville site to again ask for Monsanto’s assistance. This time Teasdale made the plea with the TV news cameras rolling. Monsanto refused to consider the governor’s appeal, even though before a federal ban on the chemical the company had been the sole producer of PCBs in North America.