A Different Kind of Fire

 When Greenpeace chemist Pat Costner opposed the incinerator industry, someone incinerated her home


first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), July 22, 1994

There will be many questions asked this week, when the Second Citizens’ Conference on Dioxin convenes at Saint Louis University on Thursday.

The inquiring ranks at the four-day gathering will be comprised of more than 100 scientists, environmental activists, former Times Beach residents and Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Big names like Retired Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr. and Barry Commoner, the former Washington University ecologist, are among the scheduled speakers.

Fewer people outside of the environmental movement may have heard of Pat Costner, but the 54-year-old chemist will also address the conference. Costner is the research director of Greenpeace’s U.S. Toxics Campaign. For the past eight years, she has been providing the technical answers that have stoked the environmental group’s fiery opposition to dioxin-generating incinerators.

The point at which science, politics and business intersect can be a volatile one. Costner, who lives near Eureka Springs,Ark., knows as much. She also knows there is no pat answer or formula that will reveal who torched her house on March 2, 1991.

“The night my house burned down, I went to town to visit a friend,” recalls Costner. “I came home and it was gone. It was burned totally to the ground. I can’t tell you how you feel at a time like that. I sat out here by myself, for I don’t know how long.”

The Arkansas Gazette reported that Costner’s “house was valued at $25,000, but only her computer equipment and office materials were insured.” But that’s not all that turned to ash.

“I probably had one of the larger technical libraries in the environmental movement,” Costner says. The irreplaceable books and technical papers took 30 years to accumulate and minutes to destroy. Costner’s will to employ her expertise remains un-singed. Her knowledge is based on years of experience within the industry she now opposes. Earlier in her career, the scientist worked for both Shell Oil and Arapaho Chemicals, a subsidiary of Syntex.

At the time of the blaze, Costner planned to publish a book based on five years of research into toxic waste incineration. Ironically, she had entitled her work Playing with Fire.

“We had arson investigators who said that my office burned at temperatures that were five or six times hotter than a normal house fire. They sent samples of the ash off to have it analyzed and found traces of an accelerant,” says Costner.

The evidence strongly suggests that her office and library were the targets of the arsonists. “It was a professional hit. It was not just somebody who wandered by with matches, says Sheila O’Donnell, a private investigator hired by Greenpeace.

The alleged attack against Costner is one of many acts of violence that may have been perpetrated against environmentalists in recent years. “I know that some of these attacks have been very well orchestrated,” says O’Donnell. The Center for Investigative Reporting has counted 124 credible cases in 31 states since 1988. Among them is the 1989 car bombing of Earth First! activists Darryl Cherney and Judi Bari in Oakland, Calif.

Costner estimates her efforts were instrumental in shutting down at least six hazardous waste incinerators in the year or so before her house burned. In most, if not all, of these cases, the Greenpeace scientist says she engaged in debates with incinerator proponents and government officials. In 1989, for example,Costner’s testimony helped block a multi million-dollar incinerator slated for the Kaw Indian reservation in Oklahoma. WasteTech, the proposed builder of the project, is a subsidiary of Amoco Oil, according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Despite the personal set back, Costner has continued to fight the Vertac incinerator, an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup. The dioxin-contaminated waste at the Jacksonville, Ark. site was left over from the manufacture of Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam War. The struggle by Costner and others to halt the burning of the waste has been supported by three decisions handed down by U.S. District Judge Stephen Reasoner. In each instance, however, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis has overturned his rulings.

Although the arson case remains unsolved, O’Donnell’s investigation uncovered some interesting leads. “We located witnesses who said there had been three different incidences of thugs coming to town looking for Pat,” says O’Donnell. About six weeks before the fire, Costner says a local woman had warned that a man had inquired about her whereabouts. Two weeks later, customers at a Eureka Springs restaurant reportedly overheard Costner’s name come up in a conversation between two men. One of the strangers allegedly bragged of being trained at Quantico,Va., which is both the headquarters of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and the FBI training center.

After the fire, Costner immediately pulled in a house trailer and set about having her home rebuilt. She makes no secret of where she lives. From St. Louis, head down I-44 to Springfield and veer onto U.S. 65. Keep driving past Branson. Past Andy William’s Pepsodent smile, past the other giant billboard images of Tony Orlando, Bobby Vinton, Wayne Newton and Mel Till-ill-is. Then head southwest across the Arkansas line,where straightaways are memories and the oak and hickory roots run deep under the roadbed. Outside of Eureka Springs, turn off Route 23, the faint gray line on the road map, and go down a dirt road a piece.

“I have 135 acres and I live plunk out in the middle of it.

“This is my home,” says Costner, as a rooster crows in the background. “I’ve lived here for 20 years. My children grew up here.”

She ain’t leavin’.



first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), July 12

Relying on false information leaked by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on June 10 that all dioxin levels in the blood of residents living near the Vertac dioxin incinerator in Jacksonville, Ark. had decreased.


Morris F. Cranmer Jr., the researcher responsible for the study, now says that levels of the most toxic form of dioxin actually increased among those tested. On May 2, Cranmer told the St. Louis County Dioxin Monitoring Committee the opposite. Since the Post-Dispatch did not cover Cranmer’s presentation, the EPA eagerly provided a transcript of that meeting later to the daily newspaper.

“I’m sorry that we appear inconsistent, but I don’t see it that way,” said Cranmer in a telephone interview last week. “I see it as trying to come up with the best analysis of the data. It’s painful, but that’s the way it is.”

Cranmer’s reversal is important because the blood testing at the Superfund site in Arkansas is one of the few attempts to measure inhalation exposure on general populations residing within the vicinity of an incinerator. Its significance is further enhanced by the imminent completion of the Times Beach dioxin incinerator near Eureka, Mo., which may begin operating as soon as early next year. The EPA, Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Syntex Agribusiness Inc., the company liable for the $118 million-plus cleanup, are proceeding with the terms of their 1990 consent decree, and contend that the project will be safe (the RFT, April 26). Once completed the incinerator is scheduled to begin burning 100,000 cubic yards of dioxin-contaminated soil from Times Beach and 26 other sites in Eastern Missouri. The project has moved forward despite the uncertain consequences of incineration and in the wake of an EPA study released last year that reaffirms the dangers that dioxin poses to human health (the RFT, May 19, 1994). Opposition by residents, elected officials and environmentalists has so far been unsuccessful in persuading the responsible parties to use any alternative means of disposing of the toxin.

The flip-flop on the Arkansas study is one of many controversies that have cast doubt upon the EPA’s plans for Times Beach. This latest flap began after the environmental group Greenpeace began analyzing the raw data on the Vertac blood tests. Up until that time, Cranmer, a consultant for the Arkansas Department of Health (ADOH), maintained that all dioxin levels had decreased among people living near the Vertac incinerator. Pat Costner, a Greenpeace chemist, says she submitted a state Freedom of Information Act request on May 18 and received copies of the data soon thereafter. Sometime between that date and the public release of the report in late June, Cranmer changed the method of his analysis. By using a more appropriate arithmetic means rather than a geometric one, Cranmer says he found the data showed that TCDD — the most toxic form of dioxin — has increased, not decreased, among those tested. The third and final round of blood tests at Vertac will not be completed, because the EPA shut down the incinerator late last year, after recurring safety problems and environmental opposition to the project continued. The remaining waste at the site is being trucked to a hazardous waste incinerator at Coffeyville, Kan.

So the conclusions of the Arkansas study now have more relevance to the public policy decisions that will effect that residents who live near Times Beach. By providing an inaccurate interpretation of his own blood study data prematurely to the St. Louis County Dioxin Monitoring Committee on May 2, Cranmer bent, if not broke, federal law. Arkansas environmentalists and a Little Rock reporter say they repeatedly attempted to gain the same information and were told by state and federal health officials that it would be illegal to release the data pending peer review.The subsequently altered findings in Cranmer’s report were not officially made public for almost two months after he spoke in St. Louis.

An official for the Missouri Department of Health (MDOH) says Cranmer appeared here at the request of the Monitoring Committee, an ad hoc group of locally appointed citizens and elected officials who are charged with overseeing the safety of the Times Beach incinerator. Cranmer’s travel expenses were paid for out of a grant he received from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

The ATSDR’s generosity towards Cranmer has continued despite the fact that the scientist is a convicted federal felon. In 1988, the U.S. District Court for Eastern Arkansas found Cranmer guilty on two counts of providing false information to a lender. The case involved bilking the Farmers Home Administration out of nearly $10 million. The scientist secured a loan from the federal agency ostensibly to build a laboratory. He instead used some of the funds for other personal real estate ventures. Judge Henry Wood sentenced Cranmer to serve six months of community service at the ADOH under former surgeon general Jocelyn Elder, who then headed the state agency. After serving his sentence, Cranmer began working as a private consultant for the state, and in that capacity was given the contract to do the blood study at the Vertac incinerator site. Earlier in his career, Cranmer came under federal investigation before leaving his job at the National Center for Toxicological Research, a source in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Little Rock told the Riverfront Times last week. Nevertheless, since his conviction on the fraudulent loan charges, Cranmer has been paid more than $139,000 by the ATSDR to conduct the Vertac dioxin exposure study, according to a report in the July 8 edition of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

In a telephone interview last week, Cranmer admitted making a mistake. “I don’t remember what I said to the St. Louis group, but I
certainly told them that the levels went down,” he said. “That was not correct. … “I’m not trying to make excuses, but when I gave the talk in St. Louis, I was relying on summary information that had been provided me. I did the best to respond to questions of people, and, if I was in error, then I was in error. The facts speak for themselves,” said Cranmer. ”

Steve Taylor, an opponent of the incinerator and the leader of the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG), isn’t accepting the apology, nor does he believe Cranmer’s explanation. “Dr. Cranmer has been convicted of fraud and was hired by corrupt agencies to perpetuate their lies and deception.

“This recent episode is a continuation of over two decades of deception, flawed science and political manipulation surrounding the dioxin controversy,” said Taylor. TBAG’s rallying cry has long been uncover the dioxin coverup, stop EPA lies. We demand real and effectual action by our local elected officials, in particular (Gov.) Mel Carnahan, to protect Missouri citizens from renegade agencies. If they do not, the citizens themselves have the right and the responsibility to shut the project down.”

The response of locally elected officials has been more reserved. “This technology is untested, certainly it’s untested on this scale,” said County Councilman Greg Quinn (R-7th Dist.). Quinn’s district includes the Times Beach site. “When we were considering a bill to implement standards for how much dioxin could be emitted from the stack at the incinerator, the EPA wasn’t sure they could meet that. What concerned me about that was they had been making some claims about what they could do all the way along, and, when push came to shove, they indicated to us that they weren’t sure that they could achieve what we had mandated (the RFT, Dec. 6, 1994 and Feb. 1).

The EPA and DNR referred all questions on Cranmer’s study to the ATSDR or MDOH. Spokespersons at those two agencies say that the slight changes in the Vertac findings are insignificant. They contend that TCDD and a few other related dioxins, which have also shown increases in the latest round of tests, are not as important as the average for all 16 dioxin-like substance measured. That figure has still decreased, and is indicative of a national trend, the officials say. In addition, rises in the TCDD levels of the Mabelvale, Ark. control group suggest that there may be some reason for the increase other than incineration emissions, health officials say. “If Cranmer did something he wasn’t supposed to have done that’s too bad, and it’s wrong,” said Gale Carlson of the MDOH. “(But) based on the information I have right now, which is from the Arkansas Department of Health, the Missouri Department of Health is not unhappy with the numbers.”

Costner of Greenpeace isn’t so giddy. “They’re either not looking rationally at their study and their results or, as it seems apparent, they designed the study to see no effects, and then they initially mathematically manipulated the data in order to hide the effects,” said Costner. “But, nonetheless, despite this absolutely horrendous bias, … there was clearly a substantial increase in exposure to some of the dioxin.”

TBAG is organizing a protest at the EPA’s Times Beach site office on Lewis Road for 1:00 p.m. July 27. For further information call 391-5715.