region 7

Tangled Up in Wildwood

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.

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

WINDS OF SHAME

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

BY C.D. STELZER

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

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

DEATH ON THE HIGHWAY

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Aug. 30, 1995

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has its way, thousands of dump-truck loads of dioxin-contaminated soil will begin rolling through the St. Louis area as soon as November.

The time schedule for excavating and transporting the toxic material from 26 sites in Eastern Missouri is contained in the Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis (EE/CA), published late last month by the EPA. The little-publicized study includes the proposed routes and estimated costs of burning the waste at Times Beach, where a temporary incinerator is now under construction. The cleanup of individual sites over the next year is expected to take anywhere from a few days to several months. The total cost of this portion of the project is earmarked at $113.6 million, according to the EE/CA. The EPA has extended the public comment period on its transport plan until Sept. 7.

On Aug. 15, following the release of the EE/CA, federal district Judge John F. Nangle turned aside an effort by St. Louis County to regulate dioxin emissions through a local ordinance passed in February. Nangle ruled the EPA and Syntex, the company liable for the cleanup, are bound only to applicable standards in force at the time of the Record of Decision (ROD), in 1988. The judge has jurisdiction over the settlement by way of a 1990 court-negotiated consent decree.

“What he (based) his decision on is what we have been trying to say,” says Martha Steincamp, the chief counsel for Region VII of the EPA. In 1988, “the county didn’t even have a dioxin standard on the books,” Steincamp says.
The EPA’s own health standard is supposed to limit exposure risks to no more than one additional cancer case per million population. The agency and Syntex both complained to the court that the county ordinance set an unattainable goal that was six-times more stringent. Nangle concurred.

In his 16-page opinion, the judge failed to mention one cogent fact: the county based its emissions standard on data from the EPA’s own health risk assessment for Times Beach. Fred Striley, a member of the Dioxin Incinerator Response Group (DIRG), views that omission as untenable. “The judge is basing his decision on false information,” says Striley, a physicist who has been studying the technical data for years. “I can get up at the blackboard and write the equations out for you. The county ordinance is probably about twice as strict as the (EPA’s) — not six times.” Furthermore, Striley maintains “the number that the county used is directly taken from an EPA document about this site (Times Beach), which said … (it) would be the worst-case emission.”

Striley and other opponents argue that incineration itself creates dioxin as a part of the combustion process and then disperses it into the environment. Dioxin is a suspected human carcinogen and is known to cause human immunological and reproductive problems, according to the EPA itself. Local environmentalists favor storing the toxic waste indefinitely at its present locations or using newer alternative technologies to destroy it. In response to their latest legal setback, incinerator opponents are advocating the county appeal Nangle’s decision.

For his part, Nangle, has remained unswayed by mounting public opposition to the incinerator. In his ruling, the judge decreed “exclusive jurisdiction for direct or indirect challenges or attacks concerning the response action pursuant to the consent decree. …” President Richard M. Nixon appointed Nangle to the federal bench in 1973. The 75-year-old jurist, who retains an interest in Republican politics, currently holds senior status in the 8th Circuit here, and spends considerable time away from St. Louis. Evaluations by lawyers, appearing in the 1995 Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, praise Nangle, but also find him to be “patronizing and imperious.” “He’s a little prima donna. He’s arrogant and procedure oriented,” commented one attorney. ” He has federal-itis. He always did think he was important even before he got on the bench …,” said another lawyer.

As a part Nangle’s consent decree, Syntex has agreed to pay for the incineration and the clean up of Times Beach. The EPA is responsible for excavating and transporting the dioxin-contaminated soil from the other 26 locations. The insurance litigation involving Times Beach and the other Eastern Missouri sites is far from over, however. Steincamp, the EPA’s Region VII counsel, wouldn’t hazard a guess as to when it will be all resolved. The case has produced staggering amounts of paperwork, hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, she says. “This case has already been to the Supreme Court of the United States, I think, twice,” says Steincamp. The U.S. Justice Department has taken the unusual step of submitting court briefs in some of the insurance cases, she says. “The Superfund is not going to cost recover very much unless somebody wins the insurance litigation, or somebody decides just to give up and settle,” says Steincamp.
The clean-up sites were contaminated in the early 1970s, when Russell Bliss hauled dioxin residues from a chemical plant in Verona, Missouri and then combined them with waste oil before spraying the mixture as a dust suppressant on horse arenas, parking lots and roadways in this part of the state.

Eleven of the locations, including Times Beach, have already been excavated. According to the terms of the consent decree, the dioxin tainted dirt is supposed to be stored at those sites “pending final management.” In addition, two other sites were partially excavated in the past year, after water main leaks forced emergency responses.

At the six residential sites, the plan is to excavate all soil containing one part per billion (ppb) or more of dioxin, and transport it to Times Beach for incineration. There are less stringent plans, however, at some other locations. “For the non-residential sites … the agency’s generally preferred response action is to excavate those areas exceeding 20 parts per billion and to cap the areas where remaining dioxin levels exceed one part per billion with a maintained impermeable cap,” the EE/CA states. Those restricted areas would then be placed on the state Hazardous Waste Registry.

One exception to the commercial-site guidelines is the 1.9 acre Bonifield Brothers Trucking location near St. Louis University Hospitals, where the EPA plans a more thorough job. The location at 3529 Hickory St. contains dioxin levels of more than 800 ppb, according to the EE/CA . Nevertheless, the university wants to develop the property. There are residences nearby even though the EE/CA lists the site as a primarily commercial area. A nursing home that is associated with the university hospitals has also been built adjacent to the site within the last year. Another variance, according to the EE/CA, involves the planned clean-up of the Southern Cross Lumber Co. in Hazelwood. At that location, some of the dioxin contaminated-soil, which measured less than 20-parts per billion, would be merely covered with soil or gravel rather than capped with concrete.

In yet another instance, a site is listed as both a residential and non-residential location in the EE/CA. The plan calls for paving over some the contaminated sections of the access road to Old Highway 141 rather than removing the waste even though the southern portion of the location is within 50 feet of a residential area, according to the EE/CA.

A random tour of three of the Eastern Missouri dioxin sites last Saturday showed only one to be fenced. None of the locations were marked by warning signs.

The EE/CA also cites a litany of concerns over the proposed transportation routes, while it defends the safety of putting 80,000 ton dump trucks filled with dioxin-contaminated soil on area roads and highways. For example, the report favors the use Interstates as the safest routes for transporting the waste, but routinely warns that “the accident rate on the freeway(s) exceeded the statewide average in 1990.” EE/CA also raises caveats about planned road construction along some of the routes in near future, and, in some cases, advises that the transportation of the waste itself will demand infrastructure improvements.

Moving the dioxin-contaminated soil along the hilly roads of western St. Louis County and northern Jefferson County sounds particularly risky, according to the EE/CA. Here is a typical description of such a ride: “Traffic along this segment can be expected to be heavy during peak periods. Also, the roadway has some rolling grades and relatively sharp curves with virtually no shoulders in several places.”

Public comments regarding the EPA’s plan should be mailed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 726 Minnesota Ave., Kansas City, Kan., 66101. The telephone number for the EPA’s site office at Times Beach in Eureka is 938-6869.