russell bliss

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.

HURRY UP AND WAIT

After quickly identifying two new dioxin sites in St. Louis County last year, the EPA has lagged on the clean ups

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), March 25, 1998

BY C.D. STELZER

From the picture window of her ranch-style home, Lorraine Jordan has a view of James S. McDonnell Park across Adie Road, where an eight-foot tall cyclone fence is now being constructed.

During the past few months, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken more than 2,000 soil samples from the park, which is located near the North St. Louis County municipality of St. Ann. Surveyors have also staked out a section of the park near Jordan’s residence with bright orange flags. But nobody from the federal agency has bothered to walk across the street and inform her about the purpose of these actions. Instead, she has learned the little she knows from the scant newspaper coverage afforded the subject.

McDonnell Park, which is part of the St. Louis County Parks system, is the most recent dioxin site discovered in the metropolitan area. Regulatory authorities became aware of the contamination in October. The discovery followed an announcement earlier last year of another suburban dioxin site in Ellisville on Lemar Drive. Clean ups at both places have remained at a standstill for several months now. However, the EPA is expected to release its Engineering Evaluation and Cost Analysis (EE/CA) for the two projects this month. After a 30-day public comment period, the agency will then decide which means of remediation to pursue.

The discovery of the Lemar and McDonnell sites came after the closing of the controversial Times Beach dioxin incinerator in June, which precluded burning the waste locally. Another possible alternative was eliminated in December, when the only available commercial incinerator licensed to accept dioxin-contaminated waste was shuttered in Coffeyville, Kan.

Shipping the waste to Coffeyville would have been prohibitively expensive even if it had remained an option, according to one local official. In the short term, the federal agency has settled for containment and fencing off the contaminated areas. Due to budgetary constraints, long-range solutions now under consideration include alternative technologies shunned by the EPA during the Times Beach clean up. The EPA has refused to reveal the list of alternatives prior to the publication of its EE/CAs, but according to Ellisville city manager Jeff LaGarce, the choices will likely include a technique called “thermal desorption,” an unproven process that allows the waste to be detoxified on site.

Although the LaGarce lauds the EPA for its quick initial response, he expresses concerns about any further delay in cleaning up the Lemar site. “Our city adopted a resolution asking them to remedy this problem as quickly and efficiently as possible,” says LaGarce. “For four or five months, that site has been standing there idle. It has caused a great deal of concern for people. It’s good to put a lot of thought into a process such as this, but when are we going to see some outcome? We feel that our residents should not be subjected to having that site next to them for an excessive period of time.”

On the other hand, the director of the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Department, expressed unqualified satisfaction with the EPA’s handling of the McDonnell Park site. “I’ve felt that the steps that we’ve taken and the timeliness of those steps have been appropriate,” says Hall. “The EPA has taken all those necessary steps and there are no problems relative to any exposures to the public at this point. You want to make sure you do it right, and, in the process of doing it, safeguard the public. My (goal) is to have a park that is presentable to the public and that is safe to the public and doesn’t put them at any risk. I think they’ve done that.”

Essentially, Hall is asserting confidence in the clean up before it has started.

The highest measure of contamination found at McDonnell Park is 275 parts per billion (ppb). Remedial action is mandated by the EPA in a residential setting at one ppb or higher. In this instance, however, because the highest level of dioxin is believed to be buried more than a foot deep, it has been deemed safe by the EPA. The greatest surface concentrations, 169 ppb, are present in a wooded ravine, which is currently being fenced off. Adjacent to the ravine, in a playing field, dioxin has been found at more than 9.5 ppb. The EPA intends to cap that area with soil and sod to limit human exposure and soil erosion.

At the Lemar site, the dioxin levels are even higher. The top level found beneath the surface in Ellisville was 1,173 ppb, according to the EPA. One residence has had to be evacuated because of interior contamination. The area has been fenced off and excavated. Additional dioxin that migrated off-site has been removed from the roadside and an area next to a nearby pedestrian walk. The contaminated soil is being stored in a pile at the site and covered with a tarp.

“The fencing is certainly just an interim measure, while we are preparing the final alternative,” says Bob Feild of the EPA. “Once we receive the public comment then we’ll be in the position to move forward with remedy selection. But at this point, I can’t really discuss the alternatives.

Both locations are suspected to have been contaminated by waste-oil operator Russell Bliss sometime in the early 1970s, according to the EPA. Bliss sprayed dioxin-contaminated oil on unpaved roads, parking lots, truck terminals and horse arenas as a dust suppressant.
Jordan, who has lived in her home for 43 years, recalls the late Odie Greenspon, once operated a breeding farm for trotters at the location of the present park.. Her children helped walk the horses and worked in the stables, she says. One of her adult sons has since contracted a lupus-like disease, says Jordan. Dioxin is known to cause damage to the human reproductive and immunological systems. It is also a probable carcinogen.

“I’ve been looking for answers, and I don’t know what direction to go in,” says Jordan, who was belatedly informed by a neighbor of an EPA informational meeting held on March 12. “There are probably a lot of people who are unaware,” she adds.

Across the street in the park, a family of four walks with their two dogs along the asphalt trail that skirts the dioxin-contaminated site. A trio joggers run past them. There are no signs to warn these park users that they are trekking through a hazardous waste site.

For information about the McDonnell Park and Lemar Drive dioxin sites, call Hattie Thomas, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator, at 1-800 223-0425.

GETTING WASTED

TBAG locks horns with the EPA over possilby overlooked dioxin-contaminated sites

published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Aug. 20, 1997

BY C.D. STELZER

Last Saturday morning, Steve Taylor heard a tapping at his apartment door, a gentle rapping that he hopes to hear no more. By the time he answered the knock, the harried courier had already departed, leaving an unexpected Federal Express packet on his threshold.

The environmental activist, who is too young to remember the Selective Service System, and too poor to be concerned about the Internal Revenue Service, had, nevertheless, received a frightening message from a federal agency. After years of trying, Taylor had finally attracted the interest of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The missive from Martha Steincamp, the EPA regional counsel, instructed Taylor and other members of the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG) to turn over any information they may have concerning potential hazardous waste sites in the St. Louis area.

A copy of the written request obtained by the RFT shows the agency inquiry is specifically focused on the disposal of hazardous wastes generated by Monsanto and the now-defunct Wagner Electric Co. Taylor and the environmental group have until the end of the week to provide the agency with the information or be fined $25,000 a day until they comply.

That the provision of the Superfund law the EPA is using against the environmentalists is normally reserved for attacking corporate polluters hasn’t been overlooked. “This is the most ludicrous thing I’ve seen since I was given an arrest warrant for burning a log,” says Taylor, referring to one of his past acts of civil disobedience. Taylor says he is unsure whether he will cooperate with the EPA’s request. “We’re going to have to weigh out a lot of factors. The EPA is a potential defendant in litigation by citizens. We’re hesitant to give this information to an agency that we feel is corrupt. We have to determine what there motivation is.”

On Aug. 7, Taylor asked the St. Louis County Council to assist TBAG by forming a task force to independently investigate possible hazardous waste sites that may have been overlooked in the past by the EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The activist’s appeal to the local governing body follows the public disclosure late last month of the existence of a previously undiscovered dioxin site in Ellisville.

The announcement of the new site came only weeks after the EPA and DNR had completed their controversial incineration project at
Times Beach, which involved burning over 265,000 tons of dioxin contaminated waste from more than two dozen sites in eastern Missouri. TBAG had opposed the project, saying it was unsafe to human health and the environment. Dioxin is considered a probable human carcinogen and is known to cause reproductive and immunological health problems in animals and humans. Ironically, one of the sources of dioxin is incineration itself.

Although state and federal regulatory authorities all heralded the closing of the incinerator as the end of state’s toxic legacy, the discovery of the new site draws into question the EPA’s prior assumptions about the origins of the dioxin and other hazardous wastes that have long plagued the region. The new site also raises the specter that there may be an untold number of other contaminated sites waiting to be found.

The EPA has long blamed the dispersion of the toxins on Russell Bliss, the salvage operator who sprayed dioxin-contaminated oil on unpaved roads, parking lots and horse arenas as a dust suppressant in the early 1970s. According to the accepted version of events, Bliss obtained the dioxin in 1971 from a plant in southwest Missouri that produced hexachlorophene and a chemical component of Agent Orange, the dioxin-laden defoliant used in the Vietnam War. The plant was owned by a subsidiary of Syntex, the company ultimately held liable for the eastern Missouri Superfund clean up.

By narrowing its focus to a single, distant source, the EPA effectively eliminated more than a dozen local industries from closer scrutiny in the case even though Bliss also accepted liquid waste from them. The waste oil salvager’s list of clients included: Monsanto, Wagner Electric, Union Electric, Carter Carburetor, American Can and the now-defunct Lianco Container Corp., a can manufacturer jointly owned by Libby, McNeil and Libby and Anheuser- Busch Inc.

Monsanto created dioxin as a waste byproduct in its chemical manufacturing processes and also exclusively made toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at its Krummrich plant in Sauget, Ill. until 1977. The other St. Louis companies used PCBs or other hazardous substances for different purposes..

When asked to comment last week, Monsanto spokeswoman Diane Herndon responded with this prepared statement: “No information exists that any dioxin material was hauled by Bliss for Monsanto and so no material from Monsanto would have been sprayed on roads. Our materials are appropriately handled at waste disposal operations.”

Martha Steincamp, the chief regional counsel for the EPA, concurs with Monsanto’s professed innocence. “I look at it this way as a lawyer,” says Steincamp. “Monsanto is a big, big company. If I had Monsanto as a potential defendant, and had the evidence on them, I certainly would bring them in as a party. The fact of the matter is I don’t believe people had evidence on Monsanto. I know Monsanto was not a viable defendant in this litigation.”

Bob Feild, who headed the EPA’s clean up at Times Beach, says the agency is currently following up on several leads it received recently regarding other potential hazardous waste sites in the St. Louis area. Feild, nevertheless, appears to have already arrived at a predetermined conclusion that those locations will be found to be free of any contamination.

“At this point in time, I have seen nothing to suggest that there may be additional sites out there,” says Feild. “We feel confident that our investigations were thorough, that we have followed up on every lead that we’ve been made aware of. This site that was discovered over in Ellisville was completely new information,” he adds. “We have no way of knowing that there will not be additional sites in the future. However, we don’t have any information that would suggest there would be. We continue to follow up on any information that is provided to us by the public.”

In other words, Feild is denying that the EPA itself has even a scintilla of evidence that could help pinpoint any potentially untreated hazardous waste sites in eastern Missouri.

Taylor finds Feild’s explanation incredulous. “TBAG started its investigation because it thought there had been a coverup by state and federal authorities on the source and extent of contamination in Missouri,” says Taylor. “It appears that it is possible that certain leads weren’t followed up on because they didn’t fit their theory of where this waste came from.”

The activist points out that no PCBs were found in southwest Missouri in the tanks at the Verona, Mo. chemical plant, where the EPA presumes all of the toxins originated. But PCBs have been found in the past along with dioxin at the now remediated sites in eastern Missouri. This suggests that some of the mixed hazardous waste that Bliss sprayed came from another source or sources.

There are other holes in the EPA’s theory. During its investigations in the 1980s, the EPA rejected all the sites that Bliss may have sprayed before or after accepting the Verona waste, claiming those locations could not have possibly been contaminated with dioxin from the Verona chemical plant. No further actions were taken at these locations. An EPA tracking sheet lists 29 such sites. They include: Holiday Hill Amusement Park, Lindenwood College, McCarthy Brothers Construction Co., St. Charles Quarry and Terre Du Lac, a residential/lake development near Bon Terre, Mo.

In the case of Terre Du Lac, the tracking sheet shows a DNR investigator determined that Bliss had oiled the roads “on at least one occasion in 1976.” The document further states that “prior oiling had occurred though (it is) uncertain who did the earlier oiling.” Based on this information alone, the DNR concluded that “due to the late time period of oiling, sampling for TCDD (dioxin) appears unwarranted.” The EPA agreed by ruling that “no further action appears necessary” at the site.

The DNR investigation of Terre Du Lac in the spring of 1983, however, does not appear to have been as thorough as the EPA now claims. Indeed, it borders on negligence. Besides giving the site a clean bill of health without any soil testing, the DNR ignored its own warnings signals. Compelling evidence of Bliss’ misdeeds had been presented only months earlier as a part of the DNR’s effort to prevent his son from being granted a hazardous waste hauler’s license. At the hearing on the matter, the DNR submitted two contracts between Monsanto and Russell Bliss dated 1975 and 1976, the time period in which Bliss is known to have sprayed Terre Du Lac. The DNR presented further evidence at the same proceeding that linked the chemical manufacturer indirectly to a 1977 incident in which a Bliss driver dumped toxic chemicals — including one exclusively made by Monsanto — at a site in Jefferson County. Bliss testified at a subsequent DNR hearing that materials found at the site had come from Monsanto’s research lab. Given these revelations and the luxury of six additional years of hindsight, the lack of prudence exhibited by the EPA and DNR at Terre Du Lac is indeed inexplicable.

“The way we understand it, Monsanto told EPA investigators that they did not hire Bliss — end of story,” says Taylor. “But as you see, Bliss drivers consistently stated that Monsanto was a client.”

It isn’t necessary for the EPA to raid TBAG’s files to find this information because the agency already has the original documents in its own archives. TBAG, for example, acquired some of its more telling evidence from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), which in turn obtained the information from the EPA and DNR.

One document that TBAG copied is a verbatim transcript of an interview conducted by an EPA official in 1980 at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. Representatives of the DNR and the Missouri Attorney General’s office were also present. During the questioning, inmate Scott Rollins, a former Bliss driver, made a stuttering confession that he had picked up waste from Monsanto in Illinois.

“Monsanto is where we … got the pesticide, the stuff that … I thought … smelled like bug spray. It was in Illinois and it had a big fence around it. … I’ve been to Monsanto maybe twenty times,” Rollins said. “I remember this old guy … he used to give us stuff. You know, … he’d give Gary (Lambarth) some of these old, old sex magazines. …. Just little bullshit. … But … the company itself would still pay Russell (Bliss). They would write him a check.”

Rollins’ allegations have been corroborated to a degree by Judy Piatt, the one-time owner of Shenandoah Stables in Moscow Mill, Mo. After Bliss sprayed her stables in 1971, Piatt’s horses died and her daughter became seriously ill. To gather evidence for her pending civil suit against Bliss, the stable owner followed the waste oil hauler and his drivers along their daily routes. She compiled a list of where Bliss and his employees collected waste and where they disposed of it. According to a 1981 IEPA document, Piatt recalled that Bliss “possibly obtained waste from Monsanto.” The IEPA summary goes on to state: “Judy Piatt has a diary and pictures of such activities, but will not release these to (EPA) Region VII on the advise of her attorney.”

But perhaps the most damning indictment comes from Bliss himself. When a Missouri assistant attorney general asked the waste hauler in 1977 to identify his top customers, the first words out of Bliss’ mouth were, “Oh, I would say Monsanto.”

 

DANGEROUS GROUND

Doxins aren’t the only problem in Missouri. PCB contamination continues to be overlooked or denied by both public regulators and Monsanto

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Feb. 14, 1996

First, hundreds of birds started dropping from the
rafters like so many miners' canaries. Then dogs and
cats began to die. By September 1971, seven horses had
perished at the Shenandoah Stables in Moscow Mills, Mo.
Before the scourge abated, scores more would die. 
     Humans also succumbed, developing flu-like symptoms
and skin rashes. On August 22, Judy Piatt, the co-owner
of the stable, admitted her 6-year-old daughter to St.
Louis Children's Hospital. The girl, who played
frequently inside the equestrian arena that summer, had
lost 50 percent of her body weight and was hemorrhaging
from the bladder. On a hunch, her mother filled an empty
Miracle Whip jar with dirt from the arena floor. That
soil ended up at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
in Atlanta, where in 1974 scientists confirmed it
contained trichlorophenol and a related waste byproduct
-- 2,3,7,8 tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD) -- commonly
known as dioxin. 
     After the CDC announced its find, dioxin became the
buzzword that grabbed headlines, spurred by its links to
Agent Orange and the Vietnam War. The resulting clamor
allowed the additional discovery of highly-toxic
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the same soil to
escape the media's attention.
     This single detail is a clue in a mystery that
challenges the conventional history of Missouri's long
sordid affair with hazardous waste. It also raises
doubts about soil characteristics at other sites, the
origins of the toxins and the consequences of the
Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) plans to burn
them soon at Times Beach.
     The legal authority for the EPA and the Missouri
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to mandate
incineration hinges on protecting public health. But
test burns conducted in November show problems 
foreshadowing their plans, including the malfunctioning
of an important anti-pollution device. The EPA's
inability to fully account for PCBs and other pollutants
at nearly one third of the designated cleanup sites adds
another potential danger to  an already uncertain
combustion equation. 
     These are among the reasons the Times Beach Action
Group (TBAG), a group opposed to the
incinerator,contends the consent decree authorizing the
Eastern Missouri Superfund cleanup is void. TBAG also
asserts the EPA failed to address PCBs in its 1994 risk
assessment.The activists' position is supported by a
recent report prepared by the Environmental Compliance
Organization (ECO), the firm hired through an EPA grant
to represent citizens interests. In addition,  Rep. Jim
Talent (R-Chesterfield) has raised questions about PCBs
at Times Beach, and again asked the EPA to delay
incineration so alternative technologies can be given
more consideration.      Last week, the congressman's voice
was muted, however, by the release of a General
Accounting Office study favoring incineration. The
decision corresponds with the deregulatory mood of the
Republican-controlled Congress, and the trend of
delisting Superfund sites. 
    Turning a blind eye on the environment may be in
vogue  among certain special interests, but an
investigation by the Riverfront Times has turned up
long-neglected facts that warrant consideration.
     * No PCBs were found at the facility in Southwest
Missouri, where the dioxin in the St. Louis area
supposedly originated. This means PCBs that are present
came from another source or sources. Monsanto
exclusively manufactured PCBs in the United States until
1977. 
     * As early as 1972, an EPA official informed
Monsanto about PCB levels at the Bliss Waste Oil
Co.tanks in Sauget, Ill., according to a copy of a
correspondence obtained by the RFT. This contradicts the
EPA's  own chronology. 
     *Russell Bliss, the owner of the company blamed for
the dioxin contamination in Eastern Missouri, signed at
least two contracts to haul hazardous waste from
Monsanto facilities in the mid-1970s. In 1977, a Bliss
driver dumped hazardous waste at a site in Jefferson
County. The sludge included PCBs that state officials
suspected came from Monsanto's research lab here. The
cleanup took six weeks and cost taxpayers approximately
$515,000.
    * More recently, the EPA failed to provide relevant
information to the independent laboratory hired to
analyze soils from the Eastern Missouri dioxin sites. In
an appendix to the federal agency's 1994 risk
assessment, the lab cites multiple instances of missing
data, and states  PCBs were found at four locations that
had not previously been listed by the EPA. 

The predisposition of federal and state regulators to
underplay PCB contamination has led some local
environmentalists to muse that governmental concerns lie
not so much in protecting the environment as in
destroying evidence. 
     The Times Beach dioxin incinerator near Eureka is
scheduled to begin burning some 100,000 cubic yards of
dioxin-contaminated soil from 27 sites in Eastern
Missouri perhaps as soon as March. Plans for the burn
are proceeding despite the independent ECO report, which
questions whether current EPA methodology for measuring
stack emissions "leads to a vast underestimation of
risk." The citizens watchdog group also warns that
because of ambient levels already found in the
environment "further exposure by populations to any
dioxin should be avoided."  ECO concludes that "(EPA)
data ... is insufficient to demonstrate that the sites
have been adequately characterized to all potential
constituents and the various congeners of dioxin."
     In a pointed 3-page letter sent to the EPA regional
administrator Dennis Grams on Dec. 27, Rep. Talent takes
issue with the legality of burning PCBs without a proper
permit. In addition, he asks why sampling data for some
of the sites is missing. 
     These are all legitimate concerns. Incinerating
PCBs can actually create dangerous dioxins and furans.
Nevertheless, the EPA and the Missouri Department of
Natural Resources (DNR), say the project poses
absolutely no threat to human health. 
      "We're not saying that PCBs are not dangerous, but
it's an issue of risk, and the risk associated with very
low levels of PCBs is not significant," says Feild.
"It's not like PCBs are not suitable for incineration,
that's the way you deal with them." 
     For its part, Monsanto denies any poisonous past
relationship with Bliss, the man responsible for
spreading the waste. "To the best of our knowledge
Bliss's company did not haul PCB or dioxin-contaminated
material from any of our St. Louis area facilities,"
says Monsanto spokeswoman Diane Herndon. "We're not
saying that we didn't use him, but to the best of our
knowledge, we don't believe that he hauled any PCB or
dioxin-contaminated material." 
    Nevertheless, PCBs are undeniably present in some of
the contaminated soils. There existence is a toxic
subject that remained buried until the environmentalists
uncovered it. "It wasn't until we discovered the
Kimbrough report, which showed very high levels of PCBs
in the arena soils, that they (the EPA) gave us any site
specific data at all," says Steve Taylor, an organizer
for TBAG.     
     Taylor is alluding to a scientific article by
Renate D. Kimbrough, a physician for CDC. She first
wrote about dioxin and PCB contamination at Shenandoah
Stables in 1975. Kimbrough then cited dioxin as the
cause of the Shenandoah Stables catastrophe -- but she
also said the contaminated soil contained up to 1,590
parts per million (ppm) of PCBs. The federal cleanup
standard for PCBs has been set at 50 ppm. 
     Earlier this month, Feild of the EPA admitted that
priority pollutant data was missing on six of the 27
sites that are a part of the Times Beach cleanup, nearly
one third of the total. This revelation follows the
release of EPA data sheets to environmentalists that
were missing PCB test results. The gaps in PCB data
raises serious doubts about the status of hundreds of
other locations in Eastern Missouri that are known or
suspected to have been sprayed by the Bliss Waste Oil
Co.       
     "If they (EPA) are saying they didn't test for
those (pollutants) or a percentage of the them are lost,
I find that hard to believe," says Nina Thompson, a
spokeswoman for the DNR. But when asked if the DNR is
aware of all the sites that Bliss may have sprayed with
PCBs, the department spokeswoman replied: "Have we gone
out and tested every site in Missouri? No, we didn't do
that." Instead, the state agency depended on the EPA.
But despite the EPA's missing data, Thompson is
confident regulators followed  proper protocol and
tested for required priority pollutants other than
dioxin. 
     Nevertheless, there is a chance contaminated sites
may have been overlooked. According to research by
former DNR official Linda Elaine James: "State and
federal officials ... investigated over 375 sites in the
St. Louis area based on information that Bliss may have
sprayed there. About 45 of these sites were never
sampled because the investigation could not substantiate
Bliss at the site. Thirty were ruled out without
sampling because they appeared to have been sprayed by
Bliss after 1972 or 1973, the assumption being that
Bliss had used up all of the (dioxin-contaminated)
wastes by this time. Over one hundred (other) sites were
sampled and dioxin was not discovered." But the PCB
levels at these locations remains, for the most part, an
enigma. 
     Interestingly, the environmentalists were not the
first to be denied information on PCB levels at the
Eastern Missouri dioxin sites. Mantech Environmental
Technology Inc., an independent laboratory that analyzes
soils for the EPA,  refers to missing data in an
appendix to The appendix also states that four different
Aroclors --  Monsanto's commercial name for PCBs -- were
found at sites, where the compounds had not been
originally indicated on spreadsheets. 
     "It's disturbing that these data are not available
given the amount of money that they (the EPA) spent in
the early 80s gathering samples," says Taylor.  "It's
rather like going to the moon and losing the rocks at
taxpayers' expense. It would appear that they were
trying to keep certain other sources of pollution from
public scrutiny."  

All Roads Lead to Verona, or do they?

When CDC officials began investigating at Shenandoah
Stables, they suspected either PCBs or nerve gas. After
finding dioxin, however, health officials turned their
attention toward Agent Orange, a defoliant used in 
Vietnam. Information from the Defense Department
narrowed the search to four sources, including Monsanto.
Syntex, the company ultimately held liable for the Times
Beach cleanup had purchased Hoffman-Taff Inc., one of
the suspected firms. Hoffman in turn implicated the
Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Co. (NEPACCO),
which leased part of its Verona, Mo.plant. NEPACCO
created dioxin as a waste byproduct of hexachlorophene.
Hoffman-Taff had hired another responsible party,
Independent Petrochemical Co. (IPC) of St. Louis, to
dispose of the toxic material. IPC sub-contracted the
work to Russell Bliss.
     In six 1971 trips, Bliss hauled more than 18,000
gallons of dioxin-tainted sludge from Verona to his 
Frontenac storage tanks. His drivers then sprayed the
toxic mixture as a dust-suppressant on horse arenas,
unpaved roads, truck terminals, and parking lots.
     However, the CDC's  soil analysis from Shenandoah
Stables, raises questions about this standard version of
events. That's because tests conducted on contents of
the  "black tank" at Verona, where all of the
contaminants allegedly originated, indicated the
presence of dioxin -- but no PCBs. If PCBs found at
Shenandoah didn't come from Verona, then there had to
have been one or more other sources.
     One of the conclusions of the ECO report is "there
is insufficient data to support the contention that a
single tank in Verona, Mo. is the sole source for all
dioxin contamination." Besides Monsanto, Bliss collected
waste from:  Union Electric, Wagner Electric,  Signet
Graphic, Benjamin Moore (Paint Co.), Edwin Cooper,
White-Rogers, Jackes-Evans,  American Can, General Cable
, Carter Carburetor and the Orchard Corp, according to
court records. Some, if not all of these companies,
generated PCB-laden waste.
      In September 1971, after she had sued Bliss, 
Piatt, the co-owner of Shenandoah Stables, and her
partner Frank Hampel began tailing Bliss drivers on
their daily routes. Their surveillance would continue
for more than year.  During that time, the pair
sometimes disguised themselves: Hampel donning a woman's
wig and Piatt wearing a man's cowboy hat. 
     The undercover work paid off. The pair observed
Bliss' drivers wantonly dumping waste into streambeds,
and fields.  On one occasion, Piatt watched a Bliss
driver pick up a load at the Monsanto facility in St.
Peters, Mo. and dump it in a Mississippi River slough.
In another instance, she witnessed chemical wastes being
dumped at Times Beach.
     In late 1972, Piatt compiled an 18-page report on
her investigation. Her dossier cited 16 different
companies whose waste had been dumped by Bliss drivers.
Piatt's list also included 31 locations that had been
sprayed. She submitted the report to the EPA, DNR and
Missouri Department of Health (DOH).  
     Piatt's case would reveal that one of Bliss'
Frontenac tanks contained PCBs. A decade later, the
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found
trichloroethylene and PCBs in a Bliss storage tank in
Sauget. 
     Private tests conducted in Times Beach in late 1982
detected not only dioxin and PCBs, but ethyl benzene,
acetone,toluene, xylene and other hazardous substances.
Depositions from 1972 through 1988 also indicate Bliss
and his drivers picked up waste products at the Monsanto
research laboratories on North Lindbergh and the
company's silicon wafer plant in St. Peters. Bliss
claimed his company disposed of its toxic cargo at a
landfill in East St. Louis. But the loads didn't always
make it there.
     Most telling -- Bliss himself testified on Nov. 20,
1972  that he had sprayed the streets of Times Beach.
     Despite this early knowledge, nothing happened. It
would be 10 more years before any attempt would be made
to deal with the problems. Unfortunately, the CDC
informed state authorities erroneously that dioxin had
an estimated half-life of only one year. While officials
waited for the disaster to disappear on its own accord,
the dilemma would be compounded by the excavations and
movements of contaminated dirt to other sites, including
residential properties.
     "There's clearly PCBs everywhere," says Gerson
Smoger,an attorney who has been involved in Times Beach
litigation."They didn't test, because dioxin was the
chemical of concern. They weren't looking for it, but it
was there -- everybody knew it was there. So to say it's
not there is ludicrous." Originally,the Times Beach
personal injury suits included Monsanto as a defendant,
Smoger says, but the plaintiffs' attorneys later dropped
Monsanto because "it complicated the case too much."  
     Bliss' widespread activities also complicated
cleanup efforts.In 1983, Fred Lafser, then-director of
the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) told
The New York Times: "The feeling is why go look for more
problems when we do not have the staff to solve what we
know about?" More revealing are comments Lafser made to
the RFT that same year. "Most of our hazardous waste
problems (in Missouri) can be traced back to him (Bliss)
-- including problems with PCBs, solvents and inks,you
name it." 
     The EPA now defends its inaction by claiming
ignorance. "We didn't even discover Times Beach or any
of the Eastern Missouri dioxin sites until after 1980,"
says Feild, the agency's current Times Beach project
manager. "There was no work being done except for the
Centers for Disease Control, who were investigating some
horse deaths starting in about 1974."
      But there is evidence that both the EPA and
Monsanto took an early interest in PCB contamination in
eastern Missouri relating to Bliss' activities. In one
letter dated Sept. 12, 1972, an EPA official provided
details to a Monsanto executive about testing for PCBs
at Bliss' oil storage tanks in Sauget, Ill. The letter
is from W.L. Banks, chief of the EPA's Oil and Hazardous
Substance Branch. It is addressed to W.B. Papageorge at
the Monsanto research labs on North Lindbergh. 
     When asked to comment on the Papageorge letter,
Herndon of Monsanto read this statement prepared by the
company's law department: "The 1972 letter to Papageorge
in no way implies that Bliss was hauling Monsanto PCBs.
Since PCBs had only recently been identified as an
environmental concern, it might be very likely that
Bliss and many waste haulers would have PCBs in their
storage containers at that stage."     
      The EPA letter to Papageorge is, nevertheless,
noteworthy given the Monsanto executive's background.
During  his more than 30-year-career with the company,
Papageorge managed a PCB plant. By 1972, he had moved up
the corporate ladder to become Monsanto's director of
environmental control. 

The Dittmer Incident     

A record of the fire is preserved in a routine report
filed away at the Cedar Hill Fire Protection District
headquarters in Jefferson County.  
     There is nothing ordinary, however, about the call
the rural department received at 5:21 p.m. on March 11,
1977. When firefighters arrived at the Albert Harris
property near the town of Dittmer, they were greeted by
a toxic maelstrom. Gusty 25 mph winds fanned flames that
licked the sides of a recently dug pit near a small
tributary of Calvey Creek. The searing heat inside the
10-foot-deep trench had caused toxic waste drums near
the edge of the excavation to explode. Investigators
later found 125 other  barrels scattered at the site.
Working in the rain, 20 firefighters battled the blaze
almost an hour before bringing it under control. 
      After receiving complaints about more pollution
problems at the same location, the DNR and EPA began
investigating lot number 21 of the Greenbriar
subdivision. Testing of the pit's contents revealed high
concentrations of PCBs  --  up to 20,000 ppm. The
agencies found other toxins at the site, including
bromophenol chlorophenol, a chemical produced only by
Monsanto in 1964, according to the EPA. 
     "It was a real chemical soup," recalls Robert
Zeman, a former DNR official who now works for the
Metropolitan Sewer District. "This pit was just about
every color of the rainbow from stuff that was in it.
The guy who was bringing the materials out there was an
employee of Russell Bliss. In the ensuing investigations
and discussions, (we determined) that Bliss was likely
involved in the activity." 
      Bliss later testified that bottles found in the
toxic pit came from Monsanto's research lab. When asked
from what major source he acquired his hazardous waste,
Bliss stated: "Oh, I would say Monsanto." The waste oil
hauler said that his company was regularly paid $200 to
pick up a 40-barrel load from Monsanto's research lab.
The cleanup of the Dittmer site cost the federal
government more than $500,000.
     Despite indications that much of the Dittmer waste
came from Monsanto, the chemical company is certain the
PCBs did not. "Monsanto's records indicate that PCBs
were not in the materials mishandled by Bliss," says
Herndon, the Monsanto spokeswoman. 
     The composition of the waste will never be known,
however, because Bliss took steps to literally coverup
the incident.After the DNR discovered the site, the
waste oil hauler pumped out an estimated 4,000 gallons
of sludge without the state agency's approval, and then
hired a contractor to fill in the pit. The nearby creek
continued to be polluted by runoff from the buried
wastes, however. So despite further warnings by the DNR
to leave the site alone, Bliss returned again before
dawn one morning. The same contractor opened the pit
back up. Bliss, his son and one employee then hauled
away contaminated soil and  barrels. When neighbors
tried to follow one of the trucks, another Bliss vehicle
blocked their way. 
     At a 1977 DNR hearing, Monsanto bills of lading
signed by a Bliss driver were entered as evidence. The
receipts identify the wastes from the Monsanto research
lab as "one truckload (of) organic non-toxic solvents."
"I just tell them I don't want nothing toxic; that's why
I have them put on the tickets non-toxic," Bliss
testified. 
     The transcript of a later hearing , however,  shows
that the "non-toxic" classification contradicted the
wording of legally binding agreements between Monsanto
and Bliss.
      In 1983,  the DNR's Hazardous Waste Management
Commission met to consider granting Russell Bliss's son
a hazardous waste hauler's permit. At the meeting, the
DNR brought up the Dittmer incident as a reason not to
issue the license. The agency also submitted two
contracts, from 1975 and 1976, between Russell Bliss and
Monsanto. According to one contract: 
     "...Organic solvents waste from the Research Center
consists of ... trace amounts of almost any conceivable
chemical (organic or inorganic). ... Contents of the
drum are accumulated from literally hundreds of
laboratory samples and organic and inorganic solvents
present in the drum are not known or controlled. Since
it is probable that the total content of any particular
drum is at least as toxic as the solvent mixture,
CONTRACTOR SHOULD EXERCISE EXTREME CAUTION IN THE
HANDLING OF THE WASTE. CONTRACTOR IS HEREBY WARNED THAT
SUCH WASTE MAY BE TOXIC. ..." 
     In addition, the contracts stipulated Bliss
possessed necessary skills to perform his duties, that
he would abide by the law and dispose of the waste
properly. It is evident the waste hauler broke the terms
of the contract. It is also arguable that Monsanto's
actions were not above reproach. Even if the company
followed the letter of the law, it still made the
dubious assumption Bliss was qualified to handle such
hazardous materials in the first place. There is no
proof the chemical company asked the waste hauler about
his qualifications.  If Monsanto had inquired, Bliss
might have responded as candidly as he did later to the
DNR. The waste hauler told the agency his knowledge of
chemistry amounted to an understanding of BS&W --
"bullshit and water," a term he used to describe
adulterated waste oil.  Bliss also stated he had only
two methods of testing the contents of the waste he
hauled:  "I sometimes taste it, or put it on a napkin
and see if it will burn." 

The Politics of a Hazardous Waste Coverup

Rep. Talent is not the first congressman to sound the
alarm over PCBs. Rep. William F. Ryan (D-NY) raised the
issue in 1970. Monsanto officials responded to Ryan by
saying they were "well aware of the concern" over PCBs
(see sidebar). The company also said steps had been
taken to insure public safety, but denied knowledge of
whether any PCBs had been released from its Krummrich
plant in Sauget. The next year, Monsanto began burning
PCBs at a liquid injection incinerator at its Sauget
facility.The burning of the toxic waste continued for
most of the next decade.    
     The PCB controversy resurfaced again in 1980, when
Missouri Gov. Joseph P. Teasdale made a campaign stop
near Ellisville, at a place that is now one of the EPA's
27-designated dioxin sites in Eastern Missouri. With the
TV news cameras rolling, the top elected official in the
state railed against the hazardous waste dumped at the
location. Teasdale, however, directed his attack at PCBs
not dioxin, and his lambaste placed the onus for the
toxic contamination on Monsanto.
     "I request that you help pay the cost of the
sampling and analysis work, and that if PCBs are
discovered that you pay for the cleanup of the site,"
the governor told Monsanto. Newspaper coverage of the
event failed to divulge that the site in question was on
or near property owned by Bliss. Teasdale wanted
Monsanto to pay for the cleanup of three Bliss
Ellisville sites, and all other PCB-contaminated
locations in Missouri. Monsanto later claimed their own
analysis showed insignificant PCB levels at the
Ellisville sites. The company refused to consider
covering the cost of other PCB cleanups. 
     In 1981, the DNR paid to dispose of more than 100
barrels at the Ellisville/Bliss sites that contained
traces of PCBs. According to a report issued by the EPA
last summer, more waste is still buried there.   
     Teasdale was not alone in his attempt to make
political hay out Missouri's hazardous waste crisis. On
Oct. 31, 1982, while running for re-election,  Sen. John
Danforth (R-Mo.) announced a promising new method for
cleaning contaminated soils. The technique involved
spraying the effected areas with sodium hydroxide and
polyethylene glycol. The method had only been previously
successful in treating PCB contaminated soil -- not
dioxin. The idea to use the technique in Missouri had
been suggested to Danforth by Rita Lavelle, the
controversial EPA assistant administrator. 
     Prior to her dismissal, Lavelle allegedly used the
billion-dollar Superfund program for political ends. In
addition, congressional investigations in 1982 and 1983
revealed Lavelle had private discussions with officials
at Monsanto and other corporations concerning regulatory
matters. When Congress subpoenaed documents -- including
those related to Times Beach  -- the EPA initially
withheld the information on the advice of the White
House and  Department of Justice. The level of
stonewalling reached a crescendo when Congress
discovered EPA officials had ordered the wholesale
shredding of sensitive files. 
      The showdown with Congress ultimately forced
Reagan to replace EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch with
William D. Ruckelshaus, who had headed the agency at its
inception.  
     Ruckelshaus' resume, however, contains more than
one entry to that has received criticism.
Environmentalists point out that during his career,
Ruckelshaus has had many close ties to polluting
industries -- including a directorship at Monsanto.