St. Louis

Under the Radar

East Side player Gary Fears and his diverse business associates are betting that his military aviation business finally takes off. Whether it will fly is still up in the air.

By C.D. Stelzer

First published at focusmidwest.com in May 2010.

 

“It’s interesting that the guys who came here to help move the plane actually were Russian nationals,” says Cheryl Hill, a prosecutor in Marquette, Michigan.

Hill is referring to a gargantuan Soviet military aircraft worth millions of dollars that has been stranded for the better part of the last year at a former U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command base in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Gary Fears’ Ilyushin IL-78.

The spring thaw has melted the snow that accumulated around the aircraft over the winter, but mysteries surrounding its presence at Sawyer International Airport remain.

A fuel-leaking Cold War relic, the 94-ton behemoth has been the subject of both curiosity and consternation in Marquette since it touched down in July. Almost immediately, five members of the Ilyushin IL-78’s nine-man Ukrainian crew were deported for visa violations.

Hill, the local official charged with interim custody of the plane, recalls that one of the foreign-born aviators dispatched by the U.S. Customs Service to move the plane off the runway told her that he had flown the same aircraft during the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. She mentions the coincidence as an aside, her prosecutorial inquisitiveness piqued more by the plane’s flight plan from last summer.

“I think that the more interesting question is, what were they going to do with it in Pakistan?” Hill says. “Were they running guns? Were they running drugs? Were they running people? You could drive tanks in there.”

The prosecutor’s suspicions raise a litany of other issues regarding accountability and transparency in the increasingly privatized war on terror, including the extent of U.S. military intelligence involvement, the veil of secrecy enveloping de facto covert operations, the purposes of such clandestine actions and who ultimately is profiting from the expansion of the wars now being waged in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The covert nature of the aircraft’s mission and those involved in carrying it out would never have come to light if not for a dispute over a maintenance bill.

Victor Miller, owner of Air 1 Flight Services of Sherman, Texas, filed suit against Air Support Systems LLC in June 2009, alleging that the company owed more than $70,000 in maintenance fees accrued during the two-anda-half years the plane was mothballed at the North Texas Regional Airport. After the Ukrainian crew took off with the plane the next month, it was grounded in Michigan, as a result of a restraining order, before it could leave U.S. airspace.

The registered owner of the plane is Gary R. Fears, a former Downstate Illinois powerbroker who now resides in South Florida. Fears dismisses the imbroglio over the plane as much ado about nothing.

“The whole thing was a huge misunderstanding,” says the 63-year-old Fears, who maintains his corporate address at his lawyer’s office in St. Louis County, Missouri.

Gary Fears

The leaseholder of the plane is North American Tactical Aviation Inc. (NATA), a corporation with the same Wilmington, Delaware, address as Air Support Systems LLC, a Fears-owned company with one asset: the grounded plane. That the corporations share the same Delaware incorporation address could easily be attributed to coincidence, but bankruptcy records filed on behalf of Air Support Systems in St. Louis last fall provide more details as to who invested money in the aircraft or lent money for its purchase.

The outstanding creditors listed in the filing include a private mercenary group, a shadowy front company in Gibraltar and an Illinois gambling executive with alleged ties to the Chicago mob. On October 23, a judge in Marquette County, Michigan, ruled in Miller’s favor and awarded him the plane as payment for the unpaid debt. To prevent the tanker from being taken, Fears countered by filing for Chapter 11 protection for Air Support Systems on October 28 in federal bankruptcy court in St. Louis.

“That stayed all of the action,” says Hill, the Marquette County prosecutor. On Dec. 17, Fears reversed his legal strategy and had his St. Louis bankruptcy attorney dismiss the case he had filed less than two months earlier. In March, the Michigan court’s ruling was upheld.

The decision is the latest twist in the bizarre legal dispute. The latest Michigan court ruling follows a decision by the Department of Homeland Security to release the plane. Miller could not be reached for comment, but Fears maintains that he is still the legitimate owner.

Buying a foreign military aircraft is not like other business transactions. Before Fears could get his hands on the IL-78, the federal government had to allow its importation. North American Tactical Aviation, the shadowy corporation that leased the plane from Fears after he purchased it, initially obtained permission to bring the plane to the United States. It is also the company involved in the failed effort to fly the plane to Pakistan last summer.

“I’m told that NATA [North American Tactical Aviation] had a contract to take the plane to Pakistan in support of the allied efforts there,” Fears says. He emphasizes that the mission had been officially sanctioned. “We bought the plane from the Ukrainian government. The Air Force wrote a letter in support of the importation of it, saying they thought the plane had potential use in support of U.S. training requirements. The refueling system on that airplane is common to many, many other countries.

“I view it as a logical and good thing to support the [war] effort,” says Fears. “It’s not to say that I agree politically with all efforts. I thought the Iraq war had a noble purpose and was grossly mishandled by the Bush administration, billions of dollars and thousands of American lives wasted. It was as bad as Vietnam in terms of misuse of assets. I view Afghanistan as far more complicated a question than Iraq, and I don’t know what the right answers are there. I’m glad I’m not the guy making the decisions.”

Strange bedfellows

Nevertheless, while the wars rage on, Fears views the purchase of the Ukrainian military aircraft as a pragmatic business choice and sound investment. Though he says that the plane was a one-time deal and that he is not a broker of military hardware, records related to his abortive bankruptcy filing on behalf of Air Support Systems show that his acquisition of the plane was not carried out alone. Fears received venture capital from an international security firm operated by former high-ranking military officials. The records show that Trident Response Group of Dallas sank more than $2.5 million into Air Support Systems for the purchase of “future aircraft” on December 5, 2005. The Federal Aviation Administration issued Air Support Systems a certificate of registration for the IL-78 nine months later.

Clint Bruce

Former Navy SEAL Clint Bruce, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and businessman C. Dewey Elliott III founded TRG. Bruce is lauded on the Trident website as a past commander of SEAL platoons “engaged in direct support of the Global War on Terror.” Elliott, a fellow Annapolis alum, is listed as having been a “senior consultant with Washington and Boston-based firms where he supported intelligence, systems acquisitions and financial management for DoD [Department of Defense], Fortune 500 and multi-national clients.” The website shows Lt. Col. John B. Skinner III, an active Marine Corps Reserve officer, as TRG’s vice president of operations. The board of directors includes retired Marine Corps Gen. Jack Davis, a former federal agent and state law enforcement officer; and John W. Wroten, a Naval Academy grad, former Marine captain and retired vice president of Electronic Data Systems.

The involvement of former Navy personnel in backing the purchase of a military aircraft seems normal enough, but the other creditors come from widely divergent backgrounds.

Russell DeLeon

For instance, Headlands Ltd., a front company in Gibraltar, has more than $1.1 million tied up in the IL-78, according to the bankruptcy filing, By no small coincidence, Headlands’ address is in the same location as a mail drop for Russell De Leon. He is the husband of Ruth Parasol, the founder of PartyGaming, an online gambling company that has employed Fears’ lobbying services. Together De Leon and Parasol own 40 percent of PartyGaming. They reside in Gibraltar.

Parasol, who grew up in affluent Marin County, Calif., founded PartyGaming with profits from her family’s pornography business. Her father, Richard Parasol, a Holocaust survivor and former Israeli Army officer, opened a string of massage parlors in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in the early 1970s. After graduating from law school, Ruth Parasol joined the family business, which by then was operating phone sex chat lines. The father and daughter then diversified, investing in Internet Entertainment Group Ltd., an online pornography company. In 1997 Ruth Parasol shifted her interests exclusively to online gambling, which proved even more profitable than the sex trade.

Robert Kjellander

Robert Kjellander

But after President George W. Bush signed a law banning online gambling in 2006, Internet gaming profits took a nosedive. In response, PartyGaming hired Avatar Enterprises Inc., Fears’ lobbying firm. Lobbying records show that Avatar used influential Republican and Democratic lobbyists to work on PartyGaming’s efforts to lift the ban. The Republican, Robert Kjellander, an Illinois lobbyist and former GOP national treasurer, is a close confidante of former White House adviser Karl Rove. The Democrat, Steven Schwadron, is a former chief of staff for Rep. Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts.

Congressional lobbying records show Schwadron represented Avatar on two legislative issues: Internet gaming and “legislation relating to wildfire prevention and suppression.”

Aside from being a midair refueling tanker, the IL-78 is touted by both Fears and NATA as a superb firefighting aircraft.

Fears says there is nothing mysterious about his business relationship with either Kjellander or Schwadron. “I knew Bob (Kjellander) from Springfield years ago, [and] Steve works for a law firm I use in D.C.,” says Fears. “Neither one of them are partners in Avatar. If someone is giving you advice … on the project, then better to be safe than sorry — you register them as having worked on that as well.”

The other major creditor of Air Support Systems is Chicago businessman Kevin Flynn, a casino executive and former gaming partner of Fears. The bankruptcy filing shows that in April 2008 Flynn secured a $1.3 million interest in the IL-78. Fears and Flynn crossed paths years earlier, when Flynn operated the Blue Chip Casino in Indiana. The two were later involved in a failed Indian casino development in California.

In 2001, the Illinois Gaming Board yanked Flynn’s long-dormant state license because two of his investors allegedly had ties to the Chicago mob.

At the time of the revocation, Flynn and his father, Donald Flynn, a former executive of Waste Management Inc., were seeking to transfer their existing gaming license from the shuttered Silver Eagle casino in East Dubuque, Illinois, so they could operate the proposed Emerald Casino in Rosemont, a Chicago suburb. Investors in the casino deal included a lineup of heavy hitters, including associates of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

But the state gaming board pulled the Flynns’ license because investors Nick Boscarino and Joseph Salamone were alleged to have ties to organized crime. Salamone, an Oak Park grocer, is the brother of Vito Salamone, a mob soldier who had originally been listed as a casino shareholder. Boscarino is a former Teamster official with close ties to Rosemont Mayor Donald E. Stephens. Boscarino and Stephens once owned a forklift rental company along with organized crime figure William Daddano Jr. The gaming board also cited Emerald for hiring a construction company owned by the wife of Peter M. DiFronzo, the brother of Chicago mob boss John “No Nose” DiFronzo.

The gaming board concluded that Flynn had displayed a “contentious pattern … of providing misleading information to the board and its staff.” “Other than his disagreement with the Illinois Gaming Board,” says Fears, “I don’t know any infraction of any kind that Kevin [Flynn] has ever been involved in.”

Grounded

The story of how Fears and his odd cast of creditors ended up with a grounded Ukrainian behemoth leaking fuel on the tarmac of an isolated airstrip in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan began four years ago.

The IL-78, which was formerly owned by the Ukrainian Air Force, departed Kiev on May 23, 2006, according to flight records. It refueled in Reykjavik, Iceland, before landing the next day at the North Texas Regional Airport, formerly Perrin Air Force Base, in Sherman, Texas. Tactical Air Defense Services, a private military-related start-up company formed by Fears, ran the operational arm of its enterprise at the airport, says retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Charles Searock.

“It was, at the time, the location of a training school wherein we were going to train foreign pilots,” says Searock, a seasoned combat pilot who flew more than 150 B-52 missions during the Vietnam War. The principal officers of TADS, Victor Miller and Mark Daniels, had signed up Searock to oversee the International Tactical Training Center, an ambitious program aimed at providing flight training for NATO pilots and others. Miller also owned and operated Air 1 Flight Services, an aviation maintenance service, at the same airport.

Neither Miller or Daniels could be reached for comment, but a lawsuit filed by the two men last year in Palm Beach County (Florida) Circuit Court provides a glimpse of what apparently transpired.

In March 2005, according to the suit, Fears and a group of Florida investors approached Miller and Daniels to offer financing for their company AeroGroup Inc., a Utah-incorporated military flight training contractor. At that time, AeroGroup had a pending contract to buy the IL-78 and other foreign military aircraft from NATA.

Fears and the other investors claimed that they had obtained control of a publicly traded Nevada mining company, Natalma Industries Inc., and intended to change its name to Tactical Air Defense Services Inc. The intended purpose of the newly formed entity was to raise tens of millions of dollars to bankroll the purchase of assets on behalf of AeroGroup, specifically to buy the IL-78, according to the lawsuit. Toward these ends, Fears solicited start-up capital from Jeff Horan of JT Hanco, according to the lawsuit.

However, the suit claims, instead of backing AeroGroup Fears diverted funds to set up Air Support Systems, which then bought the IL-78 for itself. In Air Support’s 2009 bankruptcy filing, Horan’s name is listed with Trident Response Group, the Dallas-based security firm, as having invested more than $2.5 million in the IL-78.

Miller and Daniels further alleged that when TADS purchased AeroGroup’s assets in 2006 the Florida investors were still contending that tens of millions of dollars would soon be available. A TADS prospectus states that the company was angling to team up with an unnamed competitor [NATA] to provide combat and midair refueling training with the IL-78 and other foreign aircraft. “We have a good chance of being awarded the contract,” the TADS document says.

But the deal never materialized.

“This whole thing was predicated on Air Force contracts that were being negotiated by Mr. Mark Daniels,” says Searock. The contracts, however, were never finalized. As a result, “when they went public with TADS it did not generate the income or the investors as they anticipated,” Searock says.

From Searock’s perspective, everything seemed to be on the level. “We would meet quarterly, sometimes more often, with Mr. Fears and the guys from Florida,” he recalls. “We met in Florida. We met a couple times in Dallas, as he was passing through, and a couple times he came to Sherman. I had no problem with him. We were involved in a lot of different things, including the tanker. There was no reason for me to suspect that these guys weren’t on the up-and-up, if they poured $5 or $6 million into getting this airplane [the IL-78] and having it totally refurbished and delivered. That was an expensive scheme, if it was a scheme.”

But Searock became disenchanted with his employers after he says he shelled out his own cash to cover operating expenses and wasn’t reimbursed. He resigned from his position at the end of 2006 and sued TADS and all of the principal players, including Fears, for back pay.

Miller and Daniels dropped their Florida lawsuit in April 2009 after reaching a settlement agreement with Fears and other investors. As owner of Air 1 Flight Services, however, Miller placed a lien for unpaid service costs on the IL-78 in Texas in June 2009.

Shortly before noon on July 17, 2009, a nine-member Ukrainian crew hired by NATA boarded the IL-78 and took off from North Texas Regional Airport. The flight plan called for the craft to refuel at Wittman Regional Airport, in Oshkosh, Wis., before leaving U.S. airspace and heading to Pakistan. Alerted to the plane’s departure, Miller filed a restraining order, and the plane was diverted to Sawyer International Airport, in Gwinn, Mich., where it has been stranded ever since as a result of litigation.

Despite the Michigan court ruling that favors Miller’s cause, Fears doesn’t believe that the lawsuit has any more validity than the earlier case filed in Florida that Miller and his partner chose not to pursue.

“Air Support Systems owns the plane. It’s registered with the FAA,” says Fears. “The whole thing was a huge misunderstanding and blown out of proportion by the press. Victor Miller and those guys checked with the FAA, found where the plane was at and called the local authorities and said, ‘They have left in violation of a court order.’” But Fears says there’s one problem with that allegation: “ NATA was never served with that court order.”

Fears says Miller’s aviation firm, Air 1 Flight Services, has been out of business for two years. “I can show you the agreement that Victor Miller signed and the release on the lien that shows those bills’ being paid,” says Fears. “It was a phony claim by a company that didn’t exist.

“This is a military aircraft — and it is going over to support the U.S. Air Force allied efforts over there [Afghanistan-Pakistan].”

In 1968, as a young man, Fears stumped for Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Wisconsin, who campaigned against the Vietnam War. Today, more than four decades later, he appears comfortable with the concept of profiting from warfare. When asked about his role as a modern day privateer, he paraphrases President George W. Bush’s first secretary of defense: “I think maybe it was [Donald] Rumsfeld who said, ‘If it’s not firing a gun, we should look at privatizing it.’”

Asked whether his activities are somehow involved with covert CIA operations, Fears laughs. “Not that I’m aware of,” he says. “I wish there was something that exciting to all this stuff that I was a CIA guy, but that’s not the case.”

This special report was funded by a grant from the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis.

Spy vs. Spy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only The Shadow knows.

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

 

America’s Propaganda Mill

The origins of modern propaganda, which continues to support America’s endless wars, dates back to World War I and is joined at the hip with the creation of the public relations industry. 

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Aug. 21, 1991
by C.D. Stelzer

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“The Road to Baghdad,” one of many titles on display in the downtown Mercantile Library’s reading room, doesn’t chronicle the latest military conflict. Instead, this example of yellowing journalism — part of an exhibit called “Words at War” — details the Turkish conquest during World War I.

One of David Cassens’ first duties after becoming a curator ot the Mercantile five years ago was creating an annotated catalog of World War I ephemera. Included are 394 propaganda titles from the era, many with anti-German views expressed by the British, French and eventually American propagandists.

“These pamphlets were sent to libraries, churches, schools, private individuals, even Rotary Clubs,” says Cassens. The intent was to sway American public opinion, he says. Ultimately, the campaign succeeded.

Like all good propaganda, the tracts contained elements of truth, says Cassens: “Unrestricted submarine warfare, the destruction of historic towns and the deportation of civilian populations to Germany to work on the labor force — these are all things did happen.” Germany’s ally, Turkey was also responsible for the first modern holocaust: the murder of about 1.5 million Armenians, says Cassens.

Despite all of this, before the Unites States joined in the allied effort, many influential members of the large German-American community in St. Louis argued for neutrality. Former library staffers recall German patrons objected to the material, Cassens says. So most of it was discreetly shelved and went unread.

Ignoring wartime hysteria didn’t make it go away. Germans were being stereotyped in the European propaganda as barbarous Huns. As the United States became drawn into the conflict, anti-German propaganda began to flourish here as well. One pamphlet, part of a “Patriotism Through Educations Series” issued by the National Security League, was called “The Tentacles of the German Octopus in America.” Written by a librarian and professor of history at the University of Syracuse University, it warned about German schools, churches, cultural societies and newspapers.

Another pamphlet, published by the U.S. government in cooperation with the St. Louis Republic, a daily newspaper, attributed all wartime rumors to German spies. The tract, titled “The Kaiserite in America: One Hundred and One German Lies,” implored traveling salesmen to report the identities of gossipmongers to the Committee on Public Information in Washington, D.C.

“You have met him, Mr. Commerical Traveler, … The agents of the Imperial German Government are busily spreading throughout the country all sorts of poisonous lies and disquieting rumors and insidious criticisms of the Government and its war-work. And in no place have they been busier than in tyhe Pullman smoking cars and the hotel lobbies.”

Mass paranoia bore its consequences. Cassens’ own great-grandparents, who immigrated from Germany, lived in Galanbeck, Ill. During the war, he says, the town’s name was changed to Hamel.

Assimilation had become a matter of survival for millions of German-Americans. Many were forced to kiss the American flag or sing the national anthem as a demonstration of allegiance. Those who chose to retain their ethnic identities or expressed divergent poliital views risked intimidation, jaile and even death. Armed guards patrolled the entrance to the nearby German settlement of Maeystown, Ill. for a brief time during World War I, says local historian Gloria Bundy. The sentries were posted in response to vigilantes from Williamson County whbo had threatened to abduct the Rev. Paul Schultz, the town’s minister for conducting services in German.

In St. Louis, Charles H. Weisberg, head of the German American Alliance in Missouri, was indicted on charges of violating the newly enacted Espionage Act for allegedly making disloyal remarks to two St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters. Although he was later acquitted, Weisberg’s organization dissolved because of the war hysteria.

The most tragic result of doughboy jingoism came just after midnight on April 5, 1918, when a drunken Collinsville, Ill. mob lynched Robert Paul Prager, a German immigrant and socialist whom they suspected of being a spy.

Words at War is on public display in the Mercantile Library reading room (on the sixth floor of the Boatmen’s Bank building, 510 Locust St.) through Sept. 8. Library hours are 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturday. A booklet describing the exhibition is for sale, and Cassens will give a tour and lecture on Wednesday, Aug. 28 at 5 p.m. For reservations, call 621-0670.

When Security Itself Becomes a Threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

G4S now owns it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They already know better.

 

 

To Russia with Love

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Mayor’s Partner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Secret Biological Intelligence Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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G. Tracy Meehan III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lt. Gen. James Clapper

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

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

A Different Kind of Fire

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

BY C.D. STELZER

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’.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

When C.D. Stelzer called the Department of Energy’s FUSRAP office back in 1997, a secretary for a private company answered the phone, two corporate managers acted as mouthpieces for the government, and the DOE official in charge had gone elk hunting.

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First published in The Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Dec. 3, 1997

IT’S SHIFT CHANGE on Friday afternoon at the Boeing Aircraft plant north of Lambert Field, and workers are fleeing in droves, streaming bumper-to-bumper down McDonnell Boulevard, oblivious to the narrow, 21.7-acre piece of real estate next to the thoroughfare. Until recently, this barren stretch of earth offered little to see besides an abundance of weeds surrounded by a rusty cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. In late September, however, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) began rearranging the landscape on the property. From the shoulder of the road, where it crosses Coldwater Creek, a yellow bulldozer and backhoe can now be seen parked near a plywood wall extending across the top of the steep embankment leading down to the creek bed.

It’s hard to tell, at a glance, that the work in progress here is part of an overall federal project estimated to cost nearly $800 million. Ordinary building materials — bales of straw, rocks and plastic sheeting — create a setting common to construction sites. But this is no ordinary erosion-control action. Soil at this location, known in regulatory circles as SLAPS (St. Louis airport site), harbors deadly byproducts of the nuclear-weapons industry, which developed during World War II and mushroomed in the Cold War. From 1946 until the mid-1960s, the U.S. Army — and, later, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) — dumped hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of radioactive waste, residue from uranium processing at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis.

As a consequence, the acreage, which is now owned by the St. Louis Airport Authority, has been contaminated with increased levels of uranium-238, radium-226 and thorium-230, according to the DOE. This is no new discovery, of course. Official foot-dragging has been going on for decades. More than 20 years ago the DOE discovered that contaminants had migrated into ditches next to McDonnell Boulevard, where they have settled only inches from the surface. There are still no signs to warn passersby or curious onlookers of this danger.

Failure to inform the public and act in a timely manner has been the hallmark of this case. At the same time, public-health officials have consistently downplayed or ignored the potential health consequences of radiation exposure. After allowing the waste to spread for more than 50 years, the federal government is now belatedly rushing to deal with the problem in a fashion comparable to its past negligence. In the process, rules have been sidestepped and decisions made without a full understanding of their implications. The powers-that-be first attempted to keep the problem a secret, after World War II, for “national-security reasons.” By the late 1970s, however, the festering pollution had become a heated public issue.

The waste itself has proven even more difficult to contain than the controversy over it.

COLDWATER CREEK, which is next to the site, flows through a large section of North St. Louis County and has acted as a convenient vehicle to transport the toxic materials. So far, radioactive contaminants are known to have hitched a ride downstream more than seven miles, according to the DOE. And the migration is continuing. Tests conducted in late 1994 show stormwater runoff at the location still exceeding acceptable radiation levels set by the agency. Drinking-water intakes for the city of St. Louis are located several miles downstream from the site, on the Mississippi River at Chain of Rocks. The radioactive migration by way of groundwater has also been confirmed but is less well understood.

For years, the DOE claimed the waste presented no danger. But the scientific community, which has been moving much more slowly than the waste, has finally concluded that no safe level of radiation exposure exists. By the time this decision was made several years ago, it was also widely accepted that one direct effect of long-term exposure to low-level radiation is cancer.

The $8.3 million cleanup along Coldwater Creek is the first stage of the long-anticipated project. The initial phase involves removing at least 6,000 cubic yards of the contaminated soil to a licensed repository for low-level radioactive waste, located in Utah. The amount is only a small fraction of the contaminated materials that may ultimately be excavated and shipped from the site. The approximate completion date: 2004.

But the entire project now stands in bureaucratic limbo. Less than a month after the DOE started working at the airport site, Congress transferred authority for the cleanup to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The change came about as a part of the latest Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, signed into law by the president in October. Under the legislation, the corps will be handed the remainder of the $5 million already allocated to the DOE for this fiscal year to shore up the small section of Coldwater Creek. The money is in addition to the $140 million appropriation for 1998 that continues funding a nationwide cleanup of low-level radioactive-waste sites. The act also stipulates that the corps must conduct a three-month assessment of the Formerly Utilized Sites Remediation Action Program (FUSRAP), the federal aegis under which the airport site falls.

For the time being, the cleanup of Coldwater Creek is expected to continue uninterrupted, according to David Leake, project manager for the corps. “Congress has made it fairly clear that they do not want the transfer to result in any delay,” says Leake. This pragmatic strategy, however, locks the corps into adopting some of the DOE’s prior policies and practices, many of which have fallen into question in the past.

R. Roger Pryor, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, says the corps isn’t carrying the same baggage as the DOE. “I feel the corps doesn’t have the past bias that nuclear waste is somehow good for you,” says Pryor. “However, changing horses in midstream is difficult.”

Even though the airport site is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Priorities List (NPL), the DOE, through a regulatory loophole, was allowed to proceed with the Coldwater Creek excavation without formulating any long-range cleanup plan for the entire site. Furthermore, the DOE’s interim plan admits the area now being dug up may have to undergo remediation again sometime in the future. In other words, the current work is at best a stopgap measure. The project may also leave some radioactive contaminants behind because the excavation doesn’t go deep enough. In addition, the DOE started working on the site before a hydrogeological study, which it commissioned, had been completed. A previous hydrogeological study, published last year, cautioned that the groundwater system underneath the site was not clearly understood. The panel of experts concurred that implementation of any excavation work would necessitate further site characterization.

Specifically, the panel, which comprised government and industry scientists, warned of the existence of large volumes of radioactive contamination in the middle of the 21.7-acre site. The location of those contaminants is uphill from the current excavation work. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to figure out
that water rolls downhill. By beginning the cleanup at the low end of the site, the DOE hoped to create a buffer that would stop or at least slow the migration of the radioactive pollutants into the creek. But by starting at this point, the department admittedly risks re-contaminating the area it has chosen to clean up. Sheet erosion from rainfall will continue to allow contaminants to move toward the creek. Groundwater will head in the same general direction. Indeed, the subterranean currents may circumvent the DOE’s efforts altogether because, according to the experts, the hydrogeological structure beneath the site pushes groundwater both north and west under McDonnell Boulevard.

“I’m delighted that they are beginning to clean up the airport site,” says Kay Drey, an environmental activist from University City. “But they’re not doing it safely.” Drey, who fought for the cleanup for years, resigned from the project’s oversight committee on Sept. 18 (see accompanying story). In her resignation letter to St. Louis County Executive George “Buzz” Westfall, she expressed disapproval of the DOE’s interim plan, citing what she considers to be inadequate precautions. Before her resignation, she had submitted a detailed eight-page critique of the DOE’s plan. To date, she has received no answers to her questions.

FROM THE MCDONNELL Boulevard bridge, the turbid waters of Coldwater Creek are visible, flowing past chunks of concrete debris and swirling around a white plastic lawn chair marooned midstream. It is a typical suburban scene, a once-pristine waterway relegated to carrying sewage. Coldwater Creek carries other pollutants, too: Jet fuel from nearby Lambert Field has found its way into the watershed, as have salt, oil and automotive antifreeze, according to a DOE assessment. Another pollutant in the surface water is trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen. No one is certain of the long-term effects of such mixed waste on the environment or human health. It is also unknown how the chemical stew affects the migration of radioactive contaminants in surface and groundwater.

In essence, the airport site is a very large experiment with few scientific controls attached.

On the basis of data provided to it by cleanup-site contractors, last year’s hydrogeological panel decided contamination levels at the site would not pose an imminent risk for the next 100 years, an arbitrary figure imposed by the DOE’s guidelines. Yet some radioactive isotopes already discovered in ground and surface water at the site will last for hundreds of thousands of years. Although it downplayed the risks over the next century, the panel nevertheless concluded it would be inappropriate to use the site for long-term storage and repeatedly stated that many questions about the hydrology of the area remain a mystery.

Seepage of radioactivity into groundwater is by no means unique to St. Louis. Last week, the DOE formally admitted that the aquifer underlying the 560-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state has been contaminated. The radioactive waste, which is moving toward the Columbia River, is the result of 40 years of plutonium production at the site. The DOE, which long denied that groundwater contamination existed at Hanford, now claims the Columbia will not be threatened for the proverbial 100 years. However, the independent scientific analysis that forced the DOE to confess to the groundwater contamination calls the DOE’s estimates on risks to the river “unreliable.”

Tom Aley, a hydrologist who sat on the panel that studied the St. Louis airport site, is sure of one thing: The waste should have never been dumped here in the first place. Similar to Hanford, the waste here is situated on top of an aquifer. “It is a very poor site for disposal of that type,” says Aley, who owns Ozark Underground Laboratory Inc. Aley lists population density, groundwater contamination and the proximity of the site to Coldwater Creek as reasons not to store radioactive waste at the airport site.

His tempered approval of the cleanup is based in part on the lack of groundwater use in the area. However, Aley concedes there is much yet to be learned. “We don’t really have a good understanding of the vertical contamination,” he says. “The waste was deposited in a very haphazard manner, which was typical of that era. That has made cleanup very difficult. Another thing is, you can never totally clean up a site. A lot of these cleanups are real bootstrap operations. You have to pull one boot up, and then you have to pull the other up.”

The emperor may have buckled his boots, but he is without clothes. In short, no plan exists as to how to proceed with the remainder of the cleanup. Indeed, according to details of the DOE’s interim action, the current $8.3 million creek cleanup may ultimately have to be redone. The DOE’s engineering evaluation/cost analysis clearly states: “Although final clean-up criteria have not been established for this site, it is anticipated that the majority of the area cleaned up by this action will not require additional effort. However, final clean-up criteria, once selected, could require additional efforts in areas excavated in this removal action.”

Although the DOE acknowledges contamination at the site extends at least 18 feet deep, its interim plan requires digging only “eight to 10 feet below the existing land surface,” according to a Federal Register notice published in September. The DOE also acknowledges that “soil contaminated with radionuclides is present below (the) water table.” If contaminated groundwater is encountered during the dig, the DOE’s interim plan calls for it to be pumped onto high ground, which means it will re-enter the aquifer or run back downhill, toward the creek.

To battle this inevitable gravitational pull, the DOE has built a berm to separate the excavation work from the rest of the site. The interim action also calls for a channel to be constructed to reroute stormwater away from the roadside ditch that drains into the creek. In 1985, the DOE constructed a gabion wall — rocks secured by a wire basket — to hold the bank from sliding into the creek. It is a porous structure that by design allows water to percolate through. Whereas the effectiveness of these measures is subject to debate, there is no argument that radioactive sediments can still move downward into the aquifer and flow northwest under McDonnell Boulevard, thereby entering the creek unimpeded.

The hydrogeological study from last year warned about this possibility. “Groundwater monitoring has shown the migration of radionuclides in the direction of groundwater flow across McDonnell Boulevard and under the formerly used ball fields property to the north,” according to the study. “This factor raises concern over potential shallow discharge of radionuclides to Coldwater Creek to the west and north and potential vertical migration to the lower aquifer system.”

Three thousand people live within a one-mile radius of the airport site, according to DOE estimates. From the airport, Coldwater Creek flows northeast for 15 miles, touching the communities of Berkeley, Hazelwood, Florissant and Black Jack before discharging into the Missouri River. The city of St. Louis drinking-water intakes at Chain of Rocks, which supply water to hundreds of thousands of people, are five miles downstream from where the Missouri joins the Mississippi.

By any standard it is a densely populated watershed. DOE guidelines for thorium and radium concentrations mandate they not exceed 5 picocuries per gram averaged over the first 15 centimeters of soil and 15 picocuries per gram in subsequent soil layers of the same thickness. Analysis conducted for DOE in 1985 indicates that soil next to Coldwater Creek is contaminated with as much as 14,000 picocuries of thorium-230 per gram. The naturally occurring background level for the same radioactive isotope amounts to 0.2 picocuries per gram.

The corresponding guideline for acceptable DOE levels of uranium-238, which is also found at the airport site, is 50 picocuries per gram. In 1981, DOE initiated a two-year groundwater-monitoring program at the site and discovered uranium-238 at concentrations up to 2,230 picocuries per gram. Other evidence shows radioactive waste is spread across the site at levels thousands of times greater than considered acceptable.

A curie is the amount of radiation emitted from one gram of radium, equal to 37 billion decays per second. A picocurie equals a trillionth of a curie. Curies are used to measure the amount of material present; they don’t indicate the amount of radiation given off or its biological hazards.

Such DOE standards ignore potential health consequences, according to a 1991 congressional study. “The present regulatory-driven approach … places far more emphasis on characterizing the contamination than on investigating health impacts and may prove ill-suited to identifying public health concerns, evaluating contamination scenarios according to their potential for adverse health effects, or establishing health-based clean-up priorities,” the Office of Technology Assessment report states.

JOHN W. GOFMAN, a professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, has long contended that there is no safe level of radiation exposure. “I concluded it’s impossible for such a level to exist given the evidence on how radiation works,” says Gofman. The term “low-level radiation” is a political term used by the nuclear industry to lull the public into accepting exposure risks, he says. Similar phrases also downplay the consequences. “The terms `tolerance level,’ `allowable level,’ `permissible dose’ — those are all phenomenal words that are supposed to tell Joe Six-Pack, `Nothing to worry about — there ain’t no harm.’ That’s why these terms came into existence,” he asserts.

The 79-year-old Gofman is in a unique position to advise on such matters because he is a physician and holds a doctorate in nuclear physical chemistry. His research at Berkeley during World War II attracted the attention of J. Robert Oppenheimer, lead scientist in the Manhattan Project. After working on the atomic bomb at Oppenheimer’s request, Gofman completed his medical studies. But in 1969, Gofman fell from grace with the atomic establishment when he challenged the “acceptable” levels of radiation exposure then allowed.

After being ostracized by the atomic establishment for years, Gofman’s scientific opinions have been widely accepted of late. In 1990, for instance, after years of debate by U.S. scientists, a report by the fifth conference on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR V) concluded that radiation effects are proportional to dose in all cases. More recently, says Gofman, “The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation said that the weight of evidence comes down on the side of no safe level. And the British National Radiological Protection Board in 1995 published a document in which they have now said that there can be no safe dose.”

Studies such as these lead Drey, the environmentalist, to question the logic of allowing further radioactive contamination to flow into Coldwater Creek. “Dilution is not the solution to pollution in reality or legally,” says Drey. “When you are dealing with materials that will continue to give off radioactive particles forever into the future, literally billions of years, you have to be very careful with this stuff.”

THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME Drey has opposed a DOE project. In 1993, she battled the department’s plans to clean up radioactive waste at nearby Weldon Spring in St. Charles County (“Rushing Water,” RFT,Jan. 6, 1993). Her vigilance then temporarily delayed that project, after she exposed the fact that the DOE was going ahead before receiving critical EPA test results.

Stephen H. McCracken, who headed the Weldon Spring cleanup, took over as St. Louis airport-site manager for the DOE earlier this year. Although the circumstances and nature of the radioactive waste may be different at the airport site, McCracken’s job switch hasn’t seemed to have affected his ability to circumvent government guidelines. If anything, the DOE official’s evasive end-runs appear to have improved over time.

Pryor, of the Coalition for the Environment, recalls that the decision was railroaded past the citizens oversight committee on which he sits. “We had hardly seen this darn thing,” says Pryor of the recommendation to proceed with work along the creek. “When we asked McCracken in September, he admitted it was just a guess,” says Pryor, referring to the point at which the DOE decided to begin excavating. The measure squeaked past the committee on a 4-3 vote. “We thought it was silly to go forward without the geological study,” says Pryor.

On Sept. 18, the day Drey resigned, McCracken signed a memorandum, which was immediately filed away. The memo cites an emergency clause that allowed him to waive the DOE’s standard 15-day public-review period for such actions. Sept. 18 also just happened to be the day DOE issued its “Flood-plain Statement of Findings” in the Federal Register. The purpose of the posting was to notify individuals and other government agencies of the pending action at the airport site so they could scrutinize the plan in advance. The notice clearly states: “DOE will endeavor to allow 15 days of public review after publication of the statement of findings before implementation of the proposed action.”

Four days later, on Sept. 22, work began at the St. Louis airport site.

Every conceivable government agency — local, state and federal — was left out of the loop. Even the DOE official who has oversight into such matters said he was unaware the emergency clause had been invoked. “I suppose you’d have to ask Steve McCracken about that,” drawled James L. Elmore, a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance officer for the DOE in Oak Ridge, Tenn. “I don’t have anything to do with that. You’d really have to ask him exactly what his total thought process was.” Despite his ignorance, Elmore’s name appears on the bottom line of the Sept. 18 Federal Register notice.

The RFT could not initially reach McCracken to explore his “thought process,” because, according to the secretary at the DOE site office, he was elk hunting in Colorado. After returning from his expedition, the DOE manager still did not return repeated calls placed to his office for a week. In his Sept. 18 waiver memo, however, McCracken wrote he had expedited the cleanup out of concern that autumn rainfall would make excavating near the creek more difficult. Come hell or high water, McCracken is expected to continue working at the site, at least during the transition period.

The airport site is on the Superfund’s NPL list, according to Dan Wall at the EPA regional headquarters in Kansas City. Because of its priority status, the agency is obliged to oversee the cleanup, he says. But it appears the contractors are more in control of the project than anybody else.

Calls placed to the DOE’s site office in St. Louis are answered by the cheerful voice of Edna, a secretary who works for Bechtel National Inc., one of the DOE’s prime cleanup contractors. She takes messages for McCracken and his assistant. In this case, she took messages for nearly two weeks, and for nearly two weeks the calls went unreturned. Finally, representatives for the DOE’s two prime contractors called back.

A secretary for a private company answers the phone at a government office, two corporate managers act as the mouthpieces for a government project, and the government official who is supposed to be in charge is elk hunting. This gives the appearance that the tail is wagging the dog. That may soon change under the new leadership of the corps. “The corps and the DOE operate somewhat differently,” says Leake. “The DOE will put very few people on a particular program and rely heavily on large national contractors to do a lot of the things that the Corps of Engineers try to do internally.”

The change in management styles will affect all of FUSRAP, which originated in 1974 under the AEC, the predecessor of the DOE. AEC established FUSRAP to deal with radioactive waste produced as a byproduct of nuclear-weapons production. Of the 46 FUSRAP sites across the country, 25 have been cleaned up, according to the DOE. Four remaining radioactive hotbeds are in the St. Louis area, with the airport site the largest.

In St. Louis and elsewhere, the DOE has relied on the expertise of Bechtel and Science Applications International Corp. to carry out its mission.

Wayne Johnson, the deputy project manager for Bechtel in St. Louis, is certain the cleanup next to Coldwater Creek is being carried out safely. “These measures have been monitored by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which has had representatives on the site routinely to look at our operations to make sure that we are not affecting the creek. In addition to that, St. Louis County, which has advised us on our plans for the work, has been out to the site,” says Johnson. “So we feel confident, and we are more than halfway done. We have not had any problems or affected the creek in any way.”

Ric Cavanagh of the St. Louis County Health Department, who chairs the citizens oversight commission, agrees with Johnson’s assessment. “I’m not a lawyer, but it is my understanding that they (the DOE) did make use of a provision in the rules to move forward. The majority of the oversight committee voted in favor of proceeding with the work,” says Cavanaugh. “We are purely advisory. We couldn’t have stopped it if we wanted to. The groundwater levels were very low at the time, and this was a very good time to get things going. (St. Louis County’s) goal was to get excavation begun and to get work begun at that site. So we were pleased to have it go from that standpoint.”

The oversight committee currently has 11 members — five from the city of St. Louis and six from St. Louis County. One seat remains vacant at this time. The board replaces an advisory task force that disbanded last year.

AT ONE TIME, workers toiled night and day to dump the radioactive waste at the airport site. The open pile rose to 20 feet above ground level, according to one DOE document. Altogether the accumulated waste at the site and elsewhere nearby is estimated to have once ranged from 283,700 to 474,000 cubic yards, according to the DOE. In additional to open dumping, Mallinckrodt workers were required to hand-pack waste in 30- or 55-gallon drums. The drums were then stacked on top of each other at the airport site. The barrels then began to leak.

In the process of storing the waste, haul routes and adjacent properties became contaminated. Then in 1966, the AEC sold most of the residues to Continental Mining and Milling Co, which promptly transported the waste to 9200 Latty Ave. in Hazelwood and then went bankrupt. The movement resulted in the contamination of more properties. Cotter Corp., a subsidiary of Commonwealth Edison, subsequently acquired the materials, with an eye toward reclaiming some of the minerals. The bulk of it ended up in Canon City, Colo., but not before one of Cotter’s subcontractors dumped thousands of tons of the waste in the West Lake landfill off Old St. Charles Rock Road in North St. Louis County.

More than 50 years after it started, the uranium-processing operation conducted at Mallinckrodt in St. Louis has forced almost $800 million in reparations on U.S. taxpayers — the cost of cleaning up the radioactive vestiges of World War II and the arms race that followed. To the victors go the spoils. It is a small part of the environmental damage wrought by the federal government and the nuclear-weapons industry over the last half-century — damage estimated to cost $200 billion to correct. What can never be measured are the lives cut short because of radiation exposure. Men have been tried for war crimes that did far less.