superfund

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.

 

 

The Cayman Connection

Republic Services claims no environmental woes to snare a billion-dollar-plus loan with the help of its offshore insurer. 

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Republic Services, owner of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill in St. Louis County, scored a $1.2 billion loan from a consortium of the world’s largest banks in 2014 by assuring its lenders that the company had no environmental problems that would effect its bottom line, StlReporter has learned.

Under the terms of the agreement signed on June 30, 2014, Republic claims that “existing environmental laws and existing environmental claims” could not reasonably be expected to a have a  “material adverse effect” on the company’s operations.  “Material adverse effect” is defined in the agreement as being a change that would negatively impact “operations, business, properties, assets or conditions, financial or otherwise, of the borrower and its subsidiaries taken as a whole.”

“No Problemo”

The assurances that the company has no notable environmental headaches came despite public controversy surrounding the environmental and health hazards posed by the company’s West Lake property, an EPA Superfund site, and corresponding calls for the buyout of nearby homeowners.

To qualify for the 2014 loan, the banks required Republic to assume liability for potential environmental issues and indemnify them against claims. Republic complied to the terms by designating an offshore subsidiary — the Bom Ambiente Insurance Co. of the Cayman Islands — as the company’s insurer. Unlike most of its other subsidiaries Bom Ambiente is exempted from the terms of the loan agreement.

Aon Insurance Management, a leading captive and reinsurance company, represents Bom Ambiente Insurance through its offices in the Cayman Islands, which are located in the same posh office building as a major offshore law firm.

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Spokespersons for Republic and Aon declined to comment.

So-called “captive insurance” companies are set up by their parent corporations as a means of providing affordable risk management services based on the concept of self insurance. Many risk-prone businesses locate their in-house insurance operations in the Cayman Islands to take advantage of favorable governmental regulations and the absence of income and capital gains taxes.

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Republic Services,  one of three parties liable for the EPA-mandated cleanup, opposes removing the West Lake waste. Instead, the company favors the terms of the original 2008 record of decision calling for capping the materials in place. That proposal is being reconsidered due to public opposition.  The cost of removal is estimated at $400 million or ten times the original plan.  But there seems to be more riding on the final decision than the cost of the clean up.

The future of the company may be at stake.

The banks that signed off on the five-year loan are among the most prominent financial institutions in the world. They include: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Barclays, BNP Paribas, Union Bank and SunTrust. Bank of the America, the lead lender, has committed $87 million.

The loan agreement spells out how Republic can borrow the money over the course of the agreement through regular loans, advances on credit, or so-called, short-term “swing-line” loans. The agreement does not stipulate the purposes for which the Republic uses the borrowed money. But Bridgeton Landfill and Rock Road Industries, two Republic Services-owned companies connected to the troubled West Lake property, are among the hundreds of Republic subsidiaries that are a party to the loan agreement.

In Schedule 5.12 of the loan agreement, Republic says it has no issues to report related to environmental matters. But the company’s February 2016 Security and Exchange Commission 10-K report discloses that for 2014 Republic accrued more than $227 million in costs coping with environmental matters at its troubled West Lake property.

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In short, the company readily acknowledged the high cost of addressing environmental matters at West Lake to the SEC earlier this year, but denied any problems would have a “material adverse effect” in paying back its debt in the 2014 loan agreement. To do otherwise would be a breach of the loan agreement and could be considered a default.

A Slow-Motion Train Wreck

Republic Services acquired the environmentally-troubled Bridgeton and West Lake Landfills in 2008 when it merged with Allied Waste Services. The impacted landfills are now closed, but Republic continues to operate a transfer station at the same location, which has been an EPA Superfund site since 1990.

The history of radioactive contamination at West Lake dates back to 1973, when the waste was illegally dumped. Federal, state and local regulatory authorities have been aware of the problem for more than 40 years, but failed to act.

The inaction made matters worse.

In December 2010, Republic told the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that an underground fire was burning at the Bridgeton Landfill, which is directly next to the West Lake Landfill and part of the same Superfund site. The stench from the fire raised dormant public concerns.

By February 2013, MDNR had cited Republic for noxious odors. The next month the Missouri Attorney General sued the company for violations of state environmental laws. That case is still pending. A negotiated agreement between the state and Republic Services to build a barrier to stop the fire from advancing closer to the radioactive waste is also stalled, as is federal legislation that would hand the cleanup over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

During these delays, the fire has moved closer to the radioactive material.

Meantime, the MDNR and the EPA have confirmed that radioactive materials are known to have migrated off site, further contaminating air, soil and water. Private lawsuits have also been filed against the company.

To those unfamiliar with the world of high finance, the reporting discrepancies and ongoing issues at West Lake would seem enough to raise eyebrows among Republic’s individual and institutional investors, including  firms tied to billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

But that hasn’t happened.

Apparently, Republic’s word is its bond among stock market traders. From a business perspective, environmental stewardship and standard accounting practices are based on the letter of the law. West Lake be damned. After all, the five-year, $1.2 billion loan is a fraction of  Republic’s long-term debt, which stands at $7.5 billion and counting.

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Taking Care of Business

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When the DNR declared an emergency at the smoldering Bridgeton Landfill in 2013, the state agency skirted its formal bidding process, an out-of-state firm scored a sweet deal and the public was left none the wiser.

On March 18, 2013, environmental specialist Dan Norris and his boss Brenda Ardrey of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources quietly submitted a memorandum to Procurement of Services File RFP 3445-001. The memo shows that the department did not receive any bids that complied with the agency’s standards for air sampling services at the Bridgeton Landfill, where an underground fire has been burning near radioactive waste since 2010.

Nevertheless, a six-figure contract was awarded to SWAPE, an environmental firm from Santa Monica, Calif. The acronym stands for Soil Water Air Protection Enterprise. SWAPE, acting as a middle man, then hired a St. Louis-based subcontractor.  The paper trail indicates no complete bids were received even after the DNR extended the deadlines by more than two weeks. The DNR guidelines normally require a minimum of three competitive bids. Two companies ultimately proposed deficient offers. By its own admission, the DNR awarded the plum to one of those companies based on an incomplete proposal. The DNR was able to skirt its normal protocols by invoking an emergency clause in its procurement process.

“Essentially, there was a response to the bid, it just wasn’t complete,” says Norris, who recently left his job with the state regulatory agency.  “It was missing a couple things as far as the response to the actual form,” he adds. “DNR had not dealt with an event quite like this before. It’s not like there was just a playbook to go off of for sampling air around a smoldering landfill, at least not a playbook that Missouri had. “We were told to waste no time whatsoever on getting a contractor and getting boots on the ground out there to begin the air sampling. It was not the kind of thing that we wanted to hold up for administrative purposes. That’s why in early 2013 it was contracted out,” he says.

Finding an environmental company then willing to challenge the interests of waste industry behemoth Republic Services, the landfill owner, appears to have been a difficult task for the DNR, according to public records obtained by StLReporter.  So the agency turned to a trusted consultant to act as its de facto headhunter. The consultant contacted industry sources and ultimately recommended SWAPE. After getting the nod, SWAPE quickly lined up a subcontractor in St. Louis to do part of the work.  Nobody involved in the deal will talk about it openly, citing contractual obligations.

When asked how the DNR first became aware of an environmental firm on the West Coast, Norris says: “I can’t comment on how we came to know SWAPE.” The two-year-old memo he co-signed indicates the firm was recommended by another contractor. Speaking from an undisclosed location by phone he also refused to talk about the price tag of the emergency air-monitoring contract. “I can’t comment on payment or billing or anything like that.”

Following an-age-old American custom, Norris has moved out West. He now lives in the Rocky Mountain Time Zone. He prefers not to divulge exactly where. Norris has exited Jeff City. But questions swirling around his leave-taking still plague his former agency like a bad case of the winter flu.

A Letter from Dan

Dan Norris - DNR State ID card

Dan Norris – MDNR State ID card

Early last month, Norris wrote a broadside, condemning the agency for its cozy relationship with Republic,  the company responsible for the site in North St. Louis County that is the location of a pair defunct landfills: one that’s smoldering and the other that contains radioactive waste dating back to the Manhattan Project.  The two adjacent dumps are both part of a long-delayed  Environmental Protection Agency Superfund clean-up site. In his parting shot, the former DNR staffer alleged that politics unduly influences regulatory decisions within the state agency, and that DNR employees are under the gun not to talk about it. The revelations have caused a stir inside and outside of the DNR.

Activists and community members familiar with the situation tend to agree with the whistleblower’s assessment, seeing Republic–the second largest waste hauler in the United States — as their foe. They point to Bill Gates’ stake in the company as evidence of the power that it wields. They allude to the company’s checkered environmental record elsewhere, including another smoldering landfill fire in Ohio. They also agree with Norris’ contention that Republic’s generous campaign contributions have swayed state lawmakers.                           

In that sense, it is not what Norris revealed that is relevant so much as the act itself. He broke the code of silence inside a department that in recent years has operated more like the CIA than a state environmental regulatory agency. Unfortunately, Norris’ criticisms of the DNR  are vague, and his complaints raise more questions than answers. His account of agency wrongdoing is sketchy. He lays blame but buttons up when asked for details.

Under prevailing rules, DNR has been assigned the responsibility of containing an underground fire and reducing the noxious odors at the Bridgeton Landfill. The state maintains that Republic is liable for the expense of the emergency air sampling costs, but it’s unclear whether the company has ponied up. Reached at his office in Washington, D.C., Republic spokesman Russ Knocke was unaware of the contract and said he would have to do some homework to determine whether the state has been reimbursed.

The radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill next door is the bailiwick of the federal EPA. As the two bureaucracies advance their separate agendas at a glacial pace, the fire is heading in the direction of the nuclear materials.

In Norris’ absence, the status of the clean up has become more uncertain than ever. The building of a state mandated barrier to stop the fire from advancing has been indefinitely delayed.  In the interim, doubts mount, finger pointing increases, and nobody seems in control. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster recently expedited the state’s case against Republic for violations filed two years ago, but there is no sign of a settlement. If anything, the company shows indications of being even more resistant to DNR’s appeals. Meanwhile, the activists are stepping up their calls for Gov. Jay Nixon to take action.

From outside DNR’s closed doors, the scenario seems bleak. There would appear to be no winners. However, department documents and correspondence show one group consistently benefits from the intractable predicament — outside contractors.

A Quiet State of Emergency

Norris says he met DNR contractor Todd Thalhamer in 2008 at a training seminar. For the last several years, Thalhamer has given talks on landfill fires sponsored by Stark Consultants Inc., which is owned by Tim Stark, another DNR contractor. Thalhamer moonlights as a consultant, too, and owns Hammer Consulting Service in El Dorado, Calif. He works full-time as an environmental engineer for the state of California and is a firefighter in the El Dorado Volunteer Fire Department. Thalhamer received a bachelor’s degree in environmental resources engineering from Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. in 1992. His five-page resume indicates he worked on his first landfill fire in Sacramento County the same year he graduated from college.  He has been under contract as a landfill fire expert for the DNR for the last four years.

Reached by phone in California, Thalhamer says the reason the DNR retains his services is because he has a unique skill set. “The only other individual that I’m aware of that has my expertise is a colleague of mine in British Columbia, and he’s outside the United States,” says Thalhamer. “I have a very unique background. I’m a fireman [and] a registered civil engineer. I do environmental emergency response in California and with EPA,” he says. “I’m one of the guys who trains the landfill owners and operators throughout the United States. My name is known in the industry.”

“Once DNR got Todd Thalhamer on contract,” says Norris, “Todd was able to inform us about certain things that we needed to be watching as far as the gas extraction well field, [and] additional data that we should be tracking.” Besides Norris, the team included two other DNR staffers, consultants Thalhamer and Stark and, a graduate student. “We tracked the landfill gas data from that well field from month to month. We started plotting it on maps to see what the overall condition was. At some point, we started to see signs that the event was spreading and intensifying.”

Then the odors at the landfill increased.

“By 2012, I was making a push that we really needed to collect some air-monitoring data to get a better handle on what the potential risks were from the landfill smoldering event, as well as just what risk that might be as far as exposing the community,” Norris says.

The increased odors coming off the Bridgeton Landfill in 2012 gave DNR cause for concern as public complaints mounted over the stench. This set the stage for the events that would lead to the emergency procurement contract in early 2013 in which Thalhamer would play a pivotal role.

By this point, the California consultant had the DNR’s ear, and his suggestions  extended beyond the technical aspects of  fighting landfill fires. When odor complaints jumped in early 2013, Thalhamer told the DNR to openly request EPA air testing as a way of calming residents fears.  “We need to ensure the public that the odor is just that — an odor and not a health risk,” advised Thalhamer.  “The quickest way to reduce the environmental worry in the community is to request the US EPA perform community and facility air sampling. Contractor data should be as valid as US EPA but we need to show the community we are concerned enough to make this request.”

A few months earlier in December 2012,  the DNR had held a one-day training session presented by Thalhamer at Republic Service’s headquarters on St. Charles Rock Road. Those in attendance included, DNR staffers, representatives of the Pattonville and Robertson Fire Protection Districts, and officials from the St. Louis County Health Department. Brenda Ardrey of the DNR arranged the meeting and Republic, picked up the lunch tab for the sandwiches from a nearby Jimmy John’s restaurant.

Thalhamer charged $150 an hour for his services. Including various conferences calls, planning and travel expenses, the bill totaled $6,695.49.

His performance impressed Ardrey so much that she arranged for Thalhamer to speak the next summer at the Missouri Waste Control Coalition’s annual conference at the posh Tan-Tar-A resort on the Lake of the Ozarks. The 400-member coalition is comprised of private waste companies, government regulators and consultants.

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The conference setting had the trappings of a country club, including a golf course, where the MWCC held its annual tournament over the same weekend. The clubby atmosphere between business and government regulators goes beyond  the 18th hole, however.  Ardrey’s boss Chris Nagel, director of DNR’s Solid Waste Management Program, sits on the advisory board of the waste coalition, and Larry Lehman, DNR’s chief enforcement officer, is on its board of directors. Besides Lehman, other board members include Randy Tourville of Republic Services and Lisa Messinger of EPA Region VII.

After DNR decided to fund air sampling at Bridgeton Landfill in early 2013,  Thalhamer put SWAPE on DNR’s radar. Thalhamer and one of the owners of SWAPE had both worked on a case related to another Republic landfill fire in Ohio years earlier. Within a week, SWAPE had secured the DNR’s air-sampling contract without going through the regular bidding process.

That’s because a month earlier, DNR had quietly invoked an emergency clause in the state statutes and allocated more than a half a million dollars for the job. Internal DNR emails show officials carefully researched the matter to make sure the agency followed the letter of the law in declaring the emergency.

Few outside the DNR knew about the emergency. No sirens went off. The governor didn’t issue an evacuation order. Residents were not kept fully in the loop. Instead, agency insiders kept the situation hushed. The only other company that expressed interest in the contract submitted a proposal that was less acceptable than SWAPE’s.

Unlike others wary of consequences, SWAPE showed no fear of rousing the ire of Republic because it had already had a falling out with the waste giant in the past. On March 21, within 48 hours of receiving the contract, Paul Rosenfeld of SWAPE flew to St. Louis for a one-day meeting with DNR officials.

A subcontractor identified in an invoice only as JB also attended the talks. John Blank is the the owner of American Environmental Laboratories, a St. Louis-based firm that SWAPE hired as a subcontractor.  Blank says the terms of his company’s involvement remain confidential, but he does reveal that SWAPE issued the requirements for conducting the air sampling — “the what and the how” — and the St. Louis lab reported the results back to SWAPE and the DNR.

The meeting between SWAPE and the DNR lasted 11 hours, according to public records. Rosenfeld charged $195 an hour. The subcontractor charged $120. SWAPE billed DNR a total of  $5,821.86 for the day.

The terms of the emergency air-monitoring contract approved by DNR on Feb. 15, 2013 stipulated a 60-to-90 day deal valued at $600,000. SWAPE’s incomplete proposal submitted on March 29 totaled $594,060. After the contract was signed, invoices and purchase orders were issued in quick succession.

  • On March 29, 2013, SWAPE submitted an itemized invoice of $15,198.32 for services rendered.
  • On April 2, 2013 the state paid the company another $6,000 for expert testimony.
  • A state purchase order for SWAPE’s products and services dated April 3, 2013, shows a bottom of line of $349,000.

Whereas, SWAPE submitted detailed, line-item accounting of services rendered, the state purchase order only lists itemized expenses as “environmental, ecological and agricultural services: miscel [miscellaneous].”  SWAPE continued its emergency air sampling under the initial arrangement through August 2013.

Ardrey referred all questions about the Bridgeton Landfill to the DNR information officer Gena Terlizzi.  Voice and email messages left for Terlizzi went  unreturned. When contacted, Beth Glickman, office manager for SWAPE, said: “We typically don’t talk to the press. We are still under contract with them (the DNR) and won’t be able to answer any questions.”

When asked  about his role in the process, Thalhamer says: “As you probably know, I’m under contract with DNR so I can’t speak to  issues surrounding that. … I understand your plight. I work for a government agency and I fight the same thing that you’re asking me for. But I also know contract law and know I’d be in jeopardy of breeching the contract.” Toward the end of the conversation, Thalhamer suggests digging deeper, and offers journalistic advise, including filing a state Freedom of Information request.  Speaking about the SWAPE contract, he says: “There’s some interesting information there if you can get that Rubik’s Cube figured out.”

Less enigmatically, Norris concedes that there may be an appearance of  something amiss in the state’s handling of the emergency air-monitoring contract, but he has no doubt that the public’s interest was best served by the decision.

“SWAPE had the expertise, the history of sampling around landfill fires elsewhere” says Norris. “I think that they were probably in the best position at that point and time to do the air sampling whether it was done by them or a subcontractor that was progressing in a fashion that was protective of public health,” Norris says.

“There was additional concerns from the community living around the site in large part due to the increase in odors, Norris says.  Benzene and certain others [chemicals] were elevated in the landfill gas. There were certain chemical compounds that appeared to be elevated downwind versus upwind of the landfill at least slightly.”

Air sampling at the site measured  dioxins, furans, benzene, aldehydes, reduced sulfur compounds and volatile organic compounds, all of which can cause serious health effects through long-term exposure. But  test results at the Bridgeton Landfill analyzed by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found chemicals of concern to be below the threshold of concern for human health over the time frame of the emergency air sampling contract.

Norris doesn’t argue with those findings, but he does assert that politics is influencing science. “Politics seems to be invading the technical work to a greater extent than when I first started that’s for sure, [but] we were able to accomplish quite a bit even within the political confines during this event, especially in 2013,” he says.

Norris makes clear that his resignation and subsequent letter are unrelated to the SWAPE memo or the hiring of outside contractors in general.  “It was really kind of broader issues at the department,” he says. He mentions bureaucratic inefficiencies, the role of politics and lax enforcement as reasons for his discontent and departure, but stops short of placing the onus on anything specific, leaving the listener to turn Rubik’s Cube for himself.

Unit A at 205 Riverview Drive is vacant. A stack of native limestone blocks stands by the entrance, the only vestige remaining of the apartment’s last tenant. A for-rent sign is posted in the front yard and a sodden edition of the Jefferson City News-Tribune lies in the gutter. The brick duplex is located on a residential street in the sleepy Missouri capital, where on a mild January day a woman washes her shiny SUV in a nearby driveway. With a dog barking in the backyard and dinner on the stove in the kitchen, the occupant of Unit B leans against his front door jamb, warily answering questions about Dan Norris’ whereabouts. He is tight-lipped when it comes to the details, but says his neighbor of eight years moved out about three weeks ago and didn’t leave a forwarding address. — C.D. Stelzer

KEEPING A SAFE DISTANCE

Last year, EPA boss Carol Browner withdrew from decision-making about Times Beach. Meanwhile, inquiries about the dioxin incinerator continue to rage

BY C.D. STELZER

First published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Sept. 11, 1996

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)administrator Carol M. Browner has withdrawn from all decision-making responsibilities concerning the Times Beach cleanup, The Riverfront Times has learned.

Browner recused herself from addressing any aspects of the controversial Superfund project in an internal agency memorandum dated April 5, 1995. The administrator’s office in Washington, D.C. provided the RFT with a copy of Browner’s statement last week upon request.

The recusal statement does not specify why Browner bowed out of the case. An EPA spokeswoman now says Browner relinquished oversight because the administrator’s sister works for the corporation liable for the cleanup. Michelle Browner, the EPA chief’s sibling, is a research scientist for Roche Bio-Science in Palo Alto, Calif. Roche, a Swiss pharmaceutical conglomerate, purchased Syntex Corp. in 1994. Syntex, the responsible party, must burn the dioxin-contaminated soil at Times Beach and 26 other sites in Eastern Missouri, according to the to the 1990 federal consent decree with the EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR). A subsidiary of Syntex, Agribusiness Technologies Inc., is carrying out the plan.

News of Browner’s withdrawal follows the initiation of a DNR inquiry into whether stack emissions samples were handled properly last November, after a trial burn at the Times Beach dioxin incinerator near Eureka. Earlier this year, the DNR issued a permit for the burner based in part on the results of those tests. Opponents of the incinerator, including the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG), raised concerns last month about a potential conflict of interest, after they discovered International Technology Corp. (IT), the incinerator operator, partially owns Quanterra Environmental Services, the lab that handled the samples (Twice Burned, the RFT, Aug. 28) .

“I am aware of the allegations by TBAG, and we are checking on those allegations,” says DNR director David Shorr. “I don’t believe there were any shenanigans here. The only question that I am looking into is whether there was a prospect of a breach in the chain of custody (of the stack emissions samples). … It’s not that we believe that there was a breach in the chain of custody, but we’ve have had that inquiry made to us.”
Shorr expresses equal confidence in Browner’s hands-off policy. “I am not aware of her ever being involved in Times Beach during her tenure,” says Shorr. “She has properly recused herself. All decisions from EPA, at least that we have had, have been through either Elliott Laws, the assistant administrator for waste or deputy (administrator) Fred Hansen.”

Martha Steincamp, chief counsel for Region VII of the EPA in Kansas City, views Browner’s recusal as insignificant. “Frankly, there have been no decisions that would be made at the administrator’s level on this case, anyway,” says Steincamp. “The decisions are made out here in the Region.

“The really important thing to remember is this is what one does, when one wants to take one’s self out of the decision making process — you recuse yourself,” says Steincamp. “She didn’t consult with me when she did it. Until you told me, I didn’t know that it was her sister or what this person’s name was. That’s not what I need to know to do my job. What I need to know to do my job is don’t go looking to Carol Browner on decision making on Times Beach.”

The EPA administrator, however, does wield statutory power over the Times Beach Superfund project. According to the consent decree:

EPA shall review the remedial action at the Facilities at least every five (5) years after the entry of this Decree to assure that human health and the environment are being protected by the remedial action being implemented. … Settling Defendants shall be provided with an opportunity to confer with EPA on any response action proposed during the EPA’s 5 year review process and to submit written comments for the record during the public comment period. After the period for submission of written comments is closed, the Administrator shall, in writing, determine if further response action is appropriate. …

In other words, the EPA could have reviewed the safety of the project and implemented changes to the plan at any time since the 1990 decree was signed, but the agency was required to do so within five years. The decree mandates that based on that review the EPA administrator take appropriate steps to protect public health and the environment, if necessary.

It didn’t happen. The five-year deadline expired July 19, 1995. According to the EPA internal memo, Browner recused herself on April 5, 1995.

Steincamp, whose signature appears on the consent decree, says the Times Beach agreement is superseded by a clause in the Superfund law, which requires that the “remedial action” (in this case incineration) be completed before the review takes place.

A high-ranking official at EPA headquarters in Washington, on the other hand, says the Superfund provision means the Times Beach project can’t be reviewed because the incinerator hasn’t been operating for five years. The cleanups at Times Beach and other Eastern Missouri dioxin sites, however, have been going on for well over five years.
The two interpretations of the law share one thing in common — they thwart any review of the project until after the incineration is completed. Here is how the pertinent Superfund clause actually reads:

If the President selects a remedial action that results in any hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants remaining at the site, the President shall review such remedial action no less often than each 5 years after the initiation of such remedial action to assure that human health and the environment are being protected by the remedial action being implemented. …

Hugh Kaufman, an EPA whistleblower, is candid in his opinion as to why Browner chose to distance herself from the project. “Well, Times Beach is getting hot now,” says Kaufman. “Carol Browner tries to find a reason to recuse herself from any sticky wicket case,” he adds. “She did that with the WTI (Waste Technologies Industries) incinerator. Apparently, her husband works for a group called Citizen Action, where she used to work. Citizen Action, at one time, … signed a letter asking the state of Ohio to relook at this mess. … The real reason she recused herself is because it’s a big sticky wicket issue involving Jackson Stephens … and the Clinton/Arkansas connection.”

Kaufman is referring to the WTI commercial hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. Stephens, who founded WTI in 1980, is a Little Rock financier who has padded the campaign coffers of both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in the past. Stephens and WTI have also been linked to the Union Bank of Switzerland, which has been implicated along with the CIA in the BCCI and Nugan-Hand banking scandals. The WTI incinerator was permitted to operate even though it emitted despite unsafe levels of dioxin.

In 1983, Kaufman felt the heat from Times Beach himself. The whistleblower then appeared on the Phil Donahue TV talk show and alleged that U.S. Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) had received a list of potential dioxin sites in Missouri, while state attorney general, and had failed to do anything about it. During that period, Kaufman was the EPA’s chief hazardous waste investigator. His inquiry here led him to suspect that Russell Bliss, the waste hauler responsible spreading the dioxin, had connections to the “power-elite culture” in Missouri. “When I raised the issue of him being part of the old boy network of which Danforth was a member, Danforth screamed bloody murder,” says Kaufman.

The current dilemma with the incinerator has parallels with the past, according to Kaufman. He compares the political and social climate in Missouri to a banana republic. “Nothing changes, ” he says. “Especially, when you’ve got Ralston Purina and Monsanto. You’ve got an elite club, and the disposal boys are a part of that club. It’s like Arkansas — you’ve got an aristocracy — and then you’ve got everybody else.”

Confirmation of Kaufman’s jaded view can now be seen billowing from the stacks at the Times Beach dioxin incinerator, where state and federal regulators continue to turn a blind eye to an obvious public health risk. Studies by the EPA itself indicate dioxin is a probable human carcinogen and the cause of immunological and reproductive problems. The agency also acknowledges that incineration is one of the means by which dioxin is created.

Nevertheless, the EPA and DNR claim the Times Beach incinerator is safe. These assurances have continued despite a series of toxic releases at the incinerator this spring that bypassed pollution control devices and dispersed contaminants into the air. The odds of similar accidents occurring increased in July, when Syntex pushed back the completion date of the burn until next year because an estimated 70 tons of additional dioxin-tainted dirt will need to be destroyed.

Prior to firing up the incinerator, federal Judge John F. Nangle, the jurist responsible for the consent decree, ruled in the EPA’s favor, outlawing a St. Louis County ordinance that would have required that stack emissions meet the agency’s own stringent standard of 99.9999 percent destruction efficiency.