BY C.D. STELZER
First published by the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Nov. 20,1996
Some of the toxic shipments hail from the hinterlands, forgotten places in rural Missouri with strange names like Bull Moose Tube, Moscow Mills and Piazza Road. But the bulk of the dioxin-contaminated soils now being hauled to the Times Beach dioxin incinerator near Eureka comes from nearby sites in St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis. It is a mammoth Superfund project being conducted with little fanfare, and it would now seem little regulatory oversight.
Federal and state regulators have went to great lengths to assure the public that the incinerator is operating safely; that igniting an estimated 228,000 tons of hazardous waste is not a risk to human health or the environment. Since deciding to burn the waste, the government agencies responsible for the project have encountered the resistance of citizens and locally elected officials. Public concerns, which were dismissed as unwarranted, have since been borne out. Accidents have occurred. Lies have been told. Nevertheless, those in control remain unrepentant and the project has proceeded under the arbitrary terms of the 1990 federally-court-ordered consent decree.
For now, the 80,000-pound dump trucks laden with dioxin-tainted dirt continue to trundle down city streets, county roads and Interstate highways, as they have for the past year. Sometime in 1997, the last shovelful of poisoned earth is expected to be burned. The incinerator is then scheduled for disassembly. After the project is completed, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has promised to transform the location of the former town of Times Beach into a park. It would seem a noble end for an ignoble legacy wrought more than a quarter-of-a-century ago by the misdeeds of Russell Bliss, the waste oil hauler responsible for dispersing dioxin across the region.
Unfortunately, serious questions about the safety of the dioxin incinerator still remain unanswered. Internal corporate memos from the incinerator operator and scientific data obtained by the Riverfront Times show numerous omissions and inconsistencies in documenting the handling of last year’s dioxin stack test samples. The laboratory analysis of those emissions samples prompted the state to issue the requisite permit for the incinerator to operate.
In recent weeks, separate DNR and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inquiries have also noted serious lapses in scientific protocol during the November 1995 dioxin stack test, lapses that cast doubt on whether the incinerator can be legally considered protective of human health. In this regard, the RFT has learned of a recommendation at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C to shutdown the incinerator pending a retest.
Much of the impetus for the reexaminations of the stack test can be traced back to environmental opponents of the project, who have doggedly sifted through mounds of technical data. Based on their research, they now allege that the original stack test results are fraudulent.
“Documents have been doctored,” says Steve Taylor an organizer for the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG). “Samples were mixed and matched to give optimal results. Massive inconsistencies exist between the log book … and the final report presented to the DNR and EPA.” Taylor’s latest charges are an extension of his previous objections to the relationship between International Technology Corp. (IT), the incinerator operator, and Quanterra Environmental Services, a partially-owned subsidiary that handled the samples (“Twice Burned,” RFT, Aug. 28).
Although all sides in the controversy now recognize that test documents are flawed, they disagree on the ramifications. In a report published earlier this month, the DNR, for example, declares that “chain of-custody documentation procedures were less than satisfactory.” The state agency, nevertheless, has expressed renewed public confidence in the analytical results of that same test.,
By releasing its vacillating findings in advance of an imminent EPA ruling on the same subject, the DNR has undercut the bargaining position of the EPA official who most favors shutting down the incinerator until the stack test can be redone. The call for a shutdown and retest has also been potentially muted by the well-timed release of a Missouri Department of Health (DOH) blood study that claims dioxin levels have actually fallen among residents who live near the incinerator. A chemist for the environmental group Greenpeace has disputed those findings (“Blood Feud,” RFT, Nov. 13). Last week, the St. Louis County Council asked that DOH for raw data pertaining to the blood study that has been withheld from the public. Meanwhile, the EPA recommendation for a shutdown is expected to be released in an interim report to EPA assistant administrator Elliot Laws this week, according to a source close to the investigation.
Whether the recommendation will be quashed or accepted is uncertain. One obstacle working against the approval of a retest is money. In an Oct. 16 letter, Syntex Agribusiness Technologies Inc. (ATI) — the company liable for the cleanup — threatened to pull out if there were costly delays due to retesting. The letter, from ATI project coordinator Gary Pendergrass, presented DNR and EPA officials with an ultimatum: ” … (W)e feel strongly that it would be imprudent to set a precedent of requiring additional testing based exclusively upon allegations that are without merit. Any interruptions will be costly to the project and to the community, and may jeopardize the continuing availability of all of the thermal treatment team.”
Less than a month after the Pendergrass letter arrived on his desk, DNR director David Shorr exonerated the incinerator operator of any wrongdoing.”There is no evidence of criminal misconduct,” said Shorr. “However, International Technology (IT) would have been better served by hiring a financially independent contractor, especially on a project this sensitive to the community.”
“The state and maybe the feds, too, are doing everything they can to keep this thing on track without admitting anything serious enough to cause a shutdown,” says R. Roger Pryor, exectutive director of the Coaliton for the Environment. “(But) if the EPA releases this recommendation, I don’t see how Shorr and DNR can pooh-pooh that. One of the guarantees that we were given since that day one was that if any irregularities showed up that were contrary to the original specifications they wouldn’t hesitate to shut the thing down to make sure corrections were made. Now it’s time for them to live up to their word.”
Despite its waffling, the DNR report does conclude that IT, the incinerator operator, and its partially-owned subsidiary, Quanterra Environmental Services, violated their own chain-of-custody requirements pertaining to test samples. In addition, IT’s lax documentation also skirted the state’s specified custodial procedures, according to the DNR report.
In the absence adequate chain-of-custody documents, DNR investigators scrambled to gather verbal accounts that allegedly confirmed the collection and transfer of the test samples from Times Beach to a North Carolina analytical laboratory.
With alibis in hand, The DNR then ruled out the possibility of any sample switching, because the lab involved in the test marked each tube with a distinctive resin that acts as a fingerprint. A chemist for the laboratory that analyzed the samples explains it this way: “Dioxins and furans are highly stable compounds and can only be removed from the resin by extraction. It would have been apparent by the appearance of the … resin if it had been extracted and placed back into the modules.”
“Any attempt to modify the dioxin samples would have disturbed the resins and invalidated the samples,” explains Shorr of the DNR. “The sample handling documentation employed by Quanterra was not the best, but it has not affected the validity of the dioxin stack test data.”
On the surface, the test was based on a fail-safe system then. However, the DNR report is itself fails to even mention certain key documents known to have been turned over to the state agency. “These documents show unaccounted resin (sample) tubes shipped in the middle of the night directly from Triangle (Laboratories) to Times Beach,” says Taylor. “There is compelling evidence that tubes and samples have been switched to falsify test results. “The withholding of these documents by David Shorr is an obstruction of justice and a coverup.”
Shorr responded to the charge by saying: “I did not do the investigation. But as far as I’m concerned our report was complete.” He says he provided the Pendergrass letter and all of its attachments to the appropriate quarters. “They were conveyed down to the portion of the agency that did the investigation. … As far as I’m concerned … it’s another piece of paper in the file. (TBAG) raised allegations that we felt merited our spending resources in order to do a thorough investigation. We did that investigation. We responded to each of the allegations, and found issues, certainly, of poor judgment. But there was nothing that we could find that represented an illegal act or an act that compromised the sample integrity.”
As the behind-the-scenes debate rages on, so too do the dioxin fueled fires at the incinerator; fires that continue to destroy public trust.
A litany of sources could not be reached for comment on this story. Their silence hints at what the paper trail has already confirmed. The narrative that follows chronicles the botched dioxin stack test of last year and the recent efforts to defend it. This explanation of events is based on copies of documents, scientific data and a voice mail message obtained by the RFT.
Just before noon on Aug. 29, Rob Kain of ATI made what sounded like an urgent call to William C. Anderson at Quanterra Environmental Services in Knoxville, Tenn. But Anderson, the quality assurance officer for the Times Beach project, never received the message. That’s because Kain confused a local telephone prefix with the Knoxville area code. Thinking he had reached Anderson’s voice mail, the ATI official left this stuttering message:
“This is a message for Billy Anderson. This is Rob Kain with ATI. Billy, we’re going to have a conference call at one o’clock, and Con Murphy (an IT employee) has-the-ah-has-the-ah-has a good part of the information on the questions that are going to be discussed. If you get this call before one o’clock, you’ll probably want to check with him. In particular we’re going to want to know more information on what happened exactly with the samples between Times Beach and Knoxville (Tenn.). It took two days for that to transport so the people want to know where they stopped overnight (and) any additional information we might have. So we’ll talk to you at one o’clock. Bye-bye.”
The telephone message shows that ATI, the company liable for the cleanup, and its subcontractors, IT and Quanterra, quickly moved to get their version of events straight one day after the publication of an RFT story that raised questions about the stack test. The message also makes clear that there was uncertainty among the participating parties as to the exact whereabouts of certain Quanterra employees during the transport of the test samples.
It eventually took a week for Quanterra to ship the test samples from Times Beach to Triangle Laboratories in North Carolina. According to a chronology of events prepared by ATI, two Quanterra employees departed from Times Beach with the samples on Tuesday morning November 21. They arrived in Knoxville late in the evening on the same day.
No chain-of-custody documents exist for this leg of the journey, or of the subsequent transfer of the samples in Tennessee. Once in Knoxville, the Quanterra employees are supposed to have turned over the samples to Anderson, who was in charge of quality assurance for the project. Instead of transporting the samples to Triangle Laboratories the next day, Anderson took them home for the Thanksgiving holiday. The samples stayed in his possession until Monday Nov. 27, when he finally signed them over to a Triangle Laboratories representative.
The seven day gap between completion of the test and the arrival of the test samples at the analytical laboratory is enough to give pause. But more snafus have now come to light.
The dioxin stack test purportedly consisted of three runs in which test samples were taken from each. But the project logbook shows a fourth run. Two pages dedicated to the fourth run have dates either missing or changed. A diagonal line runs across each of these pages with the words “not collected” written above it.
Although the testing reportedly ended on Nov. 20, test work appears to have extended beyond that deadline. An internal IT memorandum provided to the DNR and EPA shows that a second shipments of sample containers arrived at Times Beach on Nov 21 — the day after the documented completion of the test. The new batch of sample containers, referred to as XAD-2 resin traps or tubes, were ostensively requested on short notice in case a fourth run was needed. A custody sheet shows the sample containers being released by a Triangle Laboratory representative — but there is no signature showing who accepted the order.
However implausible a secret fourth run may seem, it is obvious that proper controls were not being used to assure the validity of the test findings. In short, quality assurance had run amok. The simple act of keeping track of laboratory materials became an impossible chore. According to the internal IT memo: “The 5 unused resin traps, which are not part of the stack samples and not stored in the stack sample cooler, are left at the site in the sample recovery trailer. The trailer is removed from the site approximately one week after the completion of the dioxin stack test.”
In other words, the incinerator operator is admitting that five sample containers mysteriously disappeared . And no one from IT or Quanterra signed for the last shipment of four.
None of this adds up, of course.
By its own account, IT used a total of nine sample containers during the course of the entire test. The incinerator operator had ten sample containers on hand to begin with — more than enough for the task. No indication is given in the test documents that any of the original containers were either lost or broken. There would then seem to be no need to use any of the late-arriving containers for a test that had already been completed. Nevertheless, samples D-1208 and D-1209, which are a part of the last batch, are listed as being used as “spiked resin blanks” for run #3 on Nov. 20. The IT chronology, however, shows D-1208 and D 1209 arriving on Nov. 21, after the test had been allegedly finished.
Another irregularity relates to sample D-1182. In Anderson’s final report, D-1182 is listed as being collected from run #2 on Nov. 20. But according to his request for analysis, D-1182 appears as part of run #1 on Nov. 19. In addition, the date on a D-1182 sample label is missing. This particular omission did not become apparent until last month, when Triangle Laboratories turned over a missing data page to IT. In an Oct. 3 letter to an IT official, a Triangle Laboratories vice-president wrote: “While doing our cross-reference check, we discovered that one page was inadvertently omitted from the data package.”
A missing page, a missing date, a missing signature. Most of all missing accountability. In his final report, Anderson states: “No significant problems were observed that would adversely affect the application of these analytical data as being completely indicative of the TTU (thermal treatment unit) dioxin emission performance.”
If this seems to be drifting into a tedious hair-splitting analysis, keep in mind that there are more inconsistencies in the stack test than can ever reasonably be expected to be explained in one newspaper story. Proponents of the incinerator, on the other hand, have been nothing short of verbose in their defense of the project. The ATI letter, for instance, measures 16-pages in length, minus sundry attachments. The DNR report, which for the most part absolves IT and Quanterra of wrongdoing, is 188 pages long.
“What’s significant about the state’s report is not what’s in it, but what’s not in it,” says Taylor. “Shorr is giving partial truth, and withholding information from the public in order to conclude that the samples are valid. The missing shipment of tubes is never mentioned nowhere other than in attachments to the letter sent to David Shorr by Gary Pendergrass,” says Taylor. “The presence of extra traps and resin completely invalidates the state’s conclusion that samples could not have been tampered with.”
Again, DNR director Shorr takes issue with Taylor’s assertion. “You’re working on the switcheroo theory. Well, the part that I would question in your theory is the fact that sample casings and the samples that were sealed were the ones that made it Research Triangle Park. Those were sealed in front of DNR inspectors. And that was included in the report.”
In contrast to Shorr’s reassurances, a document obtained by the RFT casts doubt on the integrity of the sealed sample. The page — from a Triangle Laboratories data report — clearly indicates sample seals absent on arrival at the lab. The carrier is listed as Bill Anderson. The inventory sheet is signed by Triangle sample custodian John Guenther. When state investigators recently questioned Guenther about the transfer of samples, however, he “recall(ed) that all samples were properly packagted and di not appear to be tampered with.”
It is difficult to conceive of the toxic-nature of one molecule of dioxin. Scientists still debate its dangers. But most, including those at the EPA, assume dioxin is a carcinogen and they are even more certain that it causes damage to the immune and reproductive system in humans. The sources of dioxin, although now on the decline, are. nevertheless, ubiquitous in the environment. It has long been established that Incineration is one of those sources. And so it would seem more than a little ironic that the EPA would choose to dispose of dioxin in a manner that would at the same time create it. Those who favor hazardous waste incinerators point out the presumed state-of-the-art efficiency of thermal technology.
That kind of hard-nosed attitude is often trotted out and displayed as expedient pragmatism. At the same time, it is a convenient means of defending lucrative government contracts between the hazardous waste disposal industry and the federal government. William C. Anderson is no stranger to that largesse. His resume shows that in the past he has worked on a PCB cleanup in Utah for the Army. IT, the incinerator operator, also has longstanding ties to federal coffers. A Standard &;Poor’s report from August indicates that 63 percent of IT sales in 1995 involved U.S. government agencies, including the Departments of Defense and Energy. In 1994, when congressional legislation threatened stronger oversight of hazardous waste incinerators, including the Times Beach incinerator, IT complained to the Security and Exchange Commission that the plan would jeopardize millions of dollars of its assets and “could (have a) material adverse effect to the company’s consolidated financial condition.”
Obviously, somebody listened. The adverse effects of the incinerator’s emissions on human health be damned.