Saturday, June 14, 2008

Twice Burned 

The lab involved in testing emissions at Times Beach was partly owned by the company that operated the dioxin incinerator

Throughout the 1990s, Steve Taylor, the former organizer for the Times Beach Action Group, continually referred to the EPA-approved incineration of the dioxin-contaminated dirt in Eastern Missouri as "destroying the evidence." The question of where the dioxin originated remains unresolved to this day.

Now Wildwood City Council member Tammy Shea is asking the same question about a dioxin-contaminated site in west St. Louis County. She wants accountability. Others within the suburban municipality's government would prefer to remain ignorant of who is responsible for poisoning the property decades ago.

One thing is for certain: the EPA has never diligently tried to determine who generated the toxic waste. The following story from 1996, shows just how far the agency was willing to go in turning a blind eye to potential fraud connected to one of the agency biggest Superfund clean ups.

But this story just like the dioxin is still hanging around despite the incineration of hundreds of tons of toxic dirt.

"... Since initiating operations, ... the incinerator has been plagued by a series of emergency releases that have spewed unknown quantities of untreated dioxin-contaminated particulate matter into the atmosphere. ..."

"... Despite the mirror windows at the lab and the smoke now flowing from the incinerator stacks, this much is clear: ... Quanterra ... is still partially controlled by IT -- the builder and operator of the Times Beach dioxin incinerator. ..."
Riverfront Times
Aug. 26, 1996
by C.D. Stelzer

When IT Analytical Services merged with another company and became Quanterra Environmental Services in 1994, the nascent laboratory didn't even bother to change the phone number. The newly formed company also remained at the same location, 13715 Rider Trail North, in a strip of innocuous one-story offices known as the Business Center in Earth City. The doors to the lab were locked last Saturday, and mirror windows made it impossible to see the interior.

Corporation records at the Missouri secretary of state's office in Jefferson City show that Quanterra was officially dissolved as a business in the state in late 1994. Nevertheless, the lab took part in important tests of stack emissions conducted in November 1995 at the Times Beach dioxin incinerator, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund cleanup near Eureka.

The test results assured the EPA, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the public that the incinerator would operate safely. Based on these test results and other criteria, the DNR issued a requisite permit for the incinerator to operate earlier this year.

Despite the mirror windows at the lab and the smoke now flowing from the incinerator stacks, this much is clear: IT Analytical was owned by International Technology Corp. (IT), and Quanterra, its successor, is still partially controlled by IT -- the builder and operator of the Times Beach dioxin incinerator.

IT, in turn, has a contract with Syntex, the corporation held liable for disposing of dioxin-contaminated soil at Times Beach and more than two dozen other sites in Eastern Missouri. In short, the lab involved in testing incinerator emissions is partly owned by the company that operates the incinerator.

Steve Taylor, an organizer for the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG), objected to the Quanterra-IT relationship in a meeting with high-level EPA officials last Wednesday night at the Hilton Hotel in Frontenac. Robert Martin, the ombudsman from the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters, chaired the meeting, which was attended by 15 citizens, an aide to U.S. Rep. Jim Talent (R-2nd) and two other EPA officals.

"We have always had problems with how the trial burn was conducted. Now we have found that IT -- the owner of the incinerator -- was solely responsible for the physical custody of the stack samples," Taylor says. "There has always been a serious problem with credibility with (EPA) Region VII and the information that we've received pertaining to this incinerator. To date, this is probably the most blatant example of allowing those who have a financial interest in this cleanup to proceed without any oversight."

That a laboratory with ties to the incinerator operator would be allowed to handle test samples from a Superfund site is enough to raise concerns, but there is another nettlesome detail that casts doubt on the credibility of the lab work. In 1990, IT purchased the assets of metaTRACE, a laboratory located at the same address in Earth City and having the same phone number as the two previously cited labs.

In the year preceding the acquisition, metaTRACE came under scrutiny for conducting fraudulent tests for the EPA, including faulty soil analysis at Times Beach and other dioxin sites in Eastern Missouri. Ultimately, the EPA canceled metaTRACE's contracts and two company officials pleaded guilty to fraud charges. The rescinded contracts had a value of more than $8.7 million. Most of that money was earmarked for EPA Region VII, which includes the St. Louis area.

After purchasing metaTRACE, IT moved its own analytical operation into the defunct lab's Earth City office. MetaTRACE didn't dissolve until 1992, according to Martha Steincamp, head counsel for Region VII. So it appears IT Analytical in some manner shared the facility. IT even hired some of metaTRACE's employees, Steincamp concedes.

When the sign on the front door changed to Quanterra in 1994, IT Engineering conveniently moved in next door. Again, if this is not disturbing enough, state records show that Quanterra was dissolved in December 1994 for failure to file an annual report. Quanterra,in other words, doesn't even exist as a corporate fiction in the state.

IT created Quanterra in May 1994, when it merged IT Analytical with Enseco, an environmental test lab owned by Corning Inc. Originally, each company held a 50 percent stake in the joint subsidiary. IT's share of the lab has since decreased to 19 percent, following a $20 million buyout by Corning in January. The change in the percentage of ownership, however, did not take place until after critical stack-emissions tests were conducted in November. The results of those tests were published in January. Quanterra's name appears on the title page of that report.

Despite the lab's obvious role in the stack tests and its connections to IT, Bob Feild -- the EPA project manager at Times Beach -- denied knowledge of Quanterra's participation at last week's meeting in Frontenac. Under questioning by Mick Harrison, an attorney for the Citizens Against Dioxin Incineration (CADI), Feild stated: "I'm not aware of any involvement that they (Quanterra) had in the chain of custody."

Feild's denial contradicts documents provided to the RFT by the Region VII office last Friday. The documents show a representative of Quanterra signed over stack-emissions samples to an employee of Triangle Laboratories of Durham, N.C. Triangle was charged with analyzing the samples.Nevertheless, a lapse of seven to eight days existed between the time the samples were collected and the point when Quanterra handed them over to the other lab. Environmentalists familiar with the case say the time lapse could invalidate the tests results, if the samples were not stored and handled properly.

In a phone interview on Monday, Feild dismissed all of these issues as inconsequential. Feild argued that it is standard procedure for the incinerator operator to collect test samples. He claimed all aspects of the tests were overseen properly by the EPA and that safeguards prohibited any kind of manipulation of the findings. "We haven't done any research as to the current status of a company called Quanterra," Feild says. "It doesn't really matter if IT themselves did the work or if they paid a partially owned subsidiary to do the work. The contractual relationship between the operator and Syntex is really not pertinent here. It's not our concern, and we certainly don't have that information. We don't know who Quanterra is under direct contract with."

The RFT filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the EPA on this matter last Friday. In a letter to EPA regional administrator Dennis Grams last week, Rep. Talent, whose district includes Times Beach, requested "all chain of custody documents for all stack samples collected during the dioxin stack test, which took place in November of 1995." A spokesperson for Talent could not be reached for comment. Spokespersons for IT, Quanterra and Corning did not return calls placed to them.

An official at the EPA's Criminal Investigations Division in Kansas City would not confirm or deny whether an inquiry had been initiated into the matter.

This latest controversy follows an announcement in July that the completion date for the incineration has been pushed back to early next year because an estimated 70 tons of additional contaminated dirt will need to be burned.

Since initiating operations in March, the incinerator has been plagued by a series of emergency releases that have spewed unknown quantities of untreated dioxin-contaminated particulate matter into the atmosphere.

The EPA's own dioxin draft reassessment concludes that dioxin is a likely human carcinogen and is responsible for reproductive and immunological problems. EPA research further indicates that everyone is already overexposed to the toxin, and incineration is one of the sources of the pollution.

[read more]

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Unearthing a Bit of Toxic History 

The fight over the Bliss-Ellisville dioxin sites is heating back up after a long hiatus. For more dioxin-related stories check out The Times Beach Chronicle

Riverfront Times (Missouri)
EPA Administrator Bob Feild

June 23, 1999, Wednesday

Developing Controversy

Suburban builders plan to construct dozens of pricey houses on former hazardous-waste sites

by C.D. Stelzer

The rugged land has resisted development for a long time, so a rural atmosphere still clings to these verdant hills, despite the encroachment of affluent subdivisions on the remaining ridgetop farms. But it would be wrong to think that nature has only now come under attack in this part of West St. Louis County.

Just off Strecker Road, in the gully washes that feed into Caulks Creek, the first of thousands of barrels of toxic waste were discovered nearly 19 years ago. The initial unearthing of the contaminated caches led one state environmental official to say at the time, "People move out here to escape pollution. This is where you find it, though."

Eventually several hazardous-waste sites would be identified in the area by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The federal agency would refer to them collectively as the "Bliss-Ellisville" site.

The first half of the name refers to Russell M. Bliss, the waste hauler responsible for dumping the pollutants. Bliss' son still lives on a Strecker Road property once owned by his father, from which the EPA only a few years ago finally removed more than 900 truckloads of dioxin-contaminated dirt in addition to an estimated 1,500-2,000 barrels of toxic chemicals. The haul included drums laden with cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

The second half of the site's name is something of a misnomer, because the locations of the Bliss farm and the other hazardous-waste sites are all outside the Ellisville municipal limits. Nowadays, much to its chagrin, all of this tainted history falls under the jurisdiction of the city of Wildwood, which was incorporated in 1995.

Wildwood residents originally voted to approve the creation of the municipality to control development, thereby ensuring that greenspace would be preserved. Now the fledgling city faces a dilemma: Two developers are asking for zoning variances so that they can wedge dozens of high-priced houses on either side of Strecker Road -- on parcels of land that were once part of the Bliss-Ellisville hazardous-waste site. The next meeting on the issue is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 6, at Wildwood City Hall, 16962 Manchester Rd.

The requests to develop these two properties have dredged up a litany of questions that have never been adequately answered by EPA officials or by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Those same officials are now siding with the developers, claiming that the once highly contaminated land is no longer a threat to human health, that it is now safe enough for backyard swingsets and tomato patches.

If the city allows W.J. Byrne Builders Inc. to build Strecker Forest, 31 houses will be constructed on the 18.5-acre tract. As things stand, Byrne Builders holds an option to buy the land from its current owners, Gerald and Patricia Primm. The couple's property is adjacent to the Bliss farm. An early EPA investigation found portions of the Primm property and three other adjacent parcels to be contaminated.

On the other side of the road, at 210 Strecker Rd., developer Larry Wurm of James Properties Inc. is proposing to build Wildwood Ridge, an 11-home development on 7.6 acres of land now owned by Jean Callahan. Her husband, Grover Callahan, worked as a truck driver for the Bliss Waste Oil Co. in the early 1970s. Before Times Beach -- the most notorious of the sites contaminated by Bliss -- became a household word, the EPA had already rated the Callahan property one of the most contaminated hazardous-waste sites in the nation. Although the state hastened to dispose of hundreds of barrels at the Callahan site in the early 1980s, the EPA did not close its case on the property until last September.

Wildwood currently zones the Strecker Road properties as "nonurban," which requires a minimum lot size of 3 acres. When considering deviations from the existing zoning code, the city takes into account several factors, such as the availability of utility services, topography and road conditions, but nothing on the municipal books deals with building houses on top of former hazardous-waste sites.

"It's a difficult position for the city," says Joe Vujnich, Wildwood's director of parks and planning. "We do not have the expertise that the U.S. EPA and Missouri Department of Natural Resources have. Obviously I have to depend upon them to do their job and hope that we do ours."

Among those who doubt the EPA's blanket endorsement is Tammy Shea, a Wildwood resident. "If they're going to develop the Callahan property, then we need to know exactly what took place there. The version that the developer presented to Wildwood is pretty vague about what happened," Shea says. "It's very confusing, the fact that they've kind of lumped these properties together yet dealt with them differently. Why were they in such a hurry to clean up the Callahan site? They were in there in 1981, pulling out barrels and treating them differently from the rest of the waste. They didn't take the barrels from the Bliss farm until 1996, when the incinerator was here. So why were they in such a rush to get the barrels off the Callahan property?" asks Shea.

As for developer Wurm, he believes the Callahan property has been cleaned up, but he's counting on the findings of state and federal regulators to protect him against any future liability.

"It's no problem. It's clean as a whistle," says Wurm of the Callahan property. "It's clean as a whistle," he repeats. "Look at the record of decision. I've got letters from EPA and DNR also stating that everything is cool on the property." But Wurm says he doesn't want to discuss the project in detail, fearing his plans will be misrepresented. "When I talked with the (St. Louis) Post-Dispatch, I got misquoted. It was an abortion. So I'll just let the record of decision stand for itself, OK? Tom What's-his-face at the Post-Dispatch, he didn't have time. He didn't want to look at all this shit. And blah, blah, blah. You got to do your homework on these pieces, otherwise you're wasting your time.

"Nothing against journalists -- some of them are my best friends," Wurm adds.

Wurm is referring to Tom Uhlenbrock, who first reported the Wildwood development plans in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 11. Asked about Wurm's criticism, Uhlenbrock says the developer was "bent out of shape because he wanted the article to say that the Callahan property never had any dioxin or Russell Bliss on it." Uhlenbrock said he was unable to confirm whether dioxin had been found on the site or whether there was a Bliss connection to the property.

In 1994, the Post-Dispatch reported a dispute involving homebuyers in Turnberry Place subdivision, which abuts the Bliss farm. The buyers said they signed sales contracts without being told by their real-estate agents that their new homes were adjacent to a hazardous-waste site. Seven families sued the responsible Realtor, and they were awarded a cumulative settlement of more than $500,000. If the city approves their respective developments, Wurm and Byrne hope to avoid this legal pitfall by having buyers sign a disclosure form saying that they were told in advance of the land's history.

The full history of the Callahan site and the others in the Caulks Creek watershed remains something of an enigma. Contacted by phone last Friday at EPA headquarters in Kansas City, Martha Steincamp, regional counsel for the EPA, could not provide details on the Bliss-Ellisville cleanups and referred all questions on the matter to Bob Feild, the agency's project manager. Feild did not return phone calls.

From publicly released EPA documents, this much is known: In the winter of 1981-1982, the DNR and EPA excavated more than 1,200 barrels of toxic waste from the Callahan property. The cleanup crew immediately sent 592 drums to a landfill in Wright City, Mo., but more than 600 barrels were stored on-site, along with 500 cubic yards of soil. The EPA removed the remaining barrels in July 1983. The agency then backfilled the hole with the same soil that had been stored at the site. A Post-Dispatch story dated April 4, 1983, describes the 500 cubic yards of soil stored at the Callahan site as being "contaminated."

A later EPA inspection showed that the land had subsequently subsided and would require stabilization. Despite evidence of erosion, the EPA's investigation concluded that the "fill area of the Callahan subsite was not contaminated (and) that the original objectives of the remedial action had either been achieved through natural processes, or were no longer considered necessary due to the preference expressed by the site owner."

Aside from groundwater contamination, the most serious threat to human health posed by the contamination at the Callahan site was airborne migration, according to the EPA. It would be better to err on the side of safety, says Shea, than risk exposing people to more hazardous waste by digging foundations on the Callahan property and inadvertently excavating a heretofore undetected layer of toxic waste. "I believe that the whole area there is littered with contamination pockets," she says. "Sometimes it's just best to leave well enough alone."

Shea is being dismissed as an alarmist. Wildwood city officials have questioned her credentials, and she says a real-estate agent recently criticized the motives behind her activism. In both instances, the allegations were not based so much on environmental concerns as they were on the bottom line.

"I guess Wildwood is just going to have to look at it from a credibility standpoint," says Shea. "What I'm going to ask is that they provide the citizens with some level of accountability, because we certainly aren't getting it from the EPA and we shouldn't have to depend on the developer to provide it."

By the EPA's count, the Bliss-Ellisville site contained at least seven separate waste-disposal locations. Sewer workers discovered the first batch of barrels on the property of the Rosalie Investment Co., near the intersection of Strecker and Clayton roads, in July 1980. The Callahan dump was discovered in August of that year.

Callahan started working for Bliss in the early 1970s, which would have been around the same time Bliss started hauling hazardous waste. After the discovery of the waste a decade later, Callahan testified in St. Louis County Circuit Court that he had used a lift truck to dump drums of waste, which Bliss had picked up at local industries, on the Callahan property. DNR officials described the location of the dump as a ravine, filled 15 feet deep with rusty barrels.

Three parties -- Jean Callahan, Kisco Co. and Bliss -- refused to pay for the cleanup. By 1982, the Missouri attorney general's office had entered negotiations with two other firms, American Can and GK Technologies. Ultimately, the state accepted $94,000 in 1988 as its part of a $660,000 settlement with several companies, a fraction of the estimated overall cleanup cost.

The biggest fish appears to have either slipped off or broken the line, however. In September 1980, Gov. Joseph P. Teasdale wrote a letter to Monsanto chairman John W. Hanley, requesting that the St. Louis-based chemical company pay for the cleanup. In his bid for re-election that year, Teasdale also made a campaign stop at the Bliss-Ellisville site to again ask for Monsanto's assistance. This time Teasdale made the plea with the TV news cameras rolling. Monsanto refused to consider the governor's appeal, even though before a federal ban on the chemical the company had been the sole producer of PCBs in North America.

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