TBAG locks horns with the EPA over possilby overlooked dioxin-contaminated sites
published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Aug. 20, 1997
BY C.D. STELZER
Last Saturday morning, Steve Taylor heard a tapping at his apartment door, a gentle rapping that he hopes to hear no more. By the time he answered the knock, the harried courier had already departed, leaving an unexpected Federal Express packet on his threshold.
The environmental activist, who is too young to remember the Selective Service System, and too poor to be concerned about the Internal Revenue Service, had, nevertheless, received a frightening message from a federal agency. After years of trying, Taylor had finally attracted the interest of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The missive from Martha Steincamp, the EPA regional counsel, instructed Taylor and other members of the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG) to turn over any information they may have concerning potential hazardous waste sites in the St. Louis area.
A copy of the written request obtained by the RFT shows the agency inquiry is specifically focused on the disposal of hazardous wastes generated by Monsanto and the now-defunct Wagner Electric Co. Taylor and the environmental group have until the end of the week to provide the agency with the information or be fined $25,000 a day until they comply.
That the provision of the Superfund law the EPA is using against the environmentalists is normally reserved for attacking corporate polluters hasn’t been overlooked. “This is the most ludicrous thing I’ve seen since I was given an arrest warrant for burning a log,” says Taylor, referring to one of his past acts of civil disobedience. Taylor says he is unsure whether he will cooperate with the EPA’s request. “We’re going to have to weigh out a lot of factors. The EPA is a potential defendant in litigation by citizens. We’re hesitant to give this information to an agency that we feel is corrupt. We have to determine what there motivation is.”
On Aug. 7, Taylor asked the St. Louis County Council to assist TBAG by forming a task force to independently investigate possible hazardous waste sites that may have been overlooked in the past by the EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The activist’s appeal to the local governing body follows the public disclosure late last month of the existence of a previously undiscovered dioxin site in Ellisville.
The announcement of the new site came only weeks after the EPA and DNR had completed their controversial incineration project at
Times Beach, which involved burning over 265,000 tons of dioxin contaminated waste from more than two dozen sites in eastern Missouri. TBAG had opposed the project, saying it was unsafe to human health and the environment. Dioxin is considered a probable human carcinogen and is known to cause reproductive and immunological health problems in animals and humans. Ironically, one of the sources of dioxin is incineration itself.
Although state and federal regulatory authorities all heralded the closing of the incinerator as the end of state’s toxic legacy, the discovery of the new site draws into question the EPA’s prior assumptions about the origins of the dioxin and other hazardous wastes that have long plagued the region. The new site also raises the specter that there may be an untold number of other contaminated sites waiting to be found.
The EPA has long blamed the dispersion of the toxins on Russell Bliss, the salvage operator who sprayed dioxin-contaminated oil on unpaved roads, parking lots and horse arenas as a dust suppressant in the early 1970s. According to the accepted version of events, Bliss obtained the dioxin in 1971 from a plant in southwest Missouri that produced hexachlorophene and a chemical component of Agent Orange, the dioxin-laden defoliant used in the Vietnam War. The plant was owned by a subsidiary of Syntex, the company ultimately held liable for the eastern Missouri Superfund clean up.
By narrowing its focus to a single, distant source, the EPA effectively eliminated more than a dozen local industries from closer scrutiny in the case even though Bliss also accepted liquid waste from them. The waste oil salvager’s list of clients included: Monsanto, Wagner Electric, Union Electric, Carter Carburetor, American Can and the now-defunct Lianco Container Corp., a can manufacturer jointly owned by Libby, McNeil and Libby and Anheuser- Busch Inc.
Monsanto created dioxin as a waste byproduct in its chemical manufacturing processes and also exclusively made toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at its Krummrich plant in Sauget, Ill. until 1977. The other St. Louis companies used PCBs or other hazardous substances for different purposes..
When asked to comment last week, Monsanto spokeswoman Diane Herndon responded with this prepared statement: “No information exists that any dioxin material was hauled by Bliss for Monsanto and so no material from Monsanto would have been sprayed on roads. Our materials are appropriately handled at waste disposal operations.”
Martha Steincamp, the chief regional counsel for the EPA, concurs with Monsanto’s professed innocence. “I look at it this way as a lawyer,” says Steincamp. “Monsanto is a big, big company. If I had Monsanto as a potential defendant, and had the evidence on them, I certainly would bring them in as a party. The fact of the matter is I don’t believe people had evidence on Monsanto. I know Monsanto was not a viable defendant in this litigation.”
Bob Feild, who headed the EPA’s clean up at Times Beach, says the agency is currently following up on several leads it received recently regarding other potential hazardous waste sites in the St. Louis area. Feild, nevertheless, appears to have already arrived at a predetermined conclusion that those locations will be found to be free of any contamination.
“At this point in time, I have seen nothing to suggest that there may be additional sites out there,” says Feild. “We feel confident that our investigations were thorough, that we have followed up on every lead that we’ve been made aware of. This site that was discovered over in Ellisville was completely new information,” he adds. “We have no way of knowing that there will not be additional sites in the future. However, we don’t have any information that would suggest there would be. We continue to follow up on any information that is provided to us by the public.”
In other words, Feild is denying that the EPA itself has even a scintilla of evidence that could help pinpoint any potentially untreated hazardous waste sites in eastern Missouri.
Taylor finds Feild’s explanation incredulous. “TBAG started its investigation because it thought there had been a coverup by state and federal authorities on the source and extent of contamination in Missouri,” says Taylor. “It appears that it is possible that certain leads weren’t followed up on because they didn’t fit their theory of where this waste came from.”
The activist points out that no PCBs were found in southwest Missouri in the tanks at the Verona, Mo. chemical plant, where the EPA presumes all of the toxins originated. But PCBs have been found in the past along with dioxin at the now remediated sites in eastern Missouri. This suggests that some of the mixed hazardous waste that Bliss sprayed came from another source or sources.
There are other holes in the EPA’s theory. During its investigations in the 1980s, the EPA rejected all the sites that Bliss may have sprayed before or after accepting the Verona waste, claiming those locations could not have possibly been contaminated with dioxin from the Verona chemical plant. No further actions were taken at these locations. An EPA tracking sheet lists 29 such sites. They include: Holiday Hill Amusement Park, Lindenwood College, McCarthy Brothers Construction Co., St. Charles Quarry and Terre Du Lac, a residential/lake development near Bon Terre, Mo.
In the case of Terre Du Lac, the tracking sheet shows a DNR investigator determined that Bliss had oiled the roads “on at least one occasion in 1976.” The document further states that “prior oiling had occurred though (it is) uncertain who did the earlier oiling.” Based on this information alone, the DNR concluded that “due to the late time period of oiling, sampling for TCDD (dioxin) appears unwarranted.” The EPA agreed by ruling that “no further action appears necessary” at the site.
The DNR investigation of Terre Du Lac in the spring of 1983, however, does not appear to have been as thorough as the EPA now claims. Indeed, it borders on negligence. Besides giving the site a clean bill of health without any soil testing, the DNR ignored its own warnings signals. Compelling evidence of Bliss’ misdeeds had been presented only months earlier as a part of the DNR’s effort to prevent his son from being granted a hazardous waste hauler’s license. At the hearing on the matter, the DNR submitted two contracts between Monsanto and Russell Bliss dated 1975 and 1976, the time period in which Bliss is known to have sprayed Terre Du Lac. The DNR presented further evidence at the same proceeding that linked the chemical manufacturer indirectly to a 1977 incident in which a Bliss driver dumped toxic chemicals — including one exclusively made by Monsanto — at a site in Jefferson County. Bliss testified at a subsequent DNR hearing that materials found at the site had come from Monsanto’s research lab. Given these revelations and the luxury of six additional years of hindsight, the lack of prudence exhibited by the EPA and DNR at Terre Du Lac is indeed inexplicable.
“The way we understand it, Monsanto told EPA investigators that they did not hire Bliss — end of story,” says Taylor. “But as you see, Bliss drivers consistently stated that Monsanto was a client.”
It isn’t necessary for the EPA to raid TBAG’s files to find this information because the agency already has the original documents in its own archives. TBAG, for example, acquired some of its more telling evidence from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA), which in turn obtained the information from the EPA and DNR.
One document that TBAG copied is a verbatim transcript of an interview conducted by an EPA official in 1980 at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. Representatives of the DNR and the Missouri Attorney General’s office were also present. During the questioning, inmate Scott Rollins, a former Bliss driver, made a stuttering confession that he had picked up waste from Monsanto in Illinois.
“Monsanto is where we … got the pesticide, the stuff that … I thought … smelled like bug spray. It was in Illinois and it had a big fence around it. … I’ve been to Monsanto maybe twenty times,” Rollins said. “I remember this old guy … he used to give us stuff. You know, … he’d give Gary (Lambarth) some of these old, old sex magazines. …. Just little bullshit. … But … the company itself would still pay Russell (Bliss). They would write him a check.”
Rollins’ allegations have been corroborated to a degree by Judy Piatt, the one-time owner of Shenandoah Stables in Moscow Mill, Mo. After Bliss sprayed her stables in 1971, Piatt’s horses died and her daughter became seriously ill. To gather evidence for her pending civil suit against Bliss, the stable owner followed the waste oil hauler and his drivers along their daily routes. She compiled a list of where Bliss and his employees collected waste and where they disposed of it. According to a 1981 IEPA document, Piatt recalled that Bliss “possibly obtained waste from Monsanto.” The IEPA summary goes on to state: “Judy Piatt has a diary and pictures of such activities, but will not release these to (EPA) Region VII on the advise of her attorney.”
But perhaps the most damning indictment comes from Bliss himself. When a Missouri assistant attorney general asked the waste hauler in 1977 to identify his top customers, the first words out of Bliss’ mouth were, “Oh, I would say Monsanto.”