Low Standards and Ethical Lapses Are Still the Rule More Than a Century After Muckraker Lincoln Steffens Exposed St. Louis’ Politically Corrupt Environment.
To understand how St. Louis County’s longstanding radioactive waste problem has been covered up, you need knowledge of the political landscape and those who inhabit it. The public often mistakenly identifies politicians exclusively as elected office holders, but it’s the people working behind the scenes, –those holding obscure appointed positions — who make things happen — or not.
Take for example, zoning attorney John King. King, a private attorney, is the son of the late Bus King, St. Louis County Republican powerbroker. In 2014, John King of the Lathrop and Gage law firm appeared before Bridgeton City Council on behalf of the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD). He was there to make sure that a right of way was approved for MSD’s leachate pipeline, a project shared by MSD and Republic Services, the owner of the West Lake Landfill, a Superfund site that includes a smolder underground fire, which is headed in the direction of illegally dumped radioactive waste.
After King strode up to the podium and addressed the council in an affable way, a veteran councilman acknowledged with awe the attorney’s presence in the chamber. “We went to the same school together,” said Councilman Ferd Fetsch. “So I get nervous when I see him.”
Obviously, King’s reputation as the penultimate insider had preceded him.
The influential attorney didn’t need to argue his case. He didn’t make a plea or argue fine points of the law. On the contrary, he coyly questioned why he was even there.
“I didn’t want to be here for this reason,” King told the council. “I know this is a very controversial matter, and I don’t know very much about it — and I don’t want to know very much about it.”
King said he was there because the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was pushing his client, Republic Services, to nail down this detail. One of the things that King apparently didn’t want to know about, however, includes the amount of pollution being monitored at the site by DNR, including elevated levels of radium
Community activist Donna Klocke provided those details in her request that the city not vacate its right of way to the landfill. Her summary of the facts were reasonable and well presented. The council listened to her and dismissed her plea with little fanfare.
King did little more than smile and the motion was tabled for later consideration in closed session.
Coincidentally, King’s law firm — Lathrop and Gage — also represents Republic Services, the landfill owner, on many other issues.
This cozy relationship is particularly convenient since Terry Briggs became mayor of Bridgeton, the St. Louis County municipality where the West Lake Landfill is located. Briggs is the former chief public affairs for MSD and is also a lobbyist for a business group that includes Republic Services.
Before the pipeline was constructed, Republic had used a St. Louis County permit issued to MSD to truck toxic leachate from the landfill site to a treatment plant on the Mississippi River. The pipeline takes the place of the trucks, allowing for a more efficient but still questionable means of disposal. The zoning issue that brought King before the council is now nearly forgotten. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
Cutting deals, getting behind-the-scenes approval of various political jurisdictions, and navigating through bureaucratic mazes is what zoning attorneys do. It’s a lucrative, if not transparent, business.
King’s civic participation is not limited to zoning issues, however.
He also sits on the St. Louis County Election Board. The general counsel for the election board is Darold E. Crotzer Jr., another prominent St. Louis attorney. Crotzer wears more than one hat, too. He is a member of the St. Louis Regional Sports Authority. The Sports Authority owns the former St. Louis Rams practice field in Earth City, which is located next to the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill.
Under the terms of its agreement with the St. Louis Regional Sports Authority, the newly relocated Los Angeles Rams have the opportunity to buy the football team’s former 27-acre practice facility in Earth City for $1. In March, the sports authority went to court to keep the land grab from happening. The property once had an assessed value of $19 million.
When it comes to real estate deals, the sports authority is no more transparent than municipal governments. They’re both public bodies, but they cut the deals behind closed doors. In this case, it’s apparent that the value of commercial real estate is more important than the lives of current day St. Louisans and those people who will live here in the future.
The bottomline remains the same. The almighty dollar is king.