The EPA invited concerned citizens to meet with agency officials on August 15 to discuss the West Lake Landfill and then surreptitiously photographed attendees.
A cast of 50 to 75 community members took part in the performance, which was carefully scripted and managed by an EPA consultant who had flown into St. Louis from New England for the event. A New York filmmaker also parachuted in.
Some of young protestors came in costume, wearing surgical and gas masks. They politely waited to hold their die-in until after the old folks were done talking. The remainder of the audience was comprised of suburban householders, old-school environmentalists, politicians, and the odd reporter.
The scene had all the markings of a summertime reality TV show, including more than one camera.
On cue, the program started at 6:00 p.m. on August 15 at the Bridgeton Recreational Center and ended two hours later, when the young protestors staged their protest.
Everyone was there to participate in a community dialogue with EPA officials about whether radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill Superfund site should be excavated and hauled away from the Missouri River flood plain and disposed of elsewhere, or capped in place and left to leak into the underground water system forever.
The choice couldn’t seem more clear. By holding the meeting, it makes the insane option #2 seem more acceptable. This, of course, is the EPA consultant’s job, making the implausible plausible.
The EPA officials listened to the reasoned pleas of the citizens, hemmed and hawed, and waited for the clock to run out, which seems to fit their overall strategy. The federal agency first proposed leaving the waste in place back in 2008, but the idea met stiff community opposition, which forced the EPA to take a second look at other options. A final record of decision on what to do with the long-neglected site is slotted for the end of the year.
With the deadline approaching, the angst in the room was palpable.
Community activists have been lobbying for years to have the clean-up taken away from the EPA and put in the hands of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has cleaned up similar waste in the St. Louis area under the aegis of the Department of Energy’s Formerly Utilized Site Remedial Action Program or FUSRAP. But the bill authorizing that change up is stalled in Congress. During the lull, the EPA is moving ahead with its plan, which has been further complicated by an underground landfill fire at the site.
Add the potentially responsible parties, including the DOE and a couple of heavy-hitting corporations along with a confusing mash up of various political interests, and it makes for a disaster that is not waiting to happen, but rather unfolding in real time.
There’s also the aforementioned edgy feeling to these events.
The EPA’s stage-managed productions may be formulaic, but there’s always the chance that someone will go off script. EPA officials cancelled their appearance at a meeting this spring, for example, after a threat was made against them on Facebook.
Maybe that’s why the anonymous man in the blue shirt and khaki pants sat quietly in the back of the room snapping pictures of those in attendance on August 15.
When later cornered, he gave his name, rank and serial number.
EPA Region 7 public affairs specialist Kris Lancaster said he was there to assist his fellow flack Ben Washburn. Lancaster said his role for the evening was to take photographs for the EPA’s newsletter, but he wasn’t sure how many of them they would use.
Lancaster has bounced around the federal bureaucracy a long time, previously doing stints with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department Health Human Services. He has also served as a congressional aide twice during his career. Between 1990 and 1993 he held a staff position with U.S. Rep. Thomas Coleman of Kansas City. Lancaster started his career in 1975 as an aide to U.S. Rep. Richard H. Ichord of southeast Missouri.
Ichord is most remembered for being the last chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was renamed the House Internal Security Committee during his tenure that ran from 1969 to 1975.
In a 1970 speech before the St. Louis County Chamber of Commerce, Ichord, a zealous anti-communist, warned that the environmental movement could someday be subverted by the radical left.
Speaking at Slay’s restaurant in Affton, the congressman said, “Solving the problems of pollution will require sound and pragmatic actions from state and city governments, plus massive volunteer activities as well as the support you have the right to expect from the federal government.”
Apparently, taking surveillance photos at public meetings is part of the federal government’s responsibilities — and Dick Ichord’s man is still on the job — 40 years later.