“One Good Reason to Avoid Landfills”

In a sarcastic email exchange, a Missouri Department of Natural Resources expert gives his candid assessment of the situation at West Lake Landfill, circa 2013. In a word, it’s “HORRIBLE.”

 

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For years, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has remained quiet regarding the situation at the West Lake Landfill. The state regulatory agency claims it can’t comment publicly because of pending litigation filed on its behalf by the Missouri attorney general against Republic Services, owner of the smoldering, radioactive landfill.

As a result, DNR’s reticence has helped spur mistrust among residents, who remain enraged over the stalled clean up of the EPA Superfund site in North St. Louis County, where an underground fire has been smoldering for more than four years.

The DNR email cited in this story — which was released by the state agency under the Missouri Sunshine Law, takes a small step towards breaks the state agency’s silence.

Unfortunately, it’s bad news.

In a word, the state official who penned the correspondence considers the stench wafting from West Lake Landfill as “HORRIBLE.” At the same time, he appears relieved that he isn’t responsible for dealing with the problem.

“The gas seeping out is HORRIBLE,” said Chris Cady, a DNR project manager for the agency’s Brownfields Clean Up Program. When Cady sent the message on March 28, 2013 to a family member, he also mentioned another danger: “If that wasn’t enough, a remote section of the landfill has thousands of tons of radioactive tailings from uranium enrichment by the Malinkcrodt (sic) Chemical St. Louis plant during the cold war which was moved and re-disposed there in 1973.”

Of course, there is nothing “remote” about the location of the radioactive waste at the landfill. The contamination is present prominently in two location, one of which borders the front of the landfill along St. Charles Rock Road. Moreover, since Cady wrote the email three years ago, the underground fire has moved even closer to the radioactive materials.

Cady, a PhD, also took exception to a warning raised in 2013 by an unnamed academic expert who also holds a doctoral degree. “Now some university professor (darn those PhDs) says the landfill gas could explode in a dirty bomb scenario and contaminate everyone with rad waste. Which is bogus, but simply adds fuel to the fire,” Cady wrote.

The recipient of Cady’s email responded by saying “the dirty bombe (sic) scenario is funny, or would be if it wasn’t so sad.”

Cady titled the subject of his email: “One good reason to avoid landfills,” and described the situation as a “mess.” He judged the problem to be “a bad one, [a] real public health threat and an emergency.” At the same time, Cady seemed to dismiss the risks posed by the radioactive materials, and said that the subsurface smoldering event at West Lake was not that “uncommon” despite their presence.

Based on his cavalier tone and condescending attitude, it’s a safe bet that the agency he represents is not intent on doing anything beyond kibitzing in private, and letting the fire run its course. In the meantime, about the only action the DNR can be counted on to do is  doles out more contracts to privateers.

Secret Agent Man

Former EPA official John C. Beale alleged he was a CIA agent for years, attributing his absences to covert missions, and charging the environmental agency nearly $900,000 in travel costs, bonuses and overtime pay. After confessing, he went to prison. His boss — Gina McCarthy — received a promotion.  

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When self-professed CIA agent John C. Beale left the halfway house in Philadelphia on June 1, his unheralded release marked the end of a bizarre saga that began quietly in 2000. For the next 13 years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Beale told his EPA colleagues that he worked for the CIA.  Finally, when confronted about his alleged covert activities in 2013, Beale claimed he had fabricated his espionage career to get out of work. By this point he had reportedly fleeced the government out of $866,168 in travel expenses, bonuses and compensation. He pleaded guilty of felony theft charges, promptly paid a seven-figure fine and was sentenced to 32-months in federal prison.

Beale served only 18 months before he walked, a veritable slap on the wrist for the crime to which he confessed.  But his boss, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy,  to whom Beale reported, survived the scandal unscathed and was actually promoted to head the agency in the wake of the controversy.

The press had a field day with the Beale affair. C-Span covered the resulting congressional hearings. NBC and the Washington Post reported the story,  as did various online publications and the Associated Press. Wire service coverage appeared in nearly 100 newspapers coast-to-coast. Newspapers that reported the story included the Albuquerque Journal, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Iowa City Press-Citizen, Great Falls Tribune, Baxter Bulletin and the Poughkeepsie Journal.

In St. Louis, however, the whole sordid affair went unreported because the The St. Louis-Post-Dispatch failed to mention Beale’s misdeeds.

A significant story involving corruption at the highest levels of a federal agency  were overlooked. An entire metropolitan region  left uninformed by its only major daily newspaper, hundreds of thousands of readers kept in the dark.

For St. Louisans, it was as if the Beale affair never happened.

The lack of coverage by the Post-Dispatch was even more egregious because of the EPA’s mishandling of the West Lake Landfill clean up in St. Louis County.

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Radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project and Cold War era had been illegally dumped at the West Lake Landfill in 1973. The EPA had taken over the Superfund site in 1990. But by 2013, the agency had yet to clean up the mess, and the natives were getting restless. Thanks to social media,  a community group dedicated to the issue, STL Just Moms, grew by leaps and bounds. Among its primary goals:  the protection of human health and the removal of the waste from the Missouri River floodplain. Another of the organization’s main objectives is to ditch the EPA altogether and hand over the clean up to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

While the local outrage ramped up here, corruption charges were being leveled against top EPA officials implicated in the  Beale affair.  But in St. Louis few people knew about the agency’s troubles in Washington because of the local news blackout.

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In the nation’s capital, it was a big story. The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives took a keen interest in the Beale’s shenanigans and lambasted EPA administrator McCarthy for her involvement.  On October 1, 2013,  for example, Beale himself  was grilled  before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform for hours. His written statement is 263-pages long.

Nevertheless, a blanket of censorship remained in place in St. Louis.

“The name is Beale, John Beale.”

Beale had started working at the EPA in 1988 and was soon elevated to the position of policy analyst. His areas of expertise included the Clean Air Act and climate change. In 2000, he began taking days off of work to allegedly attend CIA meetings. Over the course of the next decade his absences increased. By 2008, his days off increased dramatically, when he requested and received a six month hiatus to ostensibly take part in a CIA covert operation. After the Obama administration came into power in 2009, McCarthy became Beale’s boss in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, and his role as the EPA’s secret agent continued uninterrupted. She didn’t question his alleged CIA ties if anything she accepted the idea without reservation.

In September 2011, Beale and two other EPA officials threw a retirement party for themselves on a yacht in the Potomac River. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy attended the shindig. She considered Beale to be one of her most competent managers. At same time, she  was also aware of his alleged dual role as a CIA agent, but, nevertheless, lamented Beale’s  departure from the EPA. None of this raised any red flags for a long, long time.

But the saga gets weirder. Beale officially retired in early 2012 but he inexplicably continued to receive his full salary after his retirement. By this time, Beale’s paycheck, which included bogus bonuses, exceeded McCarthy’s  salary. He was the highest paid employee at the EPA and he wasn’t even showing up for work. Beale was pulling down a full-time salary of $206,000 from the EPA — after he had retired.

under the guise of national security

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When the EPA Office of Inspector General began investigating Beale, its probe was upended by a little-known subunit within EPA administrator Gina McCarthy’s inner sanctum. McCarthy’s chief of staff was in charge of the obscure detachment, which calls itself the EPA Office of Homeland Security.

This  questionable operation is not part of the Department of Homeland Security and was run without oversight, after being set up in 2003 to deal with possible terrorism threats against sensitive environmental sites. Its intended purpose was to coordinate protocol with the FBI. It has no statutory authority to conduct internal investigations. But that’s exactly what it did in John C. Beale’s case, much to consternation of the EPA Office of Inspector General.

Testifying before the same congressional panel that Beale appeared before, Assistant EPA Inspector General Patrick Sullivan said that the investigation of John Beale had been  obstructed because Beale had been tipped off that he was a subject of interest by McCarthy’s sketchy security apparatus run out her office and headed by Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, the administrator’s handpicked chief of staff.

“The OHS’ actions, which included several interviews with Mr. Beale, damaged the OIG’s subsequent investigation,” Sullivan told Congress.

McCarthy was far from the only one who believed Beale was a CIA agent. Some of Beale’s colleagues at the EPA still remain convinced that he was a covert operative. Moreover, Beale’s wife was under the assumption that her husband worked clandestinely for the CIA since 1994.

Nancy Kete, Beale’s spouse, met him when she was employed by the EPA. She took a sabbatical from her EPA duties in the early 1990s to work in Paris as an environmental advisor for the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development, an organization that grew out of the Marshall Plan, the United States government’s efforts to rebuild Europe after World War II. By the time the scandal broke in 2012, Kete had made a career change and was the managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, a position she held until this April.

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Kete’s credentials suggest that her professional ties may connect her more to the shadowy world of espionage than her husband’s career path. She reputedly was embarrassed by the exposure that her husband’s escapades received.

Under existing federal law, the CIA must inform other U.S. government agencies if any of its employees also work for the agency. When contacted, the CIA denied any association with Beale.

For his part, Beale expressed contrition for his lies, paid his fine of more than $1.3 million and served his time. In the wake of the scandal, Gina McCarthy was promoted to head the EPA.  The story that wasn’t reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has now been largely forgotten by the rest of America, too.

No progress has been made in cleaning up the  EPA’s West Lake Landfill Superfund site, as a change in presidential administrations nears. The stonewalling and the foot dragging  will likely continue into the next year.

Meanwhile, community activists in St. Louis are continuing to expose the shameful betrayal perpetrated by the U.S. government against its citizens despite lax coverage by the local news media.

Casual readers of spy thrillers are aware that it is standard operating procedure for the CIA to deny involvement when any of its covert actions are publicly exposed. It appears that the EPA operates on the same principle.

John C. Beale may now be long gone, but the game goes on.

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Behind Closed Doors

While the underground fire continues to burn at the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill, the federal government seems more concerned about quietly hashing out deals with corporate interests. 

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Attend any West Lake Community Advisory Group meeting and you’ll see them there. They’ll be scribbling notes. More often than not, they’re well-dressed women in business suits, serious professionals. But they’re not government officials, scientists, or engineers.

They’re lawyers. Private lawyers.

The attorneys are quietly noting every detail being discussed at the public forums so they can report back to their corporate clients. They are the hired guns of the potentially responsible parties, those companies held liable under the EPA Superfund law for the cost of the  West Lake Landfill clean up. Except for these rare appearances, the lawyers mostly work behind the scenes, with little or no accountability to the public.

It’s not unusual for private attorneys to meet on the low, but in this case their talks are being  facilitated by the Department of Justice. Involvement of the DOJ, which is keeping an unusually low profile, raises more questions about the situation at West Lake, which is already mired by doubts and suspicions due to a lack of transparency by government regulators.

While the lawyers meet behind closed doors, an underground landfill fire is approaching the radioactive waste at the site, exposing residents to unknown risks.

The three potentially responsible parties that share the liability for the clean up of the site are the U.S. Department of Energy,  Exelon Corp., and Republic Services, owner of the troubled dump.

DOJ’s involvement isn’t new. It’s been going on a long time, sanctioned by obscure federal rules and regulations and codified by law.  But few people in the impacted community of North St. Louis County are aware of the DOJ’s influence.

After the Nuclear Regulatory Commission handed over control of the site to the EPA decades ago, the DOJ stepped in to act as an arbiter among the potentially liable parties [PRPs], negotiating the terms of a settlement agreement, a pact which is referred to as a “non-binding allocation of responsibilities.” In short, the deal specifies who pays for what.

The quiet DOJ negotiations  would have remained so if not for efforts of environmentalists intent on uncovering the tangled relationships among government regulators and private industry. The revelation was exposed by the recent release of internal EPA email records obtained by the Environmental Archives under the Freedom of Information Act. One of the emails references DOJ’s role.

On Nov. 23, 2015, Jessie Kerrigan of Lathrop and Gage law firm wrote to Alyse Stoy, EPA Region 7 general counsel:

“As I mentioned the parties do have an existing settlement agreement for allocation of SFS costs to DOJ. I have attached it for your information and to share with DOJ if that would be useful (given that the DOJ team has changed since the execution of this).”

Lathrop and Gage represents  Republic Services, one of the PRPs.  SFS stands for “supplemental feasibility study.” The supplemental feasibility study is being done as a part of reconsidering the EPA’s 2008 Record of Decision.

The message is vague but indicates that DOJ’s current role goes beyond being a mere negotiator. Instead, the email suggests that the DOJ is paying the cost of the supplemental feasibility study or  playing the role of  the EPA’s collection agent. But just how much money is being paid out by whom and for what purposes is unclear because DOJ’s books are closed.