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.
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.