A Question of Morality

The First Secret City presents: Tom Zoellner — author of Uranium: War Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World — on the social responsibility of proper disposal of nuclear waste.

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1209 North Orange Street

Republic Services hides its dirty business by incorporating in Delaware, a state notorious for shielding corporations from public scrutiny. 

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285,000 corporations — including the Bridgeton Landfill — call the above address home.

Republic Services, the nation’s second largest waste disposal company, is headquartered in Phoenix, but its troublesome subsidiary — Bridgeton Landfill LLC  —  is incorporated more than 2,300 miles away in Delaware, a state known for its favorable corporate climate.

Bridgeton Landfill is a member of  the club that calls 1209 North Orange Street home. It’s a place where corporations behave like secret societies; companies flock to evade  accountability; and the cloaking of free enterprise is accepted as standard business practice.

The same address in Wilmington, Delaware, the state capital, is home to more than 285,000 corporations, including some of the largest in the U.S. and the world. The beige brick building with the red awning at 1209 North Orange Street is the business address for American Airlines, Bank of America, Apple, Google, J.P. Morgan Chase, Wal-Mart, Berkshire Hathaway, Coca-Cola and Ford, among others.

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The nondescript office on North Orange is also the mailing address for less scrupulous corporations allegedly engaged in illegal activities such as money laundering, drug trafficking and embezzlement. Investigative reporters for the Panama Papers organization and the Organized Crime and Corruption and Reporting Project have followed trails that dead-end at 1209 North Orange. Delaware secrecy laws make it nearly impossible to get a clear picture of companies that register in the state. Delaware’s lax corporate regulatory environment are comparable to off-shore tax havens such as Bermuda, the Bahamas and Cayman Islands, where Republic also has connections.

Because of the favorable business environment, Delaware currently has more corporations than people. Most of the companies operate legitimately and use the state to legally skirt taxes and avoid bothersome regulations.

In recent years, the U.S. Justice Department and World Bank have both expressed concerns over the situation and criticized the state for its laissez faire policies.

Bridgeton Landfill is most noted for its so-called “subsurface smoldering event,” an underground fire that has been burning since 2010 toward radioactive waste dumped at the site illegally more than 40 years ago. Republic Services, the owner of the site, has been fighting efforts for years by community members to remove the waste, which is located in a floodplain in North St. Louis County, approximately one mile from the Missouri River.

Last year, the EPA belatedly acknowledged that the radioactive contamination is seeping into the groundwater. Many residents believe the contamination is the cause of long-term health problems and deaths due to chronic exposure. Republic and its supporters reject these assertions and are backing a plan to bury the toxic waste at its present location. The EPA delayed making its final decision late last year, leaving the long-standing problem unresolved.

Avoiding legal liability is another advantage to setting up shop in Delaware. Republic can breath easier there, while nearby residents in North St. Louis County continue to gasp for air because of the  stench waifing from Republic’s toxic dump.

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The Cayman Connection

Republic Services claims no environmental woes to snare a billion-dollar-plus loan with the help of its offshore insurer. 

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Republic Services, owner of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill in St. Louis County, scored a $1.2 billion loan from a consortium of the world’s largest banks in 2014 by assuring its lenders that the company had no environmental problems that would effect its bottom line, StlReporter has learned.

Under the terms of the agreement signed on June 30, 2014, Republic claims that “existing environmental laws and existing environmental claims” could not reasonably be expected to a have a  “material adverse effect” on the company’s operations.  “Material adverse effect” is defined in the agreement as being a change that would negatively impact “operations, business, properties, assets or conditions, financial or otherwise, of the borrower and its subsidiaries taken as a whole.”

“No Problemo”

The assurances that the company has no notable environmental headaches came despite public controversy surrounding the environmental and health hazards posed by the company’s West Lake property, an EPA Superfund site, and corresponding calls for the buyout of nearby homeowners.

To qualify for the 2014 loan, the banks required Republic to assume liability for potential environmental issues and indemnify them against claims. Republic complied to the terms by designating an offshore subsidiary — the Bom Ambiente Insurance Co. of the Cayman Islands — as the company’s insurer. Unlike most of its other subsidiaries Bom Ambiente is exempted from the terms of the loan agreement.

Aon Insurance Management, a leading captive and reinsurance company, represents Bom Ambiente Insurance through its offices in the Cayman Islands, which are located in the same posh office building as a major offshore law firm.

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Spokespersons for Republic and Aon declined to comment.

So-called “captive insurance” companies are set up by their parent corporations as a means of providing affordable risk management services based on the concept of self insurance. Many risk-prone businesses locate their in-house insurance operations in the Cayman Islands to take advantage of favorable governmental regulations and the absence of income and capital gains taxes.

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Republic Services,  one of three parties liable for the EPA-mandated cleanup, opposes removing the West Lake waste. Instead, the company favors the terms of the original 2008 record of decision calling for capping the materials in place. That proposal is being reconsidered due to public opposition.  The cost of removal is estimated at $400 million or ten times the original plan.  But there seems to be more riding on the final decision than the cost of the clean up.

The future of the company may be at stake.

The banks that signed off on the five-year loan are among the most prominent financial institutions in the world. They include: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Barclays, BNP Paribas, Union Bank and SunTrust. Bank of the America, the lead lender, has committed $87 million.

The loan agreement spells out how Republic can borrow the money over the course of the agreement through regular loans, advances on credit, or so-called, short-term “swing-line” loans. The agreement does not stipulate the purposes for which the Republic uses the borrowed money. But Bridgeton Landfill and Rock Road Industries, two Republic Services-owned companies connected to the troubled West Lake property, are among the hundreds of Republic subsidiaries that are a party to the loan agreement.

In Schedule 5.12 of the loan agreement, Republic says it has no issues to report related to environmental matters. But the company’s February 2016 Security and Exchange Commission 10-K report discloses that for 2014 Republic accrued more than $227 million in costs coping with environmental matters at its troubled West Lake property.

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In short, the company readily acknowledged the high cost of addressing environmental matters at West Lake to the SEC earlier this year, but denied any problems would have a “material adverse effect” in paying back its debt in the 2014 loan agreement. To do otherwise would be a breach of the loan agreement and could be considered a default.

A Slow-Motion Train Wreck

Republic Services acquired the environmentally-troubled Bridgeton and West Lake Landfills in 2008 when it merged with Allied Waste Services. The impacted landfills are now closed, but Republic continues to operate a transfer station at the same location, which has been an EPA Superfund site since 1990.

The history of radioactive contamination at West Lake dates back to 1973, when the waste was illegally dumped. Federal, state and local regulatory authorities have been aware of the problem for more than 40 years, but failed to act.

The inaction made matters worse.

In December 2010, Republic told the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that an underground fire was burning at the Bridgeton Landfill, which is directly next to the West Lake Landfill and part of the same Superfund site. The stench from the fire raised dormant public concerns.

By February 2013, MDNR had cited Republic for noxious odors. The next month the Missouri Attorney General sued the company for violations of state environmental laws. That case is still pending. A negotiated agreement between the state and Republic Services to build a barrier to stop the fire from advancing closer to the radioactive waste is also stalled, as is federal legislation that would hand the cleanup over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

During these delays, the fire has moved closer to the radioactive material.

Meantime, the MDNR and the EPA have confirmed that radioactive materials are known to have migrated off site, further contaminating air, soil and water. Private lawsuits have also been filed against the company.

To those unfamiliar with the world of high finance, the reporting discrepancies and ongoing issues at West Lake would seem enough to raise eyebrows among Republic’s individual and institutional investors, including  firms tied to billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

But that hasn’t happened.

Apparently, Republic’s word is its bond among stock market traders. From a business perspective, environmental stewardship and standard accounting practices are based on the letter of the law. West Lake be damned. After all, the five-year, $1.2 billion loan is a fraction of  Republic’s long-term debt, which stands at $7.5 billion and counting.

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To Be Perfectly Blunt

Republic Services, the owner of the troubled West Lake Landfill, paid $380,000 to  D.C. lobbyists last year, including a firm headed by Sen. Roy Blunt’s former chief of staff.  

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Republic Services, the company that opposes removing radioactive waste from the West Lake Landfill, paid $380,000  to two powerful Washington, D.C. lobbying firms in 2016, according to Open Secrets, a website that tracks influence peddling inside the Beltway.

The lobbying costs were split between West Front Strategies and Cloakroom Advisors. West Front Strategies received $220,000 from Republic, while Cloakroom Advisors hauled in $160,000.

Republic has repeatedly opposed efforts in the U.S. Congress and the Missouri State Legislature that have sought to address the long delayed cleanup. In the last eight years, the company has paid federal lobbyists more than $2 million.

West Front Strategies, which has close ties to Republican Party leadership,  also lobbies on behalf of  Microsoft, which was founded by billionaire Bill Gates. Gates holds the largest share of Republic Services stock through his investment firm, Cascade Investment.  Other corporations employing West Front Strategies include media giant Comcast, owner of NBCUniversal, and Aetna Insurance.

Cloakroom Advisors represents Republic through two of its St. Louis-based subsidiaries, Bridgeton Landfill and Rock Road Industries, which are both directly tied to West Lake Landfill Superfund Site.

Cloakroom Advisors also represents St. Louis-based BJC Healthcare, which is associated with Washington University Medical School and operates Barnes-Jewish Hospital and its affiliates; and Bayer AG, the German pharmacuetical conglomerate that bought out St. Louis-based Monsanto last year.

The top lobbyist at Cloakroom Advisors is Greg Hartley, former chief of staff to  U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) from 1997-2003. Those years corresponds with the time period that Blunt, now a U.S. Senator from Missouri, was snared in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. 

Senator Blunt’s daughter, Amy Blunt,  is a lobbyist for the Kansas City-based law firm of Lathrop & Gage, which represents Republic Services.  The senator’s son Andrew is also a Missouri lobbyist, and ran his father’s reelection campaign last year.