The St. Louis Post-Dispatch overlooked EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s visit here last month, helping coverup the Trump regime’s scheme to downgrade the West Lake Landfill Superfund Site’s status in favor of jump starting a money-making cobalt mine in Southeast Missouri.
It should come as no surprise that the Flat River Daily Journal scooped the St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier this month, but it is, nonetheless, disturbing given the ramifications of what is at stake.
On August 1, the Journal, a small-town newspaper in Southeast Missouri, reported on EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s tour of a shuttered lead mine near Fredericktown in Madison County, Mo. that is being resurrected to extract cobalt.
The Post-Dispatch did not report the story.
Earlier the same day, Wheeler had also met with community leaders at Bridgeton City Hall to discuss the troubled West Lake Landfill.
The Post-Dispatch missed that story, too.
Both the landfill and the mine are EPA Superfund sites. Together they illustrate the Trump administration’s environmental priorities or lack thereof. But readers of the Post-Dispatch remain largely unaware of this strange symbiotic relationship and its potential environmental consequences because the newspaper didn’t report on Wheeler’s visit.
The gaffe occurred despite the EPA announcing the Fredericktown stop in an online press release.
Opposition to Trump administration’s environmental policies by the newspaper’s editorial page may have played a role in the snafu, but whatever the reason, readers of St. Louis’ only daily newspaper were left in the dark.
Wheeler met the morning of July 31 at Bridgeton City Hall with concerned St. Louis County residents to discuss issues related to the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill site. Those present included Ed Smith, policy director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment; Harvey Ferdman, chairman of the West Lake Community Advisory Group; Bridgeton Mayor Terry Briggs; and Karen Nickel and Dawn Chapman of Just Moms STL, the group that has spearheaded the campaign to expedite a clean up of the long neglected site.
After the meeting in Bridgeton, Wheeler headed south to tour the cobalt mining site in Madison County, Mo., which is polluted with tailings from past lead mining operations. Wheeler and Republican U.S. Rep. Jason Smith rendezvoused at the mine to promote the 20th anniversary of the EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Initiative, a program that spurs the reuse of contaminated land by private enterprise.Both West Lake Landfill and the mine near Fredericktown are Superfund sites, but under the Trump administration they are categorized differently, and West Lake appears to now be getting the short end of the stick.
That’s because the president’s first EPA administrator Scott Pruitt created a Superfund Task Force that prioritizes Superfund sites nationwide. Wheeler has continued the program. The Westlake Landfill was originally on the national priorities list. But shortly after Wheeler announced the West Lake final record of decision in September 2018, he removed the site from the priorities list, inserting the mine near Fredericktown in its place.
” I actually addressed my concern with Wheeler that EPA might decrease its intensity on West Lake since it was removed from the administration’s personal priority list following the record of decision,” says Smith, the development director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. Smith adds that he hasn’t observed any noticeable decline by the EPA in carrying out its decision, and that Wheeler assured him of the agency’s commitment.
“As much as I don’t like many things the EPA is doing under this administration, I think we can agree the record of decision at West Lake is a major step in the right direction,” Smith says. “MCE is continuing to engage EPA for further removal under its groundwater investigation with the goal of 100% removal.”
Despite that optimistic view, the situation on the ground appears less rosy.
Remedial action remains stalled at West Lake and is not expected to begin for years. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has fast tracked the clean up of the mine in Madison County, which is co-owned by St. Louis businessman Stacy Hastie, the founder of Environmental Operations Inc., a company that specializes in cleaning up polluted sites through the use of public funding and state tax credits.
As the Post-Dispatch and other news outlets have reported, Hastie’s company dominates the St. Louis environmental clean up industry by making hefty contributions to politicians, sometimes receiving de facto, no-bid contracts in return that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
Hastie bought the defunct Madison County, Mo. lead mine in 2018 with partner J. Randall Waterfield, an Indiana financier. Their company — Missouri Cobalt — says on its website that it will soon begin extracting cobalt, a valuable mineral now in high demand because of its use in the manufacture of smart phones, electric car batteries, and guided missiles.
As a part of the arrangement, Hastie formed a separate company — Environmental Risk Transfer — to handle the environmental clean up of the EPA’s Madison County Mines Superfund site, where the mine is located. The added side deal allows him to profit from both the mandated EPA Superfund clean up and the future mining operations.
This is seen as a win-win for Hastie and the Trump bund, which favors business interests over environmental and human health concerns. In this case, Wheeler, a climate-change denier and former coal industry lobbyist, is the president’s chosen pitchman to promote merging government and private interests. Reopening the mine also fits the administration’s trade policies, which favor domestic production and turns a blind eye to future pollution problems.
Hastie’s cobalt mine has received priority status from the EPA at the apparent expense of the West Lake Landfill clean up. But with the Trump administration in control of the agency that might not be an altogether bad turn of events for those who would prefer the full removal of radioactive waste from the landfill.
The latest twists in the saga mirrors the site’s long, sordid history. The EPA has dragged its feet in cleaning up the radioactive contamination at West Lake since 1990, when it took control of the site, where Manhattan Project waste was dumped illegally in 1973. More recently, it took a decade to finalize the latest, flawed decision after community opposition forced the agency to reconsider its initial plan to bury all the waste on site. The terms of that 2018 decision now calls for leaving almost a third of the radioactive contamination in the landfill, where it will continue to leak into the Missouri River aquifer, while further studies of groundwater contamination continue. The cost of partial removal of the waste is pegged at more than $200 million.
In June, a Post-Dispatch editorial lambasted Wheeler and the EPA for a plan to impose draconian measures that will further restrict public access to agency documents through the Freedom of Information Act. The editorial decried the new rule because it would allow Wheeler and his minions to censor responses to FOIA requests with the stroke of the pen. Now the Post-Dispatch appears to be inextricably tangled in a game of tit for tat with Trump’s EPA. By not reporting on Wheeler’s visit the newspaper withheld vital news from its readers, leaving citizens of the St. Louis region caught in the crossfire — victims of collateral damage.