October 23, 1979: Kay Drey and Byron Clemons lining up to oppose plans to move 20,000 tons of radioactive waste from Latty Avenue in Hazelwood to the airport site.
October 23, 1979: Kay Drey and Byron Clemons lining up to oppose plans to move 20,000 tons of radioactive waste from Latty Avenue in Hazelwood to the airport site.
Chenega Logistics — a well-connected defense contractor owned by an obscure Alaskan Indian tribe — oversaw record keeping for all Superfund sites in EPA Region 7, including the controversial West Lake Landfill.
Beginning in 2011, Chenega Logistics of Lorton, Va., received a five-year contract for more than $4 million to oversee record keeping for EPA Region 7 Superfund sites — including the controversial West Lake Landfill —The First Secret City has learned.
Details of the agreement between the agency and the shadowy, billion-dollar defense contractor are included in documents released by the EPA under the Freedom of Information Act.
Chenega Logistics is owned by the Chenega Indian Tribe of Alaska, and is one of many subsidaries of the sprawling Chenega Corp., which receives hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts from various military and intelligence agencies under the terms of a Small Business Administration program that supports small, disadvantaged businesses.
The Region 7 contract ran between 2011 and 2016, according to the cache of documents. Prior to the awarding of the contract, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) raised questions about the preferential treatment received by Chenega and other members of Alaska Native Corporations in Senate hearings in 2009. The scrutiny stemmed some of the abuse, but did not halt all of the questionable practices.
The EPA contract was administered by Chenega’s Military, Intelligence and Operations Support, a shared contracting arm that also provides services to the U.S. State Department, Department of Justice, FBI, National Security Agency, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Army Special Operations Command, Air Force Office of Special Operations, Army Southern Command, Navy Submarine Warfare Center, Army Communications and Electronics Command, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Chenega Military Intelligence and Operations Support’s current president is John Campagna, a retired U.S. Army Special Operations officer who is credited with integrating high-tech surveillance operations with existing intelligence gathering methods of American spy agencies.
Among Chenega Military Intelligence Operation Support’s 18 subsidiaries is NJVC, which has three locations in the St. Louis area. In 2013, the National Geo-spacial Intelligence Agency reissued a multi-year contract worth nearly $400 million to NJVC. The company has locations in downtown St. Louis; Arnold, Mo.; and O’Fallon, Ill.
Chenega Corp. employs more than 5,000 people, but few of that number are Native American.
The EPA failed to respond to a request for further information regarding its relationship with Chenega Logistics.
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.
Republic Services hides its dirty business by incorporating in Delaware, a state notorious for shielding corporations from public scrutiny.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Leidos oversees the testing of FUSRAP sites in St. Louis for the Army Corps. But its main gig is spying for the U.S. intelligence agencies, with zillions in contracts from the DOD, CIA, NSA and Homeland Security.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch front-page story on Sunday May 16, 2016 dismissed community concerns about radioactive contamination in Coldwater Creek and West Lake Landfill in North St. Louis County.
It took months to prepare the story. Sources were selected carefully from pro-nuke “experts.” There were fancy graphics and a sidebar, which helped fill an additional two pages inside. The digital version included a link to a sarcastic video that degraded those who took the issue seriously. The gist of the propaganda piece was that there is nothing to worry about. Its banner headline above the fold screamed, “Misplaced Fear?”
The rhetorical question was followed by a photograph of a worker in an orange safety vest and hardhat kneeling along the banks of Coldwater Creek. The cutline identifies him as health physics technician Antonio Martinez, but it doesn’t identify his employer. To figure out who employs Martinez it’s necessary to zoom in and take a closer look at the picture. Martinez’s hardhat is inscribed cryptically with one word: “Leidos.” The name was taken from the middle of “kaleidoscope,” and according to a press release it “reflects the company’s effort to unite solutions from different angles.” What those angles are is not exactly clear, however.
Judging by his attire and location, Martinez presumably works for the company’s environmental engineering division, which has a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that oversees the clean up of FUSRAP sites in St. Louis.
But Leidos has a darker side and lots of gray areas, too. Because there is so little light shone on the company’s clandestine activities, there is no way of knowing exactly what the shadowy firm does. A vast amount of its government contract work is classified top secret. This much is known:
Leidos is the federal government’s largest cyber-intelligence contractor, bigger than Booz Allen Hamilton, the spooky security firm that employed exiled whistleblower Edward Snowden. In short, the company spies on people for the U.S. government, including American citizens.
Leidos was created in 2013 when Science Applications International Corp. spun off a large portion of its classified government work. Both SAIC and Leidos have received multi-million-dollar contracts to do clean up work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Formerly Utilized Site Remediation Program (FUSRAP) in St. Louis, including the continuing cleanup of Coldwater Creek in North St. Louis County.
Leidos’ St. Louis offices are located on South Grand Boulevard in a renovated automobile repair garage. The building’s newly installed mirrored windows reflect the secretive nature of its government business, which is estimated to be valued at $60 billion. The company employs 80 percent of the private-sector work force engaged in contract work for U.S. spy and surveillance agencies, including the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, CIA and NSA.
Leidos also has a contract worth more than $300,000 with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources through its federal facilities management division. So the company is performing work for both the state and federal government with little or no public oversight.
Instead of “Misplaced Fears?,”perhaps a more appropriate headline for the Post-Dispatch’s hit job should have been “Misled and Smeared.”
When the DNR declared an emergency at the smoldering Bridgeton Landfill in 2013, the state agency skirted its formal bidding process, an out-of-state firm scored a sweet deal and the public was left none the wiser.
first published at STLReporter, Feb. 3, 2015
On March 18, 2013, environmental specialist Dan Norris and his boss Brenda Ardrey of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources quietly submitted a memorandum to Procurement of Services File RFP 3445-001. The memo shows that the department did not receive any bids that complied with the agency’s standards for air sampling services at the Bridgeton Landfill, where an underground fire has been burning near radioactive waste since 2010.
Nevertheless, a six-figure contract was awarded to SWAPE, an environmental firm from Santa Monica, Calif. The acronym stands for Soil Water Air Protection Enterprise. SWAPE, acting as a middle man, then hired a St. Louis-based subcontractor. The paper trail indicates no complete bids were received even after the DNR extended the deadlines by more than two weeks. The DNR guidelines normally require a minimum of three competitive bids. Two companies ultimately proposed deficient offers. By its own admission, the DNR awarded the plum to one of those companies based on an incomplete proposal. The DNR was able to skirt its normal protocols by invoking an emergency clause in its procurement process.
“Essentially, there was a response to the bid, it just wasn’t complete,” says Norris, who recently left his job with the state regulatory agency. “It was missing a couple things as far as the response to the actual form. DNR had not dealt with an event quite like this before. It’s not like there was just a playbook to go off of for sampling air around a smoldering landfill, at least not a playbook that Missouri had. “We were told to waste no time whatsoever on getting a contractor and getting boots on the ground out there to begin the air sampling. It was not the kind of thing that we wanted to hold up for administrative purposes. That’s why in early 2013 it was contracted out.”
Finding an environmental company then willing to challenge the interests of waste industry behemoth Republic Services, the landfill owner, appears to have been a difficult task for the DNR, according to public records obtained by StLReporter. So the agency turned to a trusted consultant to act as its de facto headhunter. The consultant contacted industry sources and ultimately recommended SWAPE. After getting the nod, SWAPE quickly lined up a subcontractor in St. Louis to do part of the work. Nobody involved in the deal will talk about it openly, citing contractual obligations.
When asked how the DNR first became aware of an environmental firm on the West Coast, Norris says: “I can’t comment on how we came to know SWAPE.” The two-year-old memo he co-signed indicates the firm was recommended by another contractor. Speaking from an undisclosed location by phone he also refused to talk about the price tag of the emergency air-monitoring contract. “I can’t comment on payment or billing or anything like that.”
Following an-age-old American custom, Norris has moved out West. He now lives in the Rocky Mountain Time Zone. He prefers not to divulge exactly where. Norris has exited Jeff City. But questions swirling around his leave-taking still plague his former agency like a bad case of the winter flu.
A Letter from Dan
Early last month, Norris wrote a broadside, condemning the agency for its cozy relationship with Republic Services, the company responsible for the site in North St. Louis County that is the location of a pair defunct landfills: one that’s smoldering and the other that contains radioactive waste dating back to the Manhattan Project. The two adjacent dumps are both part of a long-delayed Environmental Protection Agency Superfund clean-up site. In his parting shot, the former DNR staffer alleged that politics unduly influences regulatory decisions within the state agency, and that DNR employees are under the gun not to talk about it. The revelations have caused a stir inside and outside of the DNR.
Activists and community members familiar with the situation tend to agree with the whistleblower’s assessment, seeing Republic–the second largest waste hauler in the United States — as their foe. They point to Bill Gates’ stake in the company as evidence of the power that it wields. They allude to the company’s checkered environmental record elsewhere, including another smoldering landfill fire in Ohio. They also agree with Norris’ contention that Republic’s generous campaign contributions have swayed state lawmakers.
In that sense, it is not what Norris revealed that is relevant so much as the act itself. He broke the code of silence inside a department that in recent years has operated more like the CIA than a state environmental regulatory agency. Unfortunately, Norris’ criticisms of the DNR are vague, and his complaints raise more questions than answers. His account of agency wrongdoing is sketchy. He lays blame but buttons up when asked for details.
Under prevailing rules, DNR has been assigned the responsibility of containing an underground fire and reducing the noxious odors at the Bridgeton Landfill. The state maintains that Republic is liable for the expense of the emergency air sampling costs, but it’s unclear whether the company has ponied up. Reached at his office in Washington, D.C., Republic spokesman Russ Knocke was unaware of the contract and said he would have to do some homework to determine whether the state has been reimbursed.
The radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill next door is the bailiwick of the federal EPA. As the two bureaucracies advance their separate agendas at a glacial pace, the fire is heading in the direction of the nuclear materials.
In Norris’ absence, the status of the clean up has become more uncertain than ever. The building of a state mandated barrier to stop the fire from advancing has been indefinitely delayed. In the interim, doubts mount, finger pointing increases, and nobody seems in control. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster recently expedited the state’s case against Republic for violations filed two years ago, but there is no sign of a settlement. If anything, the company shows indications of being even more resistant to DNR’s appeals. Meanwhile, the activists are stepping up their calls for Gov. Jay Nixon to take action.
From outside DNR’s closed doors, the scenario seems bleak. There would appear to be no winners. However, department documents and correspondence show how one group consistently benefits from the intractable predicament — outside contractors.
A Quiet State of Emergency
Norris says he met DNR contractor Todd Thalhamer in 2008 at a training seminar. For the last several years, Thalhamer has given talks on landfill fires sponsored by Stark Consultants Inc., which is owned by Tim Stark, another DNR contractor. Thalhamer moonlights as a consultant, too, and owns Hammer Consulting Service in El Dorado, Calif. He works full-time as an environmental engineer for the state of California and is a firefighter in the El Dorado Volunteer Fire Department. Thalhamer received a bachelor’s degree in environmental resources engineering from Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. in 1992. His five-page resume indicates he worked on his first landfill fire in Sacramento County the same year he graduated from college. He has been under contract as a landfill fire expert for the DNR for the last four years.
Reached by phone in California, Thalhamer says the reason the DNR retains his services is because he has a unique skill set. “The only other individual that I’m aware of that has my expertise is a colleague of mine in British Columbia, and he’s outside the United States,” says Thalhamer. “I have a very unique background. I’m a fireman [and] a registered civil engineer. I do environmental emergency response in California and with EPA,” he says. “I’m one of the guys who trains the landfill owners and operators throughout the United States. My name is known in the industry.”
“Once DNR got Todd Thalhamer on contract,” says Norris, “Todd was able to inform us about certain things that we needed to be watching as far as the gas extraction well field, [and] additional data that we should be tracking.” Besides Norris, the team included two other DNR staffers, consultants Thalhamer and Stark and, a graduate student. “We tracked the landfill gas data from that well field from month to month. We started plotting it on maps to see what the overall condition was. At some point, we started to see signs that the event was spreading and intensifying.”
Then the odors at the landfill increased.
“By 2012, I was making a push that we really needed to collect some air-monitoring data to get a better handle on what the potential risks were from the landfill smoldering event, as well as just what risk that might be as far as exposing the community,” Norris says.
The increased odors coming off the Bridgeton Landfill in 2012 gave DNR cause for concern as public complaints mounted over the stench. This set the stage for the events that would lead to the emergency procurement contract in early 2013 in which Thalhamer would play a pivotal role.
By this point, the California consultant had the DNR’s ear, and his suggestions extended beyond the technical aspects of fighting landfill fires. When odor complaints jumped in early 2013, Thalhamer told the DNR to openly request EPA air testing as a way of calming residents fears. “We need to ensure the public that the odor is just that — an odor and not a health risk,” advised Thalhamer. “The quickest way to reduce the environmental worry in the community is to request the US EPA perform community and facility air sampling. Contractor data should be as valid as US EPA but we need to show the community we are concerned enough to make this request.”
A few months earlier in December 2012, the DNR had held a one-day training session presented by Thalhamer at Republic Service’s headquarters on St. Charles Rock Road. Those in attendance included, DNR staffers, representatives of the Pattonville and Robertson Fire Protection Districts, and officials from the St. Louis County Health Department. Brenda Ardrey of the DNR arranged the meeting and Republic, picked up the lunch tab for the sandwiches from a nearby Jimmy John’s restaurant.
Thalhamer charged $150 an hour for his services. Including various conferences calls, planning and travel expenses, the bill totaled $6,695.49.
His performance impressed Ardrey so much that she arranged for Thalhamer to speak the next summer at the Missouri Waste Control Coalition’s annual conference at the posh Tan-Tar-A resort on the Lake of the Ozarks. The 400-member coalition is comprised of private waste companies, government regulators and consultants.
The conference setting had the trappings of a country club, including a golf course, where the MWCC held its annual tournament over the same weekend. The clubby atmosphere between business and government regulators goes beyond the 18th hole, however. Ardrey’s boss Chris Nagel, director of DNR’s Solid Waste Management Program, sits on the advisory board of the waste coalition, and Larry Lehman, DNR’s chief enforcement officer, is on its board of directors. Besides Lehman, other board members include Randy Tourville of Republic Services and Lisa Messinger of EPA Region VII.
After DNR decided to fund air sampling at Bridgeton Landfill in early 2013, Thalhamer put SWAPE on DNR’s radar. Thalhamer and one of the owners of SWAPE had both worked on a case related to another Republic landfill fire in Ohio years earlier. Within a week, SWAPE had secured the DNR’s air-sampling contract without going through the regular bidding process.
That’s because a month earlier, DNR had quietly invoked an emergency clause in the state statutes and allocated more than a half a million dollars for the job. Internal DNR emails show officials carefully researched the matter to make sure the agency followed the letter of the law in declaring the emergency.
Few outside the DNR knew about the emergency. No sirens went off. The governor didn’t issue an evacuation order. Residents were not kept fully in the loop. Instead, agency insiders kept the situation hushed. The only other company that expressed interest in the contract submitted a proposal that was less acceptable than SWAPE’s.
Unlike others wary of consequences, SWAPE showed no fear of rousing the ire of Republic because it had already had a falling out with the waste giant in the past. On March 21, within 48 hours of receiving the contract, Paul Rosenfeld of SWAPE flew to St. Louis for a one-day meeting with DNR officials.
A subcontractor identified in an invoice only as JB also attended the talks. John Blank is the the owner of American Environmental Laboratories, a St. Louis-based firm that SWAPE hired as a subcontractor. Blank says the terms of his company’s involvement remain confidential, but he does reveal that SWAPE issued the requirements for conducting the air sampling — “the what and the how” — and the St. Louis lab reported the results back to SWAPE and the DNR.
The meeting between SWAPE and the DNR lasted 11 hours, according to public records. Rosenfeld charged $195 an hour. The subcontractor charged $120. SWAPE billed DNR a total of $5,821.86 for the day.
The terms of the emergency air-monitoring contract approved by DNR on Feb. 15, 2013 stipulated a 60-to-90 day deal valued at $600,000. SWAPE’s incomplete proposal submitted on March 29 totaled $594,060. After the contract was signed, invoices and purchase orders were issued in quick succession.
Whereas, SWAPE submitted detailed, line-item accounting of services rendered, the state purchase order only lists itemized expenses as “environmental, ecological and agricultural services: miscel [miscellaneous].” SWAPE continued its emergency air sampling under the initial arrangement through August 2013.
Ardrey referred all questions about the Bridgeton Landfill to the DNR information officer Gena Terlizzi. Voice and email messages left for Terlizzi went unreturned. When contacted, Beth Glickman, office manager for SWAPE, said: “We typically don’t talk to the press. We are still under contract with them (the DNR) and won’t be able to answer any questions.”
When asked about his role in the process, Thalhamer says: “As you probably know, I’m under contract with DNR so I can’t speak to issues surrounding that. … I understand your plight. I work for a government agency and I fight the same thing that you’re asking me for. But I also know contract law and know I’d be in jeopardy of breeching the contract.” Toward the end of the conversation, Thalhamer suggests digging deeper, and offers journalistic advise, including filing a state Freedom of Information request. Speaking about the SWAPE contract, he says: “There’s some interesting information there if you can get that Rubik’s Cube figured out.”
Less enigmatically, Norris concedes that there may be an appearance of something amiss in the state’s handling of the emergency air-monitoring contract, but he has no doubt that the public’s interest was best served by the decision.
“SWAPE had the expertise, the history of sampling around landfill fires elsewhere” says Norris. “I think that they were probably in the best position at that point and time to do the air sampling whether it was done by them or a subcontractor that was progressing in a fashion that was protective of public health,” Norris says.
“There was additional concerns from the community living around the site in large part due to the increase in odors, Norris says. Benzene and certain others [chemicals] were elevated in the landfill gas. There were certain chemical compounds that appeared to be elevated downwind versus upwind of the landfill at least slightly.”
Air sampling at the site measured dioxins, furans, benzene, aldehydes, reduced sulfur compounds and volatile organic compounds, all of which can cause serious health effects through long-term exposure. But test results at the Bridgeton Landfill analyzed by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found chemicals of concern to be below the threshold of concern for human health over the time frame of the emergency air sampling contract.
Norris doesn’t argue with those findings, but he does assert that politics is influencing science. “Politics seems to be invading the technical work to a greater extent than when I first started that’s for sure, [but] we were able to accomplish quite a bit even within the political confines during this event, especially in 2013,” he says.
Norris makes clear that his resignation and subsequent letter are unrelated to the SWAPE memo or the hiring of outside contractors in general. “It was really kind of broader issues at the department,” he says. He mentions bureaucratic inefficiencies, the role of politics and lax enforcement as reasons for his discontent and departure, but stops short of placing the onus on anything specific, leaving the listener to turn Rubik’s Cube for himself.
Unit A at 205 Riverview Drive is vacant. A stack of native limestone blocks stands by the entrance, the only vestige remaining of the apartment’s last tenant. A for-rent sign is posted in the front yard and a sodden edition of the Jefferson City News-Tribune lies in the gutter. The brick duplex is located on a residential street in the sleepy Missouri capital, where on a mild January day a woman washes her shiny SUV in a nearby driveway. With a dog barking in the backyard and dinner on the stove in the kitchen, the occupant of Unit B leans against his front door jamb, warily answering questions about Dan Norris’ whereabouts. He is tight-lipped when it comes to the details, but says his neighbor of eight years moved out about three weeks ago and didn’t leave a forwarding address. — C.D. Stelzer
The EPA fudged its 2014 test results of the Bridgeton Athletic Complex, assuring the public that the ballfields were safe, while withholding data that warranted further investigation.
Internal EPA emails show the agency was aware that radiation levels at the Bridgeton Athletic Complex were above background levels, but failed to clearly alert the public of its findings in a timely manner.
The series of internal agency emails obtained by The First Secret City reveal that the EPA knew that multiple radio-isotopes found within inches of the surface at BMAC exceeded 5 pico curies per gram, one of the varying benchmarks set by government regulators to determine so-called permissible levels of exposure.
In an email dated June 23, 2014, Cecilia Tapia, director of Environmental Sciences and Technology for EPA Region 7, cited differing action levels for radioactive isotopes and advised her colleagues that they should consider swapping one standard over another.
In her email message, Tapia cited the EPA’s supplemental feasibility study’s “action levels,” but added this caveat: “It may be more appropriate to use the SLAPS numbers.”
Using one set of numbers instead of the other could have effected the EPA’s decision on BMAC.
SLAPS is the acronym for the 21.7 acre St. Louis Airport Site, a radioactively-contaminated property originally under the control of the U.S. Department of Energy. In 1997, that clean up was handed over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has authority over it and other sites in the St. Louis area through the DOE’s Formerly Utilized Site Remediation Program (FUSRAP).
DOE’s permissible levels are generally stricter than the EPA’s corresponding standards.
The EPA official’s comment is subject to interpretation, but any way it’s sliced the numbers cited in the related email chain among EPA contractors and agency officials show one undeniable fact: The EPA had verified through its own testing that there were radiation levels of concern at BMAC, but then acted to downplay the significance of its own findings.
Three days after Tapia suggested revising the applicable standards, then-EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks assured the public there was no cause for concern. In its June 26 press release, the EPA announced without equivocation that it was safe to play ball at BMAC.
“EPA’s analysis of data collected from more than 58,000 surface points across BMAC suggests no levels of gamma radiation that would pose public health concerns for users of this facility,” Brooks said. “This was a thorough scientific survey, coupled with meticulous review and quality control checks of the data.”
Brooks assurances came despite knowledge that levels of Lead 210, Potassium 40, Thorium 234 and Uranium 238 detected at BMAC exceeded naturally occurring background levels of those isotopes in the environment. The administrator’s questionable assurances were based on an arcane agency formula that mandates remedial action only when radioactive contamination is found to be twice the normally occurring background levels. Moreover, EPA remediation standards are not as strict for recreational areas.
In this case, the EPA gave its stamp of approval to allow children to play baseball in an area that was determined by its own testing to be radioactively contaminated.
Department of Energy guidelines for thorium and radium concentrations mandate they not exceed 5 picocuries per gram averaged over the first 15 centimeters of soil and 15 picocuries per gram in subsequent soil layers of the same thickness. The EPA testing at BMAC found Thorium 234 levels of 5.14 pico curies per gram. But EPA standards aren’t as stringent as DOE’s. The EPA’s action level for Thorium is 7.9 pico curies per gram.
Before the EPA began any testing at BMAC, Brooks held a press conference at the Bridgeton City Hall on May 9, 2014 to announce that the ballfields were safe and dismiss the independent test results carried out by Just Moms STL, a community organization.
Dawn Chapman of Just Moms STL believes that the EPA deceived the public concerning the levels of radiation at BMAC. The organization she founded has been fighting for years to remove the radioactive waste from the nearby West Lake Superfund Site in Bridgeton. Chapman questions why the agency didn’t dig deeper after finding radioactive contamination near the surface at BMAC.
“That is what those bastards found in 2 inches of soil,” says Chapman. “These numbers show that it is there above background,” says Chapman. “The deception is that at no time did EPA admit to finding any waste on that field. There is a difference between it being there and it being there at clean up levels.”