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.

 

 

 

 

 

Every Move You Make

The EPA invited concerned citizens to meet with agency officials on August 15 to discuss the West Lake Landfill and then surreptitiously  photographed attendees.

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EPA Region 7 public affairs specialist Kris Lancaster is seated  with his head turned to avert being photographed. Lancaster was assigned to snap photos of those who attended the meeting at the Bridgeton Recreational Center, but he was camera shy himself.

 

A cast of 50 to 75 community members took part in the performance, which was carefully scripted and managed by an EPA consultant  who had flown into St. Louis from New England for the event. A New York filmmaker also parachuted in.

Some of young protestors came in costume, wearing surgical and gas masks. They politely waited to hold their die-in until after the old folks were done talking.  The remainder of the audience was comprised of suburban householders, old-school environmentalists,  politicians, and the odd reporter.

The scene had all the markings of a summertime reality TV show, including more than one camera.

On cue, the program  started  at 6:00 p.m. on August 15 at the Bridgeton Recreational Center and ended two hours later, when the young protestors staged their protest.

Everyone was there to participate in a community dialogue with EPA officials about whether radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill Superfund site should be excavated and hauled away from the Missouri River flood plain and disposed of elsewhere, or capped in place and left to leak into the underground water system forever.

The choice couldn’t seem more clear. By holding the meeting, it makes the insane option #2 seem more acceptable. This, of course, is the EPA consultant’s job, making the implausible plausible.

The EPA officials listened to the reasoned pleas of the citizens, hemmed and hawed, and waited for the clock to run out, which seems to fit their overall strategy. The federal agency first proposed leaving the waste in place back in 2008, but the idea met stiff community opposition, which forced the EPA to take a second look at other options. A final record of decision on what to do with the long-neglected site is slotted for the end of the year.

With the deadline approaching, the angst in the room was palpable.

Community activists have been lobbying for years to have the clean-up taken away from the EPA and put in the hands of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has cleaned up similar waste in the St. Louis area under the aegis of the Department of Energy’s Formerly Utilized Site Remedial Action Program or FUSRAP. But the bill authorizing that change up is stalled in Congress.  During the lull, the EPA is moving ahead with its plan, which has been further complicated by an underground landfill fire at the site.

Add the potentially responsible parties, including the DOE and a couple of heavy-hitting corporations along with a confusing mash up of  various political interests, and it makes for a disaster that is not waiting to happen, but rather unfolding in real time.

There’s also the aforementioned edgy feeling to these events.

The EPA’s stage-managed productions may be formulaic,  but there’s always the chance that someone will go off script. EPA officials cancelled their appearance at a meeting this spring, for example, after a threat was made against them on Facebook.

Maybe that’s why the anonymous man in the blue shirt and khaki pants sat quietly in the back of the room snapping pictures of those in attendance on August 15.

When later cornered, he gave his name, rank and serial number.

EPA Region 7 public affairs specialist Kris Lancaster said he was there to assist his fellow flack Ben Washburn. Lancaster said his role for the evening was to take photographs for the EPA’s newsletter, but he wasn’t sure how many of them they would use.

Lancaster has bounced around the federal bureaucracy a long time, previously doing stints with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department Health Human Services. He has also served as a congressional aide twice during his career. Between 1990 and 1993 he held a staff position with U.S. Rep. Thomas Coleman of Kansas City. Lancaster started his career in 1975 as an aide to U.S. Rep. Richard H. Ichord of southeast Missouri.

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Ichord is most remembered for being the last chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was renamed the House Internal Security Committee during his tenure that ran from 1969 to 1975.

In a 1970 speech before the St. Louis County Chamber of Commerce, Ichord, a zealous anti-communist, warned that the environmental movement could someday be subverted by the radical left.

Speaking at Slay’s restaurant in Affton, the congressman said, “Solving the problems of pollution will require sound and pragmatic actions from state and city governments, plus massive volunteer activities as well as the support you have the right to expect from the federal government.”

Apparently, taking surveillance photos at public meetings is part of the federal government’s responsibilities — and  Dick Ichord’s man is still on the job — 40 years later.

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A War of Words

Environmentalist Kay Drey continues to advocate for the removal of waste from the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill

first published at stlreporter.wordpress.com, Jan. 23, 2015

“It just makes me sick,” say Kay Drey. The 81-year-old dean of the St. Louis environmental movement is sitting at her dining room table, which is scattered with various paperwork, including two dogeared reports issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency in the 1980s.

As the sun streams through a window of her University City home on this mild January morning, she bemoans the state of affairs related to the stalled clean up of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, a nearby St. Louis County suburban municipality.

The NRC reports to which she refers both candidly recommend the removal of the radioactively-contaminated materials from the landfill, which is located in the Missouri River flood plain upstream from water intakes for the city of St. Louis.

The waste, a byproduct of decades of uranium processing carried out by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works on behalf of the government’s nuclear weapons program, was illegally dumped at West Lake 40 years ago. Drey has been fighting various regulatory agencies to get it removed for almost as long.

On this day, Drey’s voice is failing. It can’t compete with Moxie, the family’s small dog, who yaps at a visitor’s feet. After the canine commotion subsides and breakfast dishes are cleared, Drey explains what is bothering her.

“They’re not talking about digging it up,” she says.

Removing the radioactively-contaminated materials from the St. Louis area to a federally-licensed nuclear waste depository in the sparsely-populated West has long been her goal.

In 2008, Drey and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment challenged the EPA’s record of decision on West Lake, which would have mandated a relatively cheap fix — capping the landfill with dirt and leaving the nuclear materials in place. Republic Services, the liable landfill owner, favors this remedy, which would allow the contamination to continue migrating into the ground water. The final decision is still up in the air along with noxious landfill fumes that have been the bane of nearby residents for the last four years.

Since 2010, public outrage over the issue has grown due to an underground fire at the adjacent Bridgeton landfill, which is part of the same EPA Superfund site. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is overseeing efforts to contain the fire, which is moving in the direction of the radioactive waste. To bolster DNR’s authority, the Missouri Attorney General’s office has filed suit against Republic for various infractions. Splitting responsibility for dealing with the problem between the state and federal agencies has led to further bureaucratic snafus. One of the impasses involves a state-mandated barrier wall to stop the fire from advancing.

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Drey and other activists advocate turning the clean up over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that has remediated other St. Louis radioactive sites under the Formerly Utilized Site Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), which targets sites contaminated with nuclear weapons waste from World War II. Gaining congressional approval for such a change has not happened, however, despite efforts by the activists to spur the St. Louis congressional delegation to sponsor the requisite federal legislation.

Meanwhile, Republic, the responsible party, keeps pushing the original capping proposal. The company’s public relations efforts have included backing a rural-based front group, the Coalition to Keep Us Safe which is against shipping radioactive material through the state. The Coalition to Keep Us Safe, via their twitter feed, routinely uses the words “capping” and “encapsulation” to mean the same thing. The terms are used interchangeably by the group, but “encapsulation” is not part of the 2008 Record of Decision issued by the EPA. The confusion of terms is not clear to a casual observer or to many members of the Coalition as seen in the tweets they post.

As the debate wears on, Drey sees support for removal of the waste waning. But she’s standing her ground. There is no compromise on this subject when viewed from her eyes. Those who consider capping as an option are abandoning the goal. In her opinion, it is indefensible to leave deadly radioactive waste to drain inevitably into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers forever.

Drey also sees how language is being used to obfuscate the issue. Supporters of capping the landfill often use the word “encapsulation” to describe the plan to leave the waste in the floodplain, leaking into the aquifer.

To make her point, Drey gets up from the dining room table and retrieves a worn dictionary from a bookshelf. She runs her index finger down the page to the entry and recites the definition: “Encapsulate: to encase in or as if in a capsule.”

“Does a capsule have just a top?” she asks.