The Earth City Connection


Twenty years ago an address in Earth City appeared in a story that I did about an EPA contractor with clear conflicts of interest. I uncovered that the testing lab partially owned by  the company responsible for the Times Beach Superfund clean up had provided questionable testing results related to the site to the agency.  Moreover, the name of the laboratory at 13715 Rider Trail North had changed, adding another layer of obfuscation to an already murky business. The previous operator of the lab at the same location had been convicted of fraud. In the 21st-Century, the name has changed again, but the address remains the same. Now the laboratory at the same address is called TestAmerica, and it is still doing environmental testing — except now it’s at the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill site.  


Riverfront Times

Aug. 26, 1996
by C.D. Stelzer

When IT Analytical Services merged with another company and became Quanterra Environmental Services in 1994, the nascent laboratory didn’t even bother to change the phone number. The newly formed company also remained at the same location, 13715 Rider Trail North, in a strip of innocuous one-story offices known as the Business Center in Earth City. The doors to the lab were locked last Saturday, and mirror windows made it impossible to see the interior.

Corporation records at the Missouri secretary of state’s office in Jefferson City show that Quanterra was officially dissolved as a business in the state in late 1994. Nevertheless, the lab took part in important tests of stack emissions conducted in November 1995 at the Times Beach dioxin incinerator, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund cleanup near Eureka.

The test results assured the EPA, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the public that the incinerator would operate safely. Based on these test results and other criteria, the DNR issued a requisite permit for the incinerator to operate earlier this year.

Despite the mirror windows at the lab and the smoke now flowing from the incinerator stacks, this much is clear: IT Analytical was owned by International Technology Corp. (IT), and Quanterra, its successor, is still partially controlled by IT — the builder and operator of the Times Beach dioxin incinerator.

IT, in turn, has a contract with Syntex, the corporation held liable for disposing of dioxin-contaminated soil at Times Beach and more than two dozen other sites in Eastern Missouri. In short, the lab involved in testing incinerator emissions is partly owned by the company that operates the incinerator.

Steve Taylor, an organizer for the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG), objected to the Quanterra-IT relationship in a meeting with high-level EPA officials last Wednesday night at the Hilton Hotel in Frontenac. Robert Martin, the ombudsman from the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, chaired the meeting, which was attended by 15 citizens, an aide to U.S. Rep. Jim Talent (R-2nd) and two other EPA officals.

“We have always had problems with how the trial burn was conducted. Now we have found that IT — the owner of the incinerator — was solely responsible for the physical custody of the stack samples,” Taylor says. “There has always been a serious problem with credibility with (EPA) Region VII and the information that we’ve received pertaining to this incinerator. To date, this is probably the most blatant example of allowing those who have a financial interest in this cleanup to proceed without any oversight.”

That a laboratory with ties to the incinerator operator would be allowed to handle test samples from a Superfund site is enough to raise concerns, but there is another nettlesome detail that casts doubt on the credibility of the lab work. In 1990, IT purchased the assets of metaTRACE, a laboratory located at the same address in Earth City and having the same phone number as the two previously cited labs.

In the year preceding the acquisition, metaTRACE came under scrutiny for conducting fraudulent tests for the EPA, including faulty soil analysis at Times Beach and other dioxin sites in Eastern Missouri. Ultimately, the EPA canceled metaTRACE’s contracts and two company officials pleaded guilty to fraud charges. The rescinded contracts had a value of more than $8.7 million. Most of that money was earmarked for EPA Region VII, which includes the St. Louis area.

After purchasing metaTRACE, IT moved its own analytical operation into the defunct lab’s Earth City office. MetaTRACE didn’t dissolve until 1992, according to Martha Steincamp, head counsel for Region VII. So it appears IT Analytical in some manner shared the facility. IT even hired some of metaTRACE’s employees, Steincamp concedes.

When the sign on the front door changed to Quanterra in 1994, IT Engineering conveniently moved in next door. Again, if this is not disturbing enough, state records show that Quanterra was dissolved in December 1994 for failure to file an annual report. Quanterra,in other words, doesn’t even exist as a corporate fiction in the state.

IT created Quanterra in May 1994, when it merged IT Analytical with Enseco, an environmental test lab owned by Corning Inc. Originally, each company held a 50 percent stake in the joint subsidiary. IT’s share of the lab has since decreased to 19 percent, following a $20 million buyout by Corning in January. The change in the percentage of ownership, however, did not take place until after critical stack-emissions tests were conducted in November. The results of those tests were published in January. Quanterra’s name appears on the title page of that report.

Despite the lab’s obvious role in the stack tests and its connections to IT, Bob Feild — the EPA project manager at Times Beach — denied knowledge of Quanterra’s participation at last week’s meeting in Frontenac. Under questioning by Mick Harrison, an attorney for the Citizens Against Dioxin Incineration (CADI), Feild stated: “I’m not aware of any involvement that they (Quanterra) had in the chain of custody.”

Feild’s denial contradicts documents provided to the RFT by the Region VII office last Friday. The documents show a representative of Quanterra signed over stack-emissions samples to an employee of Triangle Laboratories of Durham, N.C. Triangle was charged with analyzing the samples.Nevertheless, a lapse of seven to eight days existed between the time the samples were collected and the point when Quanterra handed them over to the other lab. Environmentalists familiar with the case say the time lapse could invalidate the tests results, if the samples were not stored and handled properly.

In a phone interview on Monday, Feild dismissed all of these issues as inconsequential. Feild argued that it is standard procedure for the incinerator operator to collect test samples. He claimed all aspects of the tests were overseen properly by the EPA and that safeguards prohibited any kind of manipulation of the findings. “We haven’t done any research as to the current status of a company called Quanterra,” Feild says. “It doesn’t really matter if IT themselves did the work or if they paid a partially owned subsidiary to do the work. The contractual relationship between the operator and Syntex is really not pertinent here. It’s not our concern, and we certainly don’t have that information. We don’t know who Quanterra is under direct contract with.”

The RFT filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the EPA on this matter last Friday. In a letter to EPA regional administrator Dennis Grams last week, Rep. Talent, whose district includes Times Beach, requested “all chain of custody documents for all stack samples collected during the dioxin stack test, which took place in November of 1995.” A spokesperson for Talent could not be reached for comment. Spokespersons for IT, Quanterra and Corning did not return calls placed to them.

An official at the EPA’s Criminal Investigations Division in Kansas City would not confirm or deny whether an inquiry had been initiated into the matter.

This latest controversy follows an announcement in July that the completion date for the incineration has been pushed back to early next year because an estimated 70 tons of additional contaminated dirt will need to be burned.

Since initiating operations in March, the incinerator has been plagued by a series of emergency releases that have spewed unknown quantities of untreated dioxin-contaminated particulate matter into the atmosphere.

The EPA’s own dioxin draft reassessment concludes that dioxin is a likely human carcinogen and is responsible for reproductive and immunological problems. EPA research further indicates that everyone is already overexposed to the toxin, and incineration is one of the sources of the pollution.

Yours Truly, Seriously Nuked

chart.jpgA St. Louis epidemic of tinea capitas, aka ringworm of the scalp, was treated with unshielded head X-Rays in the 1950s

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Jan. 12, 1994


In the middle of an asphalt schoolyard more than a half a century ago, I stood alone, doffed my skull caps and flung them in the air. Both homemade yarmulkes were secular creations — byproducts of the nuclear age — the outer one fashioned from a white cotton sock, its inner lining sewn from nylon hosiery.

To me, they were symbols of separateness at public elementary school that year. A year in which I had often been segregated from classmates. But now it was spring, a long-awaited reprieve had finally been granted. Health officials ruled my condition no longer posed a threat to other students. I could attend the coming school picnic with no chance of infecting others. On my way home that day, my 7-year-old bald head felt the wind and sun for the first time since the previous fall.

I missed more than a month of the school year in 1957 and 1958. But the unpleasant memories would be tossed away, forgotten like my discarded skull caps in the schoolyard, and the parental reprimand I received for not disposing of them properly. My hair would grow back. A summer of bicycles and hoola-hoops awaited.

My case of “tinea capitis” or ringworm of the scalp, as it is commonly called, sank into an abyss of statistical insignificance like an unknown factor within a lost equation. The fungi that had attacked my hair follicles were eliminated by what was then considered a normal medical procedure. But uncertainties that have since arisen from the X-ray treatment I received for this benign childhood disease will continue to shadow me for the rest of my life.

A decade after my own treatment at St. Louis’ Children’s Hospital, a scientific study estimated that the scalps of irradiated ringworm patients had been exposed to as many as 800 rads of unfiltered X-rays, with lesser amounts being absorbed by the brain, cranial marrow, head, neck, parotid, pituitary and thyroid glands.

My medical record shows I received five overlapping dosages of radiation, which each measured 353 roentgens. A roentgen calculates the air dosage, whereas a rad indicates the amount of absorbed ionizing radiation to the tissue. Other measurements have now supplanted these units, but according to one expert, administering multiple-doses of this degree was not uncommon. By contrast, a person who receives a diagnostic chest X-ray absorbs about .02 of one rad.

Ringworm patients in my category have been used for comparative analyses along side Japanese atomic bomb survivors and Marshall Islanders who were exposed to atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Subsequent scientific papers have indicated that over time there have been significant increases in tumors as well as skin, thyroid and brain cancers among those who received the X-Ray treatment. One study has also correlated more psychiatric problems among irradiated ringworm patients.

By 1959 — a little more than a year after I had contracted tinea capitis the accepted treatment for the disease had changed. An anti-fungal agent called “griseofulvin” became the standard remedy. X-ray therapy is no longer applied to those who have ringworm of the scalp. But before use of the method ended, an estimated 200,000 children worldwide underwent irradiation, with perhaps 10 percent of those cases originating in the United States.

Ringworm of the scalp is but one of a number of different related fungi, which adds to the confusion over the disease. A Hungarian bacteriologist isolated the cause in 1843 and named it “Microsporon Audouini,” after a French scientist who specialized in the study of silkworms. This false association distracted scientists for sometime. The painful cure for the disease back then involved pulling a child’s hair out by its roots. Later in the 19th century, another French researcher, Raymond Sabouraud, recommended X-ray treatments as a more humane alternative. The radiation procedure that began to be used in 1910 took the name of two later researchers and was called the Adamson-Keinbock technique. It was widely used to treat post-World War II epidemics.

After receiving my X-ray dose, a family doctor later diagnosed I had a thyroid condition. The physician, Eugene Hall, is now retired and has yet to be located. However, my hospital record includes a letter from my mother mentioning a rash that developed around the time of my X-ray treatment. A response from the hospital’s chief of clinics tersely dismissed her complaint that the rash still had not subsided seven months after the X ray treatment.

According to a scientific report published just last year (1993), “the association between thyroid cancer and exposure to ionizing radiation was suggested as early as 1950.” Nevertheless, Children’s Hospital continued the use the Adamson-Keinbock technique for at least another eight years.

Roy Shore, the author of the study, states that “thyroid cancer risks appear to be greater following irradiation at younger ages.” Shore, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University Medical School, has been involved in a series of follow-up studies on the subject since 1976. His most recent report concludes that “a lifelong risk seems probable since several studies have found excess risk in their irradiated groups for 50 years or more.”

In a telephone interview last week, Shore speculated on the reason why such X-ray treatments continued unabated through the 1950s. “Number one, there were probably not a whole lot (of physicians) who were aware of the potential for thyroid cancer. It was not a very prominent finding back then,” said Shore. “But secondly, I would think that most radiologists didn’t think there was any appreciable dose to the thyroid gland. Indeed, it’s very small compared the dose to the scalp itself.”

The First Secret City

A knock at my door woke me up before 8 a.m. one morning in June 2013. When I peeped out the window, the two men on my front porch struck me as being Mormons at first glance. I soon found out, however, that the neatly dressed pair were not concerned about my salvation but whether I was a terrorist.

The FBI agents departed my apartment a half hour later, after I debriefed them on the subject of my documentary and assured them that my activities were not intent upon disturbing domestic tranquility. My cooperation with federal law enforcement included naming my collaborator, the co-director of this film. So in a very real sense, I am an FBI informant.

The G-men had been dispatched to my doorstep by the Department of Homeland Security, after my license plate number had been turned over by a security guard at the Mallinckrodt Chemical plant on North Broadway in St. Louis. The security guard had stopped us on a public street on a Sunday morning, wanting to know why we were photographing the facility. He told us then that our names would be provided to Homeland Security, but I had dismissed the warning as an idle threat.

The agents were stern but polite. I did most of the talking, filling the silence in my living room with pleas of innocence. They wanted to know if I had any terrorists intentions. I told them we were making a documentary on the nuclear waste that Mallinckrodt had created as a part of the Manhattan Project and the subsequent Cold War.

The agents seemed surprised. They said they were unaware of the issue.

They are not alone.

In the 70-plus years since Mallinckrodt first began generating radioactive waste as a byproduct of its government-sponsored uranium processing work, a majority of St. Louisans have remained uninformed about the contamination that continues to threaten their health and the environment.

As a reporter for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, I had covered the issue decades earlier, beginning in the early 1990s. I became reintroduced to the subject in 2008 when my editor at Illinois Times in Springfield sent me a thick press packet that had been sent to the newspaper. The contents of the manila envelope had been assembled by Larry Burgan, a former steelworker from Granite City, Ill. who had been exposed to radioactive contamination in his former work place. Burgan had started a one-man campaign to shed light on the problem that impacted not only his fellow workers but nearby residents of the plant in Venice, Ill. where had worked.

Months went by before I started going over the materials Burgan had painstaking collated. After reading it, I called him and asked for an interview. I then wrote a story based on Burgan’s research for an online magazine FOCUS/midwest in May 2009 and did a follow-up that September. But unlike hundreds of other stories I had written in my journalism career, I didn’t let this one go. I began investigating the subject further myself.

In early 2010, I enlisted the support of a local videographer and started working on a film on this subject. That project ended more than two years later because of a disagreement over the content and direction of the film. Countless hours of hard work was lost as a result.

In late 2012, my original idea was revived with the help of my new partner Alison Carrick, the co-director and cinematographer of The First Secret City. Without her hard work and devotion to this project the film would have never been completed. Her understanding of the issue and the narrative form combined with a keen eye and an uncompromising dedication to the creative process can be seen and felt in every frame of this film.

The title is based on the little-known-about role that St. Louis played in the making of the first atomic bomb. Before the creation of the secret cities of Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford, the Manhattan Project hired the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis to refine the first uranium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. For the next two decades, Mallinckrodt continued its classified work for the Atomic Energy Commission during the Cold War. The resulting radioactive waste contaminated numerous locations in the St. Louis area some of which have not been cleaned up 70 years after the end of World War II. Told through the eyes of an overexposed worker, the story expands through a series of interviews that careen down a toxic pathway leading to a fiery terminus at a smoldering, radioactively-contaminated  landfill. The First Secret City reveals a forgotten history and its continuing impact on the community in the 21st Century, uncovering past wrongdoing and documenting the renewed struggles to confront the issue.

–C.D. Stelzer