Tax records suggest access by a giant trash-hauler to landlocked property inside an EPA Superfund site in Bridgeton may be due to special dispensation granted by the Catholic Church. But nobody is confessing to such a Faustian pact.
The EPA website dedicated to the radioactively-contaminated West Lake landfill in Bridgeton offers a vague description of the Superfund site, describing its size as “approximately 200 acres.”
In that sense, the boundaries of the site are as uncertain as the exact location of the nuclear waste itself. On one hand, the uncertainty is due to the failure of the federal regulatory agency to pinpoint the hot spots. That failure comes despite 40 years of oversight.
But there is equal ambiguity related to the history of the impacted properties themselves and their current ownership status. It’s a mystery that the EPA and others, including the St. Louis Archdiocese, don’t seem to want to talk about.
As usual, the devil is in the details, and in this case the details involve the Catholic Church.
St. Louis County land records indicate that the main road leading into the site, as well as more than 20 acres in its interior are still owned by the West Lake Quarry & Material Co. The church took over the quarry operations after the business was bequeathed to it decades ago. Quarry operations ceased years ago, but the corporation itself remains active and charities tied to the church own the company.
In short, the church in this case holds the keys not to heaven but a radioactive waste dump, according to the county records. But this is where it gets murkier.
Tax records reveal that the tax bill is not sent to the archdiocese or any other identifiable church entity. Instead, the tax bill is sent to an anonymous post office box in Phoenix, Ariz., the headquarters city of site owner Republic Services, a responsible party for the EPA cleanup. Since acquiring the property more than a decade ago, Republic has closed other operations, but continues to use the site as a transfer station.
A corporate registration report filed earlier this year with the Missouri Secretary of State’s office shows the president of West Lake Quarry as William Whitaker, a retired mining engineer who lives in O’Fallon, Mo. St. Louis attorney Bernard C. Huger is listed as the secretary of the corporation. The same two individuals are now the sole members of the board of directors. Both men say they represent the church’s interests in the company.
After the church was bequeathed the company, it needed a qualified person to run the business. “They found me 1,200 feet underground,” says Whitaker, who previously supervised a lead mine near Viburnum, Mo. When he took over, the West Lake Quarry was one of a number of holdings owned by the company.
“All of a sudden they (the church) owned a bunch of quarries and they had nobody to run the operation because the owner who was running it had passed away,” recalls Whitaker. “They asked me if I would come up and run the operation. I’ve been in the mining business since 1960, how many years is that?”
When informed that the company was still on the St. Louis County property tax rolls, Huger expressed surprise and attributed it to governmental error. “I think we sold all that and they don’t have the records right. I don’t know. But that’s a long time ago. I think it’s all long since been sold.”
But a clerk for the St. Louis County Recorder of Deeds office told StlReporter that property tax recipients were based on information contained in the property deed, and the quarry company’s name appears on the tax bill.
“The quarry is not operating but we keep it open just in case anything would come up from time to time,” Huger says. “There might be some workmen’s comp case come up. Someone might make a claim that (was) an employee. We had one of those a couple years ago. We just keep it open. But it’s really not active. It’s not doing any active business. Let’s put it that way.”
The current shareholders “are several Catholic institutions,” says Huger. He estimates that the business has been dormant 20 years. “I don’t know the exact date. But it’s been a very long time,” he says. At the time the previous owners willed the business to the church, it was a thriving concern. “West Lake Quarry and Material Co. was a big quarry operator with quarries up and down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers,” says Huger. “The company had towboats and barges.” Incorporation records show that the company’s barge fleeting operations extended southward to states bordering the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans.
Spokespersons for the St. Louis Archdiocese, the EPA and Republic Services refused to comment.
Why Republic Services, a responsible party for the cleanup, is allowed to conduct a profit-making business inside the site remains a matter of debate. While church and state remain mum on the issue, the question elicited a series of responses at a recent monthly meeting of the West Lake Community Advisory Group (CAG), which acts as a liaison with the EPA.
“I don’t know if the actual road that goes to the transfer station is (part of) the Superfund,” says Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “That’s not something I’ve thought about before. So it’s possible that the road is not a Superfund (site).”
Matt LaVanchy, an assistant chief of the Pattonville Fire Protection District, expressed little doubt where the lines are drawn. “It’s my understanding that the areas that are impacted by the radiological material are under the oversight of the EPA,” says LaVanchy.
One thing is for sure: While the public remains confused over the issue, Republic trash trucks continue to roll in and out of the site as if they have God on their side.