Where Do the Children Play?

 How Bridgeton ended up spending $350,000 to build a new playground at the city’s radioactively-contaminated ball fields.

 

Bridgeton Mayor Terry Briggs and Missouri State Sen. Brian Williams share in the ribbon-cutting  on January 22, 2021 for the  new $350,000 playground located at the radioactively-contaminated Bridgeton Municipal Athletic Complex.

Bundled against the cold and appropriately masked, representatives of the St. Louis Community Foundation and Bridgeton Parks Department joined Bridgeton Mayor Terry Briggs and Missouri Sen. Brian Williams January 22 for the opening of the new $350,000 playground at the Bridgeton Municipal Athletic Complex.

In his remarks at the dedication ceremony, Williams praised the city’s generous expenditure.  “This playground opens up even more opportunities for families to enjoy community and get fresh air,” Williams said.  “This is a community with its eye on the future, where families can live and play safely because this city invests in its people.”

Unfortunately, the senator omitted  inconvenient details such as the radioactively contaminated soil at the site.

The city of Bridgeton paid for the playground with a grant from the Bridgeton Landfill  Community Project Fund, which was set up in 2018 to dole out the multi-million-dollar settlement agreed to by the state of Missouri and Republic Services for the trash company’s environmental violations at the nearby West Lake Superfund site, which is also contaminated with nuclear waste dating back to the Manhattan Project.

As a part of that unprecedented deal, the office of then-Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley —  acting on behalf of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources —  handed over $12.5 million to the St. Louis Community Foundation, a private charity. Under the terms of the agreement, the private foundation has sole responsibility for distributing public funds to eligible, non-profit community organizations within four miles of the landfill.

The state senator’s decision to focus his remarks on the future is understandable. But his optimistic vision turned a blind eye on BMAC’s dark past, omitting any reference to hazardous materials at the site.

The complicated history related to the city’s ownership of the property dates back more than a half century, when Bridgeton purchased the land from an investment group headed by the owner of B&K Construction, the same company that illegally dumped tons of radioactively-contaminated soil at West Lake Landfill. 

A decade ago community activists began raising concerns over the potential risks posed by children playing ball at BMAC, citing its toxic link to the nearby landfill. This created tensions between some residents and Bridgeton city officials, who claimed there was no cause for alarm.

Ultimately, the EPA acted as the arbiter of the dispute and sided with city officials, reassuring the public that there was no cause for alarm.

 In 2014, EPA Region VII administrator Karl Brooks held a press conference at Bridgeton City Hall with then-Mayor Conrad Bowers to advise the public that their fears were unwarranted. Brooks based his conclusion on test results that had yet to be released. He blamed the press for causing a panic, and said that the agency’s calculations were based on science. 

But EPA documents later released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal Brooks’ comments were deceptive. The internal agency emails indicate test results cited by Brooks to bolster public confidence were themselves questioned by an EPA official days before Brooks’ pronounced the ball fields safe.

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. Internal EPA emails released under the Freedom of Information Act show that

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.

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EPA official Cecilia Tapia

Tapia’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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Damn Lies

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.

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Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers and EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks at the 2014 BMAC press conference (courtesy of STL Radioactive Waste Legacy)

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-06 at 4.47.21 PM

EPA official Cecilia Tapia

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-06 at 4.13.50 PM.pngIn 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.”