Smoke Screen

Parsons Corporation, the lead design consultant on the EPA’s West Lake Superfund cleanup, previously conducted secret tests for the Army in St. Louis. 

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Parsons Corporation operated a secret aerosol testing program for the Army in 1953 at 5500 Pershing Ave. in St. Louis.

Parsons Corporation, the company tapped by the EPA to design the first phase of the long delayed West Lake Landfill Superfund cleanup, conducted secret aerosol testing in St. Louis for the U.S.  Army in the 1950s, according to research conducted by sociologist Lisa Martino-Taylor.

Parsons ran the covert military operation out of an office in the 5500 block of Pershing Ave.  in 1953, according to former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter William Allen, who also investigated the case.  The tests involved the spraying  of poor, inner-city neighborhoods without residents knowledge.  Workers who participated in the study were also kept in the dark.

Martino-Taylor first released her findings concerning the secret Army testing in December 2011 in a dissertation, while a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri. Her study received international media attention. She followed up her research in 2018 by publishing a book on the subject, Behind the Fog: How the U.S. Cold War Radiological Weapons Program Exposed Innocent Americans.

Speaking on Canadian national radio in 2012, Martino-Taylor revealed how the classified work was concealed from the public.  “There were layers of secrecy to this project,”  said Martino-Taylor. They had studies embedded within other studies. Much of this is still classified today.”

Smoke Screen: June 23, 1953 St. Louis Post-Dispatch press account created a false cover story for the secret tests conducted by Parsons for the Army.

The studies were originally initiated as a part of the work of the Manhattan Engineering District, the secret program to build the atomic bomb. Coincidentally, the radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill was a byproduct of uranium processing carried out for the Manhattan Project by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis.

Referring to the 1953 aerosol testing here, Martino-Taylor, explained in the Canadian radio interview how her research uncovered a pattern of interconnected secret experiments.  “Out of context it looked like an isolated incident,”  she told CBC talk show host Carol Oss.  “But when I started looking at the larger context about larger military contracts at the time, there was a lot of evidence that it was part of a national program that in fact included: injection, ingestion and inhalation studies on radiological materials done by a highly coordinated group of scientists-turned-military-officers that were working on the Manhattan Atomic Bomb Project. They were doing these studies around the country and they were looking for an area to target for an inhalation study. St. Louis was their closest match for Stalingrad and Moscow.”

Parsons and the Army falsely described the experiments in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as feasibility studies related to testing “a kind of smoke screen” to protect the St. Louis urban population from potential aerial attacks by foreign enemies.

Parsons also purchased help wanted ads in the Post-Dispatch seeking workers to conduct the testing. Decades later, the same newspaper revealed that three of the unsuspecting workers had later contracted bladder cancer and were seeking answers as to whether their illnesses were related to the secret program in which they unknowingly participated.

Post-Dispatch science reporter William Allen reported in July 1994, that the former Parsons employees in St. Louis were questioning whether their exposure to zinc cadmium sulfate during the testing was the cause of their cancer.

Don’t ask, don’t tell: Help wanted on a need-to-know basis.

A second round of classified testing in 1963 was conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service.

The EPA quietly announced Parsons as the preferred contractor for the West Lake cleanup  at a recent meeting of the technical committee of the Community Advisory Group (CAG).  A public meeting to discuss the clean up plans will be hosted by the  community group Just Moms STL and EPA Region 7 on Thursday July 25 at 6:30 p.m at the John Calvin Presbyterian Church,  12567 Natural Bridge Road in Bridgeton.

Parsons, which was founded in Pasadena, Calif. in 1944 by Ralph M. Parsons, was also involved in design studies related to future expansion plans of Lambert International Airport in St. Louis in the 1970s.

The selection of Parsons by the parties responsible for paying for the cost of the West Lake cleanup  follows the EPA’s final record of decision, which was announced in the fall of 2018. The EPA’s plan falls short of widespread public support for the full removal of the radioactive materials at the site.

The Department of Energy, Republic Services and Cotter Corporation are jointly liable for the clean up of the site under the Superfund Law. The EPA assumed authority over the site in 1990. Radioactive waste dating back to the Manhattan Project and Cold War was illegally dumped at the location in 1973. The federal government has known about the illegal dumping since 1975.

The choice of Parsons, which continues to do extensive classified defense work for U.S. military and intelligence agencies,  does little to dispel the prevailing lack of public confidence in the federal government’s long-stalled efforts to clean up the West Lake site.

 

 

 

 

 

Indian Affairs

 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.

NJVC, a  Chenega Corp. subsidiary, has offices on Market Street next to Channel 5 TV in St. Louis.

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.

John Campagna, president of Chenega Military, Intelligence Operations Support

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.

 

 

 

Taking Care of Business

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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

Dan Norris - DNR State ID card

Dan Norris – MDNR State ID card

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.

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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.

  • On March 29, 2013, SWAPE submitted an itemized invoice of $15,198.32 for services rendered.
  • On April 2, 2013 the state paid the company another $6,000 for expert testimony.
  • A state purchase order for SWAPE’s products and services dated April 3, 2013, shows a bottom of line of $349,000.

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

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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Tom Slick’s Legacy

When the EPA trumpeted the findings of the Southwest Research Institute earlier this year,  it didn’t mention the founder’s quest for Yeti or his ties to the CIA. 

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In July, EPA Region VII announced that the prestigious Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio had analyzed soil samples from West Lake Landfill and found that heating  dirt from the radioactively-contaminated dump in a laboratory setting had not increased dangerous radon levels.

Community activists were not assured by the pronouncement, however. They are still demanding an expedited cleanup of the long neglected site in North St. Louis County and continue to question attempts by the press and the EPA to downplay the problem posed by the nuclear weapons waste.

For its part, the EPA  has cast the debate as one that pits the dismissive opinions of its so-called scientific experts against the public’s perception of risk, which they contend is based on rumors and misinformation.

A good argument could be made, however, that rumors and misinformation is the stuff from which the Southwest Research Institute spawned.

The late Tom Slick Jr.,  founder of the Southwest Research Institute, believed in the existence of the Yeti, aka, the abominable snowman; and he spent a considerable amount of time and money attempting to prove the creature was a reality.

You read correctly: One of the top government-approved research facilities in the country, with a revenue exceeding $500 million in 2015, was established by a bonafide cryptozoologist, a true believer, who spent years chasing after the abominable snowman, the subject of derision among generations of serious scientists who scoff at the idea and label it nothing more than pure science fiction.

It’s enough to give pause, when the EPA asserts that its contractors hold a monopoly on  irrefutable scientific facts.

But there’s more.

When he wasn’t chasing Bigfoot or giant Alpine salamanders, Slick operated a CIA air cargo company in his spare time, while managing his oil and cattle empire.

Apparently, the same curiosity and fervid imagination that fueled his search for monsters drove him to start up the research center in 1947. He subsequently bankrolled two expeditions to the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet in search of the legendary, hirsute biped.

The Tom Slick Foundation still helps support the Southwest Research Institute.

Slick also endowed the Tom Slick Professorship of World Peace at the University of Texas, where former EPA Region 7 administrator Karl Brooks now teaches.

Slick also went on a trek to the Canadian Northwest in search of the Yeti’s North American cousin, Bigfoot. Before either of these quests, Slick, while still in college at Yale,  journeyed to Scotland to investigate the legendary Loch Ness monster.

Slick inherited his wealth from his father, a wildcatter who struck black gold during the Oklahoma oil rush of the 1920s.

In the 1950s, Slick and his brother operated Slick Airways, a CIA air cargo company that operated in Asia before the notorious Air America of the Vietnam era.

There is speculation that Slick’s Tibetan expeditions were covers for covert CIA operations to gather intelligence on Chinese hegemony in the region.

His friends and associates included eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes and Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart.

Slick, an avid pilot, died when his small plane crashed on a return flight from a Canadian hunting trip. He was 46 years old.

A planned feature film, Tom Slick, Mystery Hunter, starring Nicholas Cage was shelved in the 1990s.