Charity Case

The Office of the Missouri Attorney General finally settled with Republic Services for $16 million on behalf of the Department of Natural Resources for the trash company’s egregious environmental violations at the smoldering Bridgeton Landfill. But the majority of that money will be put into the hands of a non-government foundation that caters to the rich. What gives?

The St. Louis Community Foundation, #2 Oak Knoll Park, Clayton, Mo.

Amelia A.J. Bond, President and CEO of the St. Louis Community Foundation.

  Sometime in the next month, Bridgeton Landfill LLC will deposit $12.5 million into the coffers of the St. Louis Community Foundation, a tax-exempt non-profit, charitable organization. The landfill, which is a subsidiary of Republic Services Inc., did not make the contribution out of  kindness, but as part a court-ordered consent judgment signed by St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Michael T. Jamison on June 29.

Republic Services lawyer John B. Nickerson

The agreement, part of a $16 million  settlement, closes the book for now on  five years of litigation conducted mainly behind closed doors between the state of Missouri and the trash company, which owns both the smoldering  Bridgeton Landfill and adjacent West Lake Lake Landfill that is contaminated with radioactive waste. A final plan for the clean up of the site by the EPA is still pending.

Then-Attorney General Kris Koster filed the suit against Bridgeton Landfill and its parent company on behalf of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in 2013,

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley

asserting violations of the law by the landfill that caused harm to the environment and human health. The case continued after current Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley took office last year.

The pact requires Republic to reimburse MDNR for $2 million in staff time, pay a civil penalty of $1 million and $500,000 for damages to the state’s natural resources. The corporation is also required to monitor air and groundwater under state supervision contingent upon obtaining $26 million in bond funding or face paying the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

But three-quarters of the settlement will be put into money market accounts exclusively handled by the St. Louis charity — which was not a party to the suit and does not have a depth of experience in environmental protection issues.

The agreement to earmark $12.5 million of the state of Missouri’s settlement to the private St. Louis Community Foundation was signed by Republic Services’ lawyer John B. Nickerson and the St. Louis Community Foundation President and CEO Amelia A. J. Bond. The foundation will control the money through an entity of its own called the Bridgeton Community Fund.

When initially asked by email about the agreement, a spokesperson for the Attorney General responded by sending a  link to the original press release, which does not explain the decision to award the money to the private, tax-exempt institution.  Further calls and emails requesting an explanation from the Office of the Missouri Attorney General did not elicit any answers.

Daniel C. Hartman, an aide to the Missouri Attorney General, indicated that a state Sunshine Law request for documents asking for all communications between the Office of the Missouri Attorney General and the St. Louis Community Foundation will likely not be available before Aug 14 due to the volume of records to be searched. The requisite response to the request includes this warning: “Please note that we reserve the right to close responsive records in whole or part pursuant to law.”

Controlling the message is an obvious imperative for both the private foundation and the state government. The foundation in this case deferred to the state, recommending that all questions  be directed to  Mary Compton, the spokeswoman for the Office of the Missouri Attorney General — who already had declined to respond to repeated inquiries.

Though she did not answer how and why the  St. Louis Community Foundation was selected to receive $12.5 million from the state of Missouri as a part of the settlement, Neosha S. Franklin, a spokeswoman for the private philanthropy did offer this pat response, which had already been released to the media weeks ago:

“The Bridgeton Landfill Community Project Fund will provide grants [to non-profit corporations] that promote the betterment of the environment, public health and safety, within a four-mile radius of the Bridgeton Landfill. The Fund does not address the West Lake Landfill or Coldwater Creek. St. Louis Community Foundation is prohibited from making any grants to individuals.”

The agreement, which is good for the next four years, allows  any non-profit corporation in the area to apply for a grant, but those that target their efforts within the four-mile radius of the landfill site will receive the priority.

The deal between Republic Services and the foundation, which is part of the larger consent judgment, sets up the Bridgeton Community Fund and  puts the private foundation in control of $12.5 million in public funds. Moreover, the directors of the foundation have absolute power to change how the money is used in the future and who gets it.

According to the agreement: … The Foundation shall have the ultimate authority and control over all property in the Fund, and income derived therefrom.  …  If in the sole judgment of the Foundation, the purposes for which the Fund was created ever become unnecessary, incapable of fulfillment, or inconsistent with the charitable needs of the community served by the Foundation, the Foundation’s Board of Directors shall modify any restriction or condition on the use or distribution of the income and principal of the Fund. …”

The foundation’s offices are located in a stone mansion on the grounds of the city of Clayton’s Oak Knoll Park at Big Big Bend Boulevard and Clayton Road. In 2015, the St. Louis Community Foundation Inc. claimed assets or fund balances of more than $207 million, according to its IRS non-profit tax statement.  Bond, a former Wells Fargo investment banker and the president and CEO of the foundation, was paid more than $263, 000 in annual salary, and more than $17,000 in expenses, according to the IRS.  Previously, she headed the public finance division of Wachovia Securities in St. Louis for two years in the late 2000s following its merger with A.G. Edwards. Wells Fargo bought out Wachovia during this period of financial instability. Earlier in her career, she sat on the board of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board. In short, Bond is an expert in municipal bonds. The settlement agreement hashed out by the state and Republic Services requires that its subsidiary, Bridgeton Landfill LLC, secure $26 million in bond funding to maintain, monitor and mitigate air and groundwater quality in the area around the troubled landfill in North St. Louis County.

Wells Fargo, the foundation head’s former employer, is one of the banks that provided Republic Services a five-year $1.2 billion loan in 2014 under the stipulation that the trash company was free from any environmental violations that would harm the company’s bottom line. The suit by the state of Missouri claiming environmental damages by Republic was filed a year earlier in 2013. To secure that loan Republic had to indemnify itself through a subsidiary located in the Cayman Islands. 

Pastures of Plenty: The back door of the St. Louis Community Foundation in Oak Knoll Park.

Charity Begins at Home

One previous director of the well-heeled charity is former Republican U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, the uncle of Amelia Bond’s husband, Arthur Doerr Bond III, the son of the senator’s late brother.

Besides the newly created Bridgeton Community Fund, the St. Louis Community Foundation runs two other non-profit outfits, the Greater Saint Louis Real Estate Foundation and the Alberici Foundation.

The favorite means of donating to the St. Louis Community Foundation is through what is called “donor advised funding.” In this method of tax write-offs,  anonymous donors target the non-profit institutions of their choice. Donors who use this way of making contributions support a wide array of worthy causes, including St. Louis Public Radio, the St. Louis Public Schools Foundation, Channel 9,  the Special School District, Operation Food Search, the Salvation Army, Planned Parenthood, and the  St. Louis Zoo and Art Museum.

But  many other contributions are made to wealthy private institutions and religiously-affiliated organizations,  some of which are located hundreds of miles away from St. Louis.  Recipients in this category included Washington University and John Burroughs School, which both bagged more than a $1 million in recent years, according to the foundation’s tax returns. An even more generous donation of $2 million was made anonymously through the foundation to the Journey Fellowship, a fundamentalist Christian church.

The out-of-town donations to the foundation were funneled to non-profit organizations such as the exclusive Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., which charges more than $60,000 a year for tuition and boarding. Other distant recipients of the foundation’s generosity include: the Bank Street College of Education in New York City; the Regent Preparatory School of Oklahoma; The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, New York City; the Miami Conservatory of Music, Miami, Fl.; and the Zion Lutheran Church of Dallas Texas.

At the top of its tax return the foundation summarizes its mission and most significant activities as being the administration of “charitable funds for the betterment of St. Louis.” But apparently there are frequent exceptions to that rule.

Analyzing the arcane aspects of the federal tax code and how it applies in this case without the aid of a battery of tax lawyers and CPAs is nigh impossible;  and lacking any explanation from the foundation itself leaves more questions than answers.

There are, for example, two non-profit tax returns filed by the foundation in 2015, which cover the same time period.  One is in the name of the aforementioned St. Louis Community Foundation Inc., the non-profit corporation,  listing claimed assets or fund balances in excess of $207 million. The second  entity that filed a return the same year is identified simply as the St. Louis Community Foundation — without the “Inc.” The latter charity is organized under state law as a Missouri Trust.  It lists a little more then $72 million in claimed assets and funds balances.

The bottom line is this: Since the St. Louis Community Foundation has agreed to be the fiduciary of  $12.5 million won in a settlement  by Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley  it may be prudent for his counterpart — Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway — to examine the foundation’s ledgers.

 

 

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Caveat Emptor

Tee Time: St. Charles real estate baron Greg Whittaker and the University of Missouri have struck a deal that could result in a pricey, golf-course subdivision next door to Weldon Spring, the region’s nuclear waste capital — and nobody sees that as a problem

 

Mizzou wants to sell land it owns in St. Charles County to a subdivision developer.  Foes of the plan fear it will blight the scenic beauty of the KATY Trail. But neither side is mentioning the neighboring radioactive waste dump at Weldon Spring — or the possibility that other unknown environmental dangers may lurk nearby. 

“There’s a lot of people who don’t even know Hamburg Quarry exists,” says Kenneth Kerpash, who once hauled rock from the limestone pit to barges moored on the Missouri River, where it was used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the navigational channel.

Though the now-abandoned quarry in St. Charles County has largely escaped public attention since closing decades ago, Kerpash hasn’t forgotten the thousands of rusty barrels he says he observed there in 1972.   At that time, he worked for the West Lake Quarry and Materials Co., which leased the quarry from the University of Missouri.

Mizzou sold the quarry and more than 7,000 acres of surrounding land to the Missouri Conservation Commission in 1978, and later built the Missouri Research Park on an adjacent tract.  Facing budget problems, the school now wants to sell almost 200 acres of its remaining land at the location to a developer, who already leases a golf course on the property, and has plans to build hundreds of single-family homes and more than 70 multi-family units there.

NT Home Builders,  owned by real estate mogul Greg Whittaker, is credited with building thousands of homes in St. Charles County. Its New Town development in particular has been lauded for its innovative design.  A call requesting a comment   from NT Home Builders was not returned by press time.

NT and the university have assured the public that the proposed development would adhere to the company’s high standards and won’t detract from the property’s scenic beauty or harm the environment.  Opponents  fear it will.  Foes include existing residents and supporters of the popular KATY Trail State Park   that borders the proposed high-end subdivision.

The contentious issue has spurred critics to send hundreds of emails to their elected officials in recent months, demanding the plan be scrapped. Adversaries have packed the gallery at St. Charles County Council meetings, and also posted informational notices along the KATY Trail.

Their hopes were buoyed in April,  when the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission voted against permitting a zoning change that would allow the project to move forward.  Nevertheless, on May 21,  the council voted unanimously to delay its final decision to allow the developer more time to amend its already scaled back proposal.

The council’s deference to the developer dovetails with the university’s preferential treatment, which includes offering to sell the public land without a formal bidding process and failing to disclose the price tag. Lack of transparency has led to rumors of political corruption, and stirred recriminations and acrimony from all quarters.

None of the conflicting interests, however, seems to see the most obvious problem with the pending sale: If built, the proposed development would be within walking distance of the former Mallinckrodt uranium processing plant site in Weldon Spring — where the Department of Energy maintains a mountain of radioactive waste.

 

Retired Teamster Kenneth Kerpash says he saw thousands of rusty, leaking barrels stored at the Hamburg Quarry in 1972.

The idea of building new homes near a site known to have been contaminated with radioactivity in the past is unconscionable to 65-year-old Kerpash, a retired Teamster truck driver from Troy, Mo. In his opinion, the university and the developer are consorting for short-term gain at the expense of the health of future residents. Kerpash believes the parties to the deal are influenced by profit and the bottom line. “Money talks and bullshit walks,” he says.

 

Council Joe Cronin (1st Dist) urges caution.

St. Charles County Councilman Joe Cronin (1st Dist.) is less strident in his assessment. He says the federal government has told the council  that the clean up of the Weldon Spring site has made the area safe. The feds also provide periodic updates, he says. But Cronin adds that serious health concerns are now being raised by some former students of the nearby Francis Howell High School. For this reason, the councilman urges caution.  

“I will not vote on approving the proposed subdivision until we have all the facts, which we do not have as of yet,” says Cronin. “The university has owned the land of the proposed development for over 70 years.  Waiting a bit more to determine the safety of the area would not be that much inconvenience to them.”

Under DOE guidelines, large swaths of the adjacent Weldon Spring Conservation Area have been deemed suitable for recreation, but unsuited for full-time human habitation because of the dangers posed by chronic exposure to radioactive contamination. Uranium and thorium present at the location are known human carcinogens and also have been linked to other chronic illnesses.

This DOE map shows the proximity of the radioactively contaminated Southeast Drainage system to the proposed residential subdivision. The University of Missouri is poised to sell the land for an unspecified amount.

In 2005, the DOE published its land use restrictions for the Southeast Drainage area — a  200-foot-wide, 37-acre tract that traverses the land between the proposed residential development and the abandoned Hamburg Quarry. At that time, DOE ruled that long-term institutional controls be imposed due to unsafe levels of radiation that still persist even after the completion of the clean up of that area. The affected tract is now owned by the Missouri Conservation Commission.

According to the DOE: “… [R]esidual soil and sediment contamination remains at some locations within the drainage at levels exceeding those that would support unlimited use and unrestricted exposure. Therefore, land use restrictions are needed in the drainage to prevent residential use or other uses inconsistent with recreational use.”

The advisory was published in a document entitled Explanation of Significant Differences, Weldon Spring Site in February 2005 by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Legacy Management.

The message is clear: People are not supposed live within the designated  boundaries of the 37-acre Southeast Drainage area. Under the DOE’s edict, this advisory applies in perpetuity.  But apparently the University of Missouri feels that selling its nearby property does not violate its legal or ethical obligations to either the buyer or the public.

University of Missouri President Mun Y. Choi

“The purchaser has been given an opportunity to conduct any environmental studies they deem are necessary,” says a spokesperson for University President Mun Y. Choi. The spokesperson adds that the radioactive waste issue is common knowledge to the public.

“…Soil and sediment contamination remains at some locations within the drainage at levels exceeding those that would support unlimited use and unrestricted exposure.” — DOE

 

The property Mizzou wants to sell is part of the original tract of land that the federal government seized at the advent of World War II, and it shares the same sordid environmental history.

In their official records of decision, the DOE and EPA have advised that the primary means of enforcing its restrictions is through “institutional controls,” specifically local zoning ordinances. The St. Charles County Planning and Zoning Commission has already recommended not granting the developer a variance. Though the university’s property may fall outside the perimeter of the DOE’s restricted use area, honoring the spirit of the federal guideline would seem warranted to assure public health.  But only one councilman clearly stated his opposition to the plan at the recent county council meeting.

At the May 21 council meeting, Councilman Mike Elam (Dist. 3) praised the developer and the merits of its plan  but, nevertheless, rejected the proposal for one reason: its location.

Councilman Mike Elam: “I’m a no vote.”

“I really hate where they want to build this,” Elam told the audience. “The idea is really good.  We wish that when people come to the county and they want to build something, they would be as accommodating as this developer has been,” Elam said. “I give them all praise for that. [But] I don’t care if you want to put in 450 homes or 250 homes or 50 homes — I still don’t like where the development is going in. I’m a no vote.” In his statement, Elam didn’t state why he was uncomfortable with the location.

The location also bothers Kerpash. From the retired trucker’s perspective, it’s inane to build new housing next to a site known to have been contaminated with radioactive waste. “It don’t take a real smart person to figure that out,” he says. “They just got done cleaning up the most hazardous place in Missouri,” he says, referring to the Weldon Spring site. “Now they want to build a subdivision there? It’s unbelievable.”

Kerpash admits he doesn’t know what was contained in the rusty barrels he observed at the Hamburg Quarry back in 1972. But when his recollection is added to other evidence, it is enough to give pause.

One red flag that he points out is that his former employer — the West Lake Quarry and Materials Co. — also operated and owned the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo., where radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project was dumped illegally in 1973. In early March,  the EPA belatedly announced its proposed clean up plans for the West Lake site, and the final remedy is pending.

Both sites are in the Missouri River watershed, which makes the lay of the land a factor to consider as well.

 

The DOE’s nuclear waste disposal cell on Route 94 — the site of the former uranium processing plant — sits on high ground,  1.5 miles uphill from Hamburg Quarry.  On the official map of the Weldon Spring Conservation Area,  the quarry is anonymously designated as a “restricted area,” directly next to the KATY Trail. In the 1990s, the DOE spent millions of dollars cleaning up radioactive contamination in the Southeast Drainage area in between the Hamburg Quarry and the proposed residential development. But unsafe pockets of radioactive contamination remain, according to the DOE.

Vestiges of the area’s dark history pop up at other nearby location, too. As part of its 16-year clean up, the DOE also remediated the nearby Weldon Spring Quarry, which is a short bicycle ride in the opposite direction via the KATY.  There’s also a pipeline that carried treated radioactive waste water from the uranium processing plant clean-up site that skirts the Hamburg Quarry on its way to  the Missouri River. The DOE has deemed all these locations suitable for recreation but not full-time human occupancy.  Nobody is ever supposed to live here again.

No Man’s Land:  Dwelling near this part of the KATY Trail is prohibited by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Surrounded by forested public lands and the river, the now-abandoned Hamburg Quarry appears isolated. Additional conservation land on both sides of the river add to the wilderness atmosphere. The location, however, is only a short walk from Mizzou’s Research Park, which links with the KATY by way of the Busch Greenway. On weekends, the path is crowded with groups of joggers, who run by the Missouri Bluffs Golf Club, the site of the proposed residential development.

Mallinckrodt operated its uranium plant  between 1957 and 1966 under contract with  the DOE’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy  Commission. During this period, the plant and its grounds became polluted with radioactive waste.  The contaminated materials were stored on site and also dumped at the Weldon Spring Quarry, four miles south of the plant. Between 1988 and 2002, the DOE oversaw an extensive clean up of both  sites that cost almost $1 billion.

Bluffs tower over the Missouri River and the KATY Trail.

The verdant hills and limestone bluffs that border the Missouri River create an illusion that this area is pristine. But long before the uranium waste despoiled the land, it was poisoned by other byproducts of war.

With World War II on the horizon, the town of Hamburg, Mo. and two other villages were razed by the U.S. Army in 1940 to make way for the Weldon Spring Ordinance Works. During the war,  the Atlas Powder Co. produced explosives at the site for the  Army.  Toxic waste from the TNT and DNT production polluted the area.

Mizzou acquired the tainted property after World War II from the federal government for $1.  A current Google satellite image of the area shows the unmarked Hamburg Quarry as a spot of blue surrounded by green.

Kerpash suspects that the barrels he saw there in 1972 may still be at the bottom of the quarry lake. If the barrels contained chemical or radioactive materials, the porous limestone topography would allow the toxins to migrate into the groundwater and flow into the Missouri River.

The abandoned Hamburg Quarry is within a stone’s throw of the KATY Trail.

 

Nowadays, cyclists on the KATY Trail whiz by the old Hamburg Quarry without noticing it. The University of Missouri never rebuilt the town that bore the same name after it acquired the property from the Army after the war.  Given the toxic history of this place, that was a good call.

Based on what he knows,  Kerpash doesn’t think people should move back anytime soon.

On the Missouri Conservation Commission’s map, the old Hamburg Quarry is identified only as a “restricted area.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1209 North Orange Street

Republic Services hides its dirty business by incorporating in Delaware, a state notorious for shielding corporations from public scrutiny. 

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285,000 corporations — including the Bridgeton Landfill — call the above address home.

Republic Services, the nation’s second largest waste disposal company, is headquartered in Phoenix, but its troublesome subsidiary — Bridgeton Landfill LLC  —  is incorporated more than 2,300 miles away in Delaware, a state known for its favorable corporate climate.

Bridgeton Landfill is a member of  the club that calls 1209 North Orange Street home. It’s a place where corporations behave like secret societies; companies flock to evade  accountability; and the cloaking of free enterprise is accepted as standard business practice.

The same address in Wilmington, Delaware, the state capital, is home to more than 285,000 corporations, including some of the largest in the U.S. and the world. The beige brick building with the red awning at 1209 North Orange Street is the business address for American Airlines, Bank of America, Apple, Google, J.P. Morgan Chase, Wal-Mart, Berkshire Hathaway, Coca-Cola and Ford, among others.

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The nondescript office on North Orange is also the mailing address for less scrupulous corporations allegedly engaged in illegal activities such as money laundering, drug trafficking and embezzlement. Investigative reporters for the Panama Papers organization and the Organized Crime and Corruption and Reporting Project have followed trails that dead-end at 1209 North Orange. Delaware secrecy laws make it nearly impossible to get a clear picture of companies that register in the state. Delaware’s lax corporate regulatory environment are comparable to off-shore tax havens such as Bermuda, the Bahamas and Cayman Islands, where Republic also has connections.

Because of the favorable business environment, Delaware currently has more corporations than people. Most of the companies operate legitimately and use the state to legally skirt taxes and avoid bothersome regulations.

In recent years, the U.S. Justice Department and World Bank have both expressed concerns over the situation and criticized the state for its laissez faire policies.

Bridgeton Landfill is most noted for its so-called “subsurface smoldering event,” an underground fire that has been burning since 2010 toward radioactive waste dumped at the site illegally more than 40 years ago. Republic Services, the owner of the site, has been fighting efforts for years by community members to remove the waste, which is located in a floodplain in North St. Louis County, approximately one mile from the Missouri River.

Last year, the EPA belatedly acknowledged that the radioactive contamination is seeping into the groundwater. Many residents believe the contamination is the cause of long-term health problems and deaths due to chronic exposure. Republic and its supporters reject these assertions and are backing a plan to bury the toxic waste at its present location. The EPA delayed making its final decision late last year, leaving the long-standing problem unresolved.

Avoiding legal liability is another advantage to setting up shop in Delaware. Republic can breath easier there, while nearby residents in North St. Louis County continue to gasp for air because of the  stench waifing from Republic’s toxic dump.

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To Be Perfectly Blunt

Republic Services, the owner of the troubled West Lake Landfill, paid $380,000 to  D.C. lobbyists last year, including a firm headed by Sen. Roy Blunt’s former chief of staff.  

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Republic Services, the company that opposes removing radioactive waste from the West Lake Landfill, paid $380,000  to two powerful Washington, D.C. lobbying firms in 2016, according to Open Secrets, a website that tracks influence peddling inside the Beltway.

The lobbying costs were split between West Front Strategies and Cloakroom Advisors. West Front Strategies received $220,000 from Republic, while Cloakroom Advisors hauled in $160,000.

Republic has repeatedly opposed efforts in the U.S. Congress and the Missouri State Legislature that have sought to address the long delayed cleanup. In the last eight years, the company has paid federal lobbyists more than $2 million.

West Front Strategies, which has close ties to Republican Party leadership,  also lobbies on behalf of  Microsoft, which was founded by billionaire Bill Gates. Gates holds the largest share of Republic Services stock through his investment firm, Cascade Investment.  Other corporations employing West Front Strategies include media giant Comcast, owner of NBCUniversal, and Aetna Insurance.

Cloakroom Advisors represents Republic through two of its St. Louis-based subsidiaries, Bridgeton Landfill and Rock Road Industries, which are both directly tied to West Lake Landfill Superfund Site.

Cloakroom Advisors also represents St. Louis-based BJC Healthcare, which is associated with Washington University Medical School and operates Barnes-Jewish Hospital and its affiliates; and Bayer AG, the German pharmacuetical conglomerate that bought out St. Louis-based Monsanto last year.

The top lobbyist at Cloakroom Advisors is Greg Hartley, former chief of staff to  U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) from 1997-2003. Those years corresponds with the time period that Blunt, now a U.S. Senator from Missouri, was snared in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. 

Senator Blunt’s daughter, Amy Blunt,  is a lobbyist for the Kansas City-based law firm of Lathrop & Gage, which represents Republic Services.  The senator’s son Andrew is also a Missouri lobbyist, and ran his father’s reelection campaign last year.

 

 

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.

ozarks

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

Under the Cloud

Author Richard Miller spent years uncovering the harm caused to Americans by nuclear fallout from atmospheric testing

first published in the Riverfront Times in the 1990s. 

BY C.D. STELZER

The image cast by the overhead projector showed a grainy snapshot of a boy with a crew cut crouched next to a tail-wagging dog. In the faded background, a pick-up truck could be seen parked next to a modest frame house. The time was 1955; the place Paris, Mo.

The bucolic setting could not have been more deceptive. When the spring rains fell that year, they permanently changed the lives of many residents of the small town in the northeast corner of the state, as they did countless other lives across the continent. But unlike the havoc reeked by floods or other natural disasters, the damage to humanity could not be immediately measured. At the time, few people knew anything about the effects of exposure to radioactive fallout. Nuclear weapons research, propelled by the arms race and the ensuing hysteria over national security, proceeded unimpeded. Between 1951 and 1963 more than one hundred above-ground atomic bombs blasts were detonated by the federal government at its Nev ada Test Site.

Richard L. Miller — the youngster in the photograph — has spent much of his adult life learning of the consequences of that nuclear atmospheric testing during the Cold War.

Last Saturday, the 50-year-old author displayed the black-and-white image from his childhood along with photographs of nuclear explosions at a conference of the National Association of Radiation Survivors, which convened at the Henry VIII Hotel on North Lindbergh Boulevard. Miller, who wrote Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing, feels both vindicated and disturbed by the findings of a recently released National Cancer Institute (NCI) study on the dangers of nuclear fallout.

“First and foremost, … it’s an admission by the government that they dose d the entire United States with fallout,” Miller told the audience. The NCI study made public in August took almost a decade-and-a-half to complete. It concludes that 10,000 to 75,000 people, who were exposed to high levels of fallout of as children, may contract thyroid cancer as a result.

The wind, rain and weather dispersed the isotope randomly across large sections of the U.S. and Canada, after the detonation of experimental atomic bombs blasts. Most of the children were exposed to the fallout, Iodine-131, by drinking contaminated milk.

Despite the belated confession by the federal government, Miller criticized the NCI report for excluding relevant data, which if taken into account would increase the potential health problems caused by the fallout. “There are two hundred other isotopes,” he says, “isotopes that can cause cancer in other parts of the body, including bone cancer and leukemia.” None of the those elements were factored into the study, however.

Miller found another oversight. “They did not include all the maps.” Miller caught the omission by comparing NCI data available on Internet with copies of 1959 Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and National Weather Service documents he had tucked away in his closet. Interestingly, the fal lout from the14 nuclear blasts excluded from the NCI study, all show fallout crossing into Canada, according to Miller.

“The NCI’s maps, to be charitable, are not very good. They don’t give the same amount of information that the originals do,” says Mi ller. “They spent 15 years working on this thing. … You would think that they would have the very best computer technology available to enhance the quality of the images.”

When Miller recently asked the Missouri Department of Health whether it had correlated data on fallout with any other forms of cancer other than the type that attack the thyroid gland, the agency said it had not. Regarding thyroid cancer, the health department claimed that based on available data there appeared to be no increase in the Missouri counties, Miller says.

Miller doesn’t agree with either finding. In his opinion, the state like its federal counterpart is continuing to exclude data that indicates cancer rates are tied to fallout exposure. In this case, the state faile d to even consider scientific findings that have been on the books for more than a decade. “The third national cancer survey published in 1983 shows spikes of thyroid cancer in a number of hot counties (in Missouri),” says Miller. “It also shows spikes o f leukemia in a number of the hot counties, as well as, bone cancer.”

Missouri has the dubious distinction of having more than two dozen counties among the 200 nationwide that were the most heavily contaminated by nuclear fallout, according to the NCI s tudy. The majority of the effected counties are in the northeast quadrant of the state, where Miller was born and raised.

“In 1968, my father, who was a tax collector for Monroe Co. (Mo.), which is one of the hot zones, noticed there was a high level of cancer in one particular part of the county,” says Miller. After joining the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the early 1970s, Miller himself had an opportunity to further investigate his father’s observations. He too foun d what appeared to be extraordinary numbers of cancer cases in Monroe County, and he subsequently informed epidemiologists at the University of Missouri. “This was 1975 and I haven’t heard from them since,” says Miller. A year later Miller’s father died of lung cancer.

Miller’s OSHA career next took him to Texas, where he began investigating a cluster of rare brain cancers at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Houston. When he attempted expand his investigation to a nearby Dow chemical facility, the Reagan administration called a halt to it and began shredding documents. The OSHA office where he worked was ultimately closed. It was during this period that a public health official suggested to him that the pocket of brain cancer cases in Houston may h ave been the result of nuclear fallout. When he looked into it, Miller did indeed discover a correlation between fallout patterns and brain cancer clusters in both Texas and Kentucky. His extensive research finally led him to write the book on the subje ct.

Currently, Miller operates a private environmental consulting firm in Houston that investigates toxic chemical contamination. He is also the author of a novel that is set in the nuclear fallout era.

The reasoning that led to mass radiation exposure is stranger than fiction, however. “They did it because they could,” says Miller of the government’s nuclear testing program. “I think they’re mistaken impression was that it was for the greater good. At the time, they thought that if we set off these bombs, if we caused hazards across the country, we may in some way be protecting the U.S. from possible attack by the Soviets. … (But) The Soviets didn’t even have an aircraft that could make it to the U.S. and back at that time,” says Miller.

“I be lieve the feds originally caused this problem, the AEC, specifically,” he adds. “It dosed Missouri with radioactive fallout. Now it’s up to the federal government to help Missouri out in terms of education programs and possibly compensation for medical c are for particular types of illnesses that are known to be associated with fallout. I believe the first order of business is to introduce a resolution that would ask for this additional funding. I would think that the representatives from the good state of Missouri would be the ones to do that.”

Thorium in Coldwater Creek

from the Riverfront Times by C.D. Stelzer, 1997

Three thousand people live within a one-mile radius of the airport site, according to DOE estimates. From the airport, Coldwater Creek flows northeast for 15 miles, touching the communities of Berkeley, Hazelwood, Florissant and Black Jack before discharging into the Missouri River. The city of St. Louis drinking-water intakes at Chain of Rocks, which supply water to hundreds of thousands of people, are five miles downstream from where the Missouri joins the Mississippi.

By any standard it is a densely populated watershed. DOE 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. Analysis conducted for DOE in 1985 indicates that soil next to Coldwater Creek is contaminated with as much as 14,000 picocuries of thorium-230 per gram. The naturally occurring background level for the same radioactive isotope amounts to 0.2 picocuries per gram.

The corresponding guideline for acceptable DOE levels of uranium-238, which is also found at the airport site, is 50 picocuries per gram. In 1981, DOE initiated a two-year groundwater-monitoring program at the site and discovered uranium-238 at concentrations up to 2,230 picocuries per gram. Other evidence shows radioactive waste is spread across the site at levels thousands of times greater than considered acceptable.

A curie is the amount of radiation emitted from one gram of radium, equal to 37 billion decays per second. A picocurie equals a trillionth of a curie. Curies are used to measure the amount of material present; they don’t indicate the amount of radiation given off or its biological hazards.

Such DOE standards ignore potential health consequences, according to a 1991 congressional study. “The present regulatory-driven approach … places far more emphasis on characterizing the contamination than on investigating health impacts and may prove ill-suited to identifying public health concerns, evaluating contamination scenarios according to their potential for adverse health effects, or establishing health-based clean-up priorities,” the Office of Technology Assessment report states.

Latty Avenue

Much of the radioactive waste that remains here is an unwanted by product of uranium purification conducted at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works on North Broadway. In 1942, the St. Louis chemical manufacturer began refining uranium for the Manhattan Project, the secret wartime program to develop the atom bomb. The uranium used in the first atomic test explosion and the initial atomic attack on Japan was processed in St. Louis.

The first atom bomb used in actual warfare exploded over Hiroshima at 8:15 in the morning on Aug. 6, 1945. More than 100,000 people died, either instantly or of radiation sickness. The 2-kiloton bomb was nicknamed “Little Boy.” The  annihilation would be repeated three days later on Nagasaki. Japan quickly surrendered.

Whether the atom bomb attacks saved more lives by bringing a rapid end to the war is still a matter of great debate. President Harry S Truman, a Missourian, claimed that using the bomb prevented what would have been bloody land invasion that could have cost the U.S. a million more casualties.

This much is known, Japanese civilians who survived the attack on Hiroshima say they didn’t hear any noise at the moment the bomb detonated. Instead, they describe a blinding light, disintegration, darkness, and fire.

In short, hell on earth.