Downstream View

A Look back at how the DOE helped contaminate the Mississippi watershed and then funded a $25-million study to examine the effects.

By C.D. Stelzer

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Jan. 27, 1993

 

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NEW ORLEANS, La. — A change in perspective can sometimes cure myopia.

Take the case of the Weldon Spring quarry, where the Department of Energy (DOE) has already begun its pell-mell release of treated radioactive water into the Missouri River (“Rushing Water,”RFT Jan. 6).

About 700 miles downstream from the nuclear drain site, William C. Van Buskirk, the dean of Tulane University’s school of engineering, sees things a little differently than the DOE’s gung-ho officials.

When informed of the situation at Weldon Spring last week, Van Buskirk took an immediate interest. “It’s a fascinating test case,” he says. The quarry offers the research advantage of being small and self contained, according to Van Buskirk.

There is good reason for the dean’s academic curiosity to be aroused over the waste. Van Buskirk is about to receive the first $5 million installment in a five-year, $25 million grant to study extensively the effects of mixed chemical and radioactive wastes on aquatic environments in the Mississippi River basin. Mixed chemical and radioactive wastes, of course, are the problem at Weldon Spring quarry, upstream on the Missouri River, before it meets the Mississippi.

“This is exactly the kind of research we need done before the DOE dumps anymore radioactive waste into the Missouri River,”says Kay Drey, a St. Louis environmentalist who has opposed releasing the water. Drey wants concerned citizens to ask their elected officials to call for a delay in future discharges of the Weldon Spring water until further studies are done.

A related petition drive to achieve the same end is being coordinated by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in University City. The petition states: “The lack of field experience in removing this particular combination of radioactive and hazardous wastes, and the lack of equipment capable of detecting and accurately measuring the residual pollutants make this project an experiment, not an engineering achievement.”

“Ironically, the Tulane grant was issued by the DOE — the same agency responsible for releasing the treated radioactive water earlier this month into the Missouri River nine miles upstream from two St. Louis area water intakes.”

“I mean, you don’t dump first and study second,” says Drey.
But dumping first and studying second is exactly what has happened.
Ironically, the Tulane grant was issued by the DOE — the same agency responsible for releasing the treated radioactive water earlier this month into the Missouri River nine miles upstream from two St. Louis area water intakes.

A spokesman for the DOE regional headquarters in Oak Ridge, Tenn. tells the RFT that there is a good chance the Tulane grant was issued by a part of the DOE that was unaware of the imminent release of the contaminated water from Weldon Spring. In other words, the DOE’s bureaucratic left hand didn’t know what its partner was doing.

Jerry Van Fossen, the DOE’s deputy project manager at the Weldon Spring site, is unfamiliar with the Tulane grant, but says that the agency normally cooperates with such work. “In this particular case, where you have a university or two universities that have a grant with the DOE, we would be required to coordinate with whoever holds that grant with the agency,” says Van Fossen.

The belated interdisciplinary study will engage between 50 to 100 researchers at Tulane and Xavier universities, Van Buskirk says. The studies may employ not only experts in chemistry and medicine, but also legal scholars and philosophers, who could ponder the effects of public policy and the impact of the media, Van Buskirk says.

Scientists taking part in the research plan to examine the development of new technologies to clean water and soil. Other research will look at how pollutants move through rivers and soil and investigate the effects of pollution on specific aquatic ecosystems. Researchers also intend to study the ways people are exposed to water-borne contaminants and how that exposure effects their health.

“They’ve got a real mess on their hands,” Van Buskirk says,referring to the DOE. “They don’t have the technology to do the cleanup and they don’t have the manpower.” There is a great deal of fear in communities about radioactive and chemical contaminants, according to Van Buskirk, and the university can play a role in allaying public concern by offering scientific data. “Maybe we would be more believable than the EPA or DOE,” he says. U.S. Sen. Bennett J. Johnston, D-La., was instrumental in Tulane receiving the grant, Van Buskirk says.

With this kind of senatorial backing tied to the DOE pursestrings, hope for a truly independent study has to be somewhat tempered. “Sen. Bennett Johnston is one of the most devoted promoters of nuclear power in the Senate,” says Drey. In addition, Drey says the Louisiana senator is a strong supporter of DOE policies. If the DOE chose to allow Tulane to study the Weldon Spring site, “I have to think that they are going to get the results that they want to get — which is there is no problem.

“(But) even raising the question helps. … We have to hope there will be a real scientist who is not paying attention to where his money comes from. Maybe that’s naive, but we have to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Devil on the Rock Road

Tax records suggest access by a giant trash-hauler to landlocked property inside an EPA Superfund site in Bridgeton may be due to special dispensation granted by the Catholic Church. But nobody is confessing to such a Faustian pact.

St. Louis County property tax records indicate that the more than 20 acres shaded in yellow inside the EPA Superfund site are owned by West Lake Quarry & Material Co., which is owned by the Catholic Church.

St. Louis County property tax records indicate that the more than 20 acres shaded in yellow inside the West Lake EPA Superfund site are owned by West Lake Quarry & Material Co., which is owned by the Catholic Church.

The EPA website dedicated to the radioactively-contaminated West Lake landfill in Bridgeton offers a vague description of the Superfund site, describing its size as “approximately 200 acres.”

In that sense, the boundaries of the site are as uncertain as the exact location of the nuclear waste itself. On one hand, the uncertainty is due to the failure of the federal regulatory agency to pinpoint the hot spots. That failure comes despite 40 years of oversight.

But there is equal ambiguity related to the history of the impacted properties themselves and their current ownership status. It’s a mystery that the EPA and others, including the St. Louis Archdiocese, don’t seem to want to talk about.

As usual, the devil is in the details, and in this case the details involve the Catholic Church.

St. Louis County land records indicate that the main road leading into the site, as well as more than 20 acres in its interior are still owned by the West Lake Quarry & Material Co. The church took over the quarry operations after the business was bequeathed to it decades ago. Quarry operations ceased years ago, but the corporation itself remains active and charities tied to the church own the company.

St. Louis County real estate records indicate that the West Lake Quarry & Material Co. is the owner of land inside the EPA West Lake Superfund site in Bridgeton. The quarry company is owned by the St. Louis Archdiocese, but the tax bill is sent to a post office box in Phoenix.

St. Louis County real estate records indicate that the West Lake Quarry & Material Co. is the owner of land inside the EPA West Lake Superfund site in Bridgeton. The quarry company is owned by the St. Louis Archdiocese, but the tax bill is sent to a post office box in Phoenix.

In short, the church in this case holds the keys not to heaven but a radioactive waste dump, according to the county  records. But this is where it gets murkier.

Tax records reveal that the tax bill is not sent to the archdiocese or any other identifiable church entity.  Instead, the tax bill is sent to an anonymous post office box in Phoenix, Ariz., the headquarters city of site owner Republic Services, a responsible party for the EPA cleanup.  Since acquiring the property more than a decade ago, Republic has closed other operations, but continues to use the site as a transfer station.

A corporate registration report filed earlier this year with the Missouri Secretary of State’s office shows the president of West Lake Quarry as William Whitaker, a retired mining engineer who lives in O’Fallon, Mo. St. Louis attorney Bernard C. Huger is listed as the secretary of the corporation. The same two individuals are now the sole members of the board of directors. Both men say they represent the church’s interests in the company.

Missouri Secretary of State records from this year show the officers and board members of the West Lake Quarry and Material Co. are longtime representatives of the Catholic Church.

Missouri Secretary of State records from this year show the officers and board members of the West Lake Quarry & Material Co. are longtime representatives of the Catholic Church.

After the church was bequeathed the company, it needed a qualified person to run the business. “They found me 1,200 feet underground,” says Whitaker, who previously supervised a lead mine near Viburnum, Mo. When he took over, the West Lake Quarry was one of a number of holdings owned by the company.

“All of a sudden they (the church) owned a bunch of quarries and they had nobody to run the operation because the owner who was running it had passed away,” recalls Whitaker. “They asked me if I would come up and run the operation. I’ve been in the mining business since 1960, how many years is that?”

When informed that the company was still on the St. Louis County property tax rolls, Huger expressed surprise and attributed it to governmental error.  “I think we sold all that and they don’t have the records right. I don’t know. But that’s a long time ago. I think it’s all long since been sold.”

But a clerk for the St. Louis County Recorder of Deeds office told StlReporter that  property tax recipients were based on information contained in the property deed, and the quarry company’s name appears on the tax bill.

“The quarry is not operating but we keep it open just in case anything would come up from time to time,” Huger says. “There might be some workmen’s comp case come up. Someone might make a claim that (was) an employee. We had one of those a couple years ago. We just keep it open. But it’s really not active. It’s not doing any active business. Let’s put it that way.”

The current shareholders “are several Catholic institutions,” says Huger. He estimates that the business has been dormant 20 years. “I don’t know the exact date. But it’s been a very long time,” he says. At the time the previous owners willed the business to the church, it was a thriving concern. “West Lake Quarry and Material Co. was a big quarry operator with quarries up and down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers,” says Huger. “The company had towboats and barges.” Incorporation records show that the company’s barge fleeting operations extended southward to states bordering the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans.

Spokespersons for the St. Louis Archdiocese, the EPA and Republic Services refused to comment.

Why Republic Services, a responsible party  for the cleanup, is allowed to conduct a profit-making business inside the site remains a matter of debate. While church and state remain mum on the issue, the question elicited a series of responses at a recent monthly meeting of the West Lake Community Advisory Group (CAG), which acts as a liaison with the EPA.

“I don’t know if the actual road that goes to the transfer station is (part of) the Superfund,” says Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “That’s not something I’ve thought about before. So it’s possible that the road is not a Superfund (site).”

Matt LaVanchy, an assistant chief of the Pattonville Fire Protection District, expressed little doubt where the lines are drawn. “It’s my understanding that the areas that are impacted by the radiological material are under the oversight of the EPA,” says LaVanchy.

One thing is for sure: While the public remains confused over the issue,  Republic trash trucks continue to roll in and out of the site as if they have God on their side.