Directive No. 10

Private intelligence contractors have been gathering scientific data and monitoring the environment in the St. Louis area for years — and not telling anybody.

 

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 During President George W. Bush’s administration, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce announced an inquiry into the National Bio-surveillance Integration System, an intelligence gathering operation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security administered by the Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC).

The House committee was then apparently interested in whether the bidding process was rigged.

In 2013, SAIC spun off a large portion of its classified government work by forming another company, Leidos. Both SAIC and Leidos have received  multi-million-dollar contracts to do clean up work  for the  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Formerly Utilized Site Remediation Program (FUSRAP) in St. Louis, including the continuing cleanup of Coldwater Creek in North St. Louis County.

In addition to its environmental engineering component, Leidos is the largest private cyber espionage outfit in the nation with estimated government contracts worth $60 billion. The company employs 80 percent of the private-sector work force engaged in contract work for U.S. spy and surveillance agencies, including Homeland Security, the CIA and NSA.

Leidos also has a contract with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources through its  federal facilities management division.

The earlier creation of the National Bio-surveillance Integration by Homeland Security through its contract with SAIC has received little subsequent attention. The program was authorized by President George W. Bush under Presidential Directive 10. Its stated mission was “to provide early detection and situational awareness of biological events of potential national consequence by acquiring, integrating, analyzing, and disseminating existing human, animal, plant, and environmental bio-surveillance system data into a common operating picture,” according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The Department of Homeland Security further describes the classified program as follows: “The National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) integrates, analyzes, and distributes key information about health and disease events to help ensure the nation’s responses are well-informed, save lives, and minimize economic impact.” 

Spurred by the outcries of concerned residents about potential health problems associated with chronic exposure to radioactive waste, the St. Louis County Health Department in conjunction with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have taken an active interest in the radioactive waste issue in the St. Louis region.  Whether Homeland’s Bio-Surveillance operation is monitoring conditions in St. Louis independently or with the cooperation of these other government agencies remains unknown.

Other community activists have long advocated taking away the control of the West Lake Landfill Superfund site in Bridgeton, Mo.  from the EPA and putting it under the control of the Corps of Engineers FUSRAP program, which has authority over the other St. Louis area radioactive sites.  But despite bi-partisan support of the St. Louis area congressional delegation, a bill slotted to shift control died in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last year.

The West Lake Landfill Superfund site is owned by Republic Services Inc., the second-largest waste disposal company in the U.S. The company’s chief spokesman is Russ Knocke, a former top spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

The presence of a top-secret operation inside an AT&T building near West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton adds another murky hue to an already cloudy picture. The facility is presumed to be controlled by the National Security Agency but may house some other unknown government covert operation.

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

For the Birds

In 2005, the city of St. Louis paid the owner of the Bridgeton Landfill a bundle to gain control of activities at the West Lake Landfill Superfund Site on behalf of the city-owned airport. Today, the city’s role remains largely invisible even though it may ultimately determine the future of the cleanup — if it hasn’t already.  

Karen Nickel of Just Moms STL introducing St. Ann alderwoman and County Council candidate Amy Poelker at a 2016 candidate forum sponsored by the organization.

Since 2013, Just Moms STL, a community organization, has held monthly meetings to raise public awareness of the EPA’s  West Lake Landfill Superfund Site in Bridgeton, Mo., a St. Louis suburb where nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project was illegally dumped in 1973.

At the opening of each meeting, organizers take a moment to recognize area elected officials or their representatives who are in attendance. They run the gamut of local to federal office holders: municipal councilmen, St. Louis County Council members, state legislators, representatives from the office of the St. Louis County executive, aides from all four members of the St. Louis congressional delegation.

It’s an impressive show of bi-partisan political support for citizens who are confronting this long-neglected environmental disaster.

But one seat in the room is always empty.

Noticeably missing from these gatherings — for the past four years — are representatives of the city of St. Louis or its mayor. Their absence comes despite the city’s having struck a deal with the landfill owner in 2005 that essentially allows the city to dictate operations at the former landfill forever.

The city acquired this influence in the old-fashioned way: It paid cash.

Under the 2005 agreement, which was brokered during the administration of then-Mayor Francis Slay, the city paid $400,000 to Allied Waste, the disposal company that then owned the troubled property. In return, St. Louis gained the legal authority to end operations there. The landfill was required to stop accepting trash and refrain from any further excavation.  Moreover, the site owner is mandated to conform in perpetuity to the restrictive terms set forth by the city of St. Louis inside the Superfund site. The covenant between the property owner and the city is neither superseded nor negated by the EPA’s separate land use restrictions.

In short: The city controls the site.

 

Under the agreement, not a speck of dirt may be dug up, turned over, rearranged, or excavated without the city’s approval. The city through its St. Louis Airport Authority,— has resisted any amendment of the agreement, citing federal safety regulations.

Though negotiations to alter the ruling have dragged on for years, the impasse has been downplayed or ignored by the news media and the public at large.

The fine print in the 2005 accord stipulates that future owners of the property must abide by the same set of restrictions. This means that the restrictive covenants put in place 12 years ago now apply to Republic Services, the waste disposal company that acquired the site as part of a merger in 2008.

Republic bought into the toxic mess at the West Lake Superfund Site when it acquired Arizona-based Allied Waste, which in turn had purchased the site from Laidlaw Waste Systems in 1996. The following year, Allied Waste merged Laidlaw Waste Systems of Missouri to create a Delaware registered subsidiary —  Bridgeton Landfill LLC.  That’s the company that the city of St. Louis cut the deal with in 2005.

If all of this sounds confusing, it’s because it is.

But one detail is clear:  Though the corporate ownership shifted, one executive’s name has been tied to the toxic landfill for 20 years: Donald Slager — the current CEO of Republic Services.

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 9.11.02 AMAs a company officer of Allied Waste, Slager signed the 1997 merger agreement that registered Bridgeton Landfill in Delaware, a state known for its strict corporate secrecy laws.

Sealing the little-known 2005 property pact with Bridgeton Landfill — known as a “negative easement” — allowed  the airport authority to comply with a Federal Aviation Administration  safety regulation related to flight risks posed by birds at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Bird strikes by commercial aircraft are fairly common and reopening the West Lake landfill could attract flocks of hungry birds. But in this case, disagreement exists as to whether the presence of birds at West Lake outweighs the hazard posed by allowing radioactive waste to continue polluting the environment.

FAA rules are focused on hazards in the sky, not on earth. So to address the winged threat, the FAA mandates that airports accommodating passenger jet service be located at least 10,000 feet from active landfills. The West Lake Superfund Site, of which the Bridgeton Landfill is a part, lies 9,100 feet from the nearest Lambert runway.

“Under the FAA regulations,  the airport is responsible for ensuring proper wildlife management practices are in place for whatever mitigation is ultimately selected for the landfill,” says FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory.  “The goal is to minimize any possibility for potential bird strikes.”

Granted that leverage, the city of St. Louis has found a way to kill two birds with one stone. It bought the negative easement ostensibly to conform with the federal regs but in so doing it acquired considerable influence over the choice of method that will ultimately be used to clean up the site.

In this case, a relatively obscure clause within a federal regulation is being used by the city to block plans to either contain the radioactive materials at West Lake or — the preferred choice of many community members — remove them. As a result, the air safety regulation presents a fixed impediment to the EPA’s efforts to address the long-term goal of protecting human health and the environment at the site.

The airport authority advocates capping the waste in place — the cheapest option. By no small coincidence, this remedy is also supported by Republic Services, the landfill’s owner.

In its 2008 record of decision, the EPA also favored leaving the waste in place and capping it, but the agency is now reconsidering the plan after encountering public opposition. In the interim, the agency acknowledged that seepage from the unlined landfill is contaminating groundwater at the site — which is located in a floodplain, 1 mile from the Missouri River.

The estimated cost of capping the landfill with dirt and gravel is $40 million. Removing the waste could cost 10 times as much. Though capping may save money, it merely buries the problem, and only ensures further contamination of the aquifer. Nor does it do anything to snuff out the underground fire that’s smoldering at the site.

The dilemma that no government source seems to want to talk about is whether the EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment should take a backseat to a FAA reg that may or may not help ensure safety of air travelers. The EPA, St. Louis Airport Authority, and office of Lyda Krewson, the new St. Louis mayor, were all asked to comment and declined.

Enforcement of the FAA regulation on preventing bird strikes involves yet another federal agency, the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Wildlife Services. Agents from that agency were spotted inspecting the site earlier this spring. A spokesman for the agency declined comment.

A USDA vehicle was seen at the West Lake site on April 13. (photo by Robbin Ellison Dailey.)

Previous public statements by the airport director have indicated that the airport’s deal with the property owner has cut down the number of bird strikes at Lambert and that for this reason the 2005 agreement should not be amended or nullified.

In a five-page letter written by airport director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge to then–EPA West Lake Landfill Superfund Site project manager Dan Gravatt in September 2010, she acknowledged the seriousness of the presence of uncontrolled radioactive waste at the site but said that any action taken must not compromise the city’s obligation to protect public safety.

“The USDA Wildlife Service has advised the City that uncovered radiologically-impacted municipal waste at the West Lake Landfill will serve as a food attractant for a variety of bird species and increase the risk of bird/aircraft strikes at the airport,” Hamm-  Niebruegge wrote.

The airport director cited 600-plus incidences of bird strikes recorded at Lambert since the 1990s. After implementation of the 2005 agreement, she said, there was a marked reduction in such occurrences. The city again opposed digging at the landfill in 2014, when the EPA considered building a barrier to halt the advance of the underground fire burning in the direction of the radioactive waste. In this case, Hamm-Niebruegge and Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for Mayor Slay, co-signed a letter nixing any digging at the site for the same reasons cited four years earlier.

 

The ornithological suspects in the kamikaze flights have reportedly included vultures, geese, hawks, gulls, owls, and the lowly pigeon.

The safety of 13 million travelers flying in and out of Lambert each year each year was at stake, according to the airport director’s 2010 missive. It is unclear from the letter, however, whether any casualties have resulted from these mismatched encounters besides those suffered by our fine feathered friends.

“The plans shared with the Airport … indicate that any isolation barrier alternative will result in substantial amounts of putrescible wastes being excavated and managed at the landfill over a long indeterminate period of time. Due to the amount of putrescible waste being excavated and the lengthy period of the project, the Airport believes there is potential for a bird hazard to develop from activities associated with the construction of an isolation barrier,” Hamm-Niebruegge and Rainford wrote.

The barrier was never built, and the fire is still burning.

Some think the airport’s stance is for the birds.

Critics include former Missouri state Rep. Bill Otto, whose 70th District included Bridgeton and part of St. Charles County. Otto is a retired air traffic controller and a founding member of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. He worked for decades at Lambert when the airport was a hub for TWA and American Airlines. In his opinion, excavating the landfill to remove the radioactive and chemical contaminants does not pose a realistic safety hazard, and the fear of bird strikes is unwarranted.

Former Missouri state Rep. Bill Otto.

“It’s simply not true. It is not a factor,” Otto says. He bases his belief on more than 20 years of professional experience. In his long tenure at Lambert, Otto says, the airport never experienced problems with birds resulting from landfill operations. At that time, the dump was open for business and accepting all manner of household refuse and garbage, as well as toxic waste. He adds that the airport then handled 75 percent greater air traffic volume.

Even if birds suddenly became an issue during the cleanup, Otto believes air traffic controllers could simply change traffic patterns to avoid the risks. Moreover, the cleanup plan itself could include measures to help keep birds from posing a hazard. “There are all kinds of ways to deal with it on a long-term or short-term basis,” Otto says.

Otto suspects that the real reason for the bird flap is two-legged interference on the ground. “Republic Services [the landfill owner] is pushing the airport, using the potential for bird activities as a reason it shouldn’t be excavated,” he says. “Honestly, I think it’s a political maneuver on their part.” Otto sees cleaning up the landfill as the top priority: “The needs of the community are greater than the traffic flow at the airport.”

Russ Knocke, the chief spokesman for Republic Services, did not return a call requesting a response to Otto’s comments.

The EPA’s own National Remedy Review Board concurs with Otto’s assessment. In its 2013 review of the West Lake Superfund Site, the NRRB stated that most of the contaminated sections of the landfill are located farther than 10,000 feet from any Lambert runway.

Moreover, the NRRB asserted that bird-related problems could be handled with little difficulty. “It should be feasible to use netting or devices (e.g. moveable tent or building) for the short amount of time that would be needed to excavate or treat the RIM [radiologically impacted materials],” said the the NRRB.

Most important, the NRRB review stated that the environmental law that governs EPA Superfund sites is not restricted by the airport’s move to conform to FAA regulations. The review board, however, may only offer its opinion; it has no enforcement powers. In other words, the negative easement held by the St. Louis Airport Authority has not been overturned and remains legally binding.

Many Bridgeton residents have difficulty accepting the airport authority’s position at face value. Their doubts are based on shared history and collective memory. The distrust stems from the imposition of past FAA and EPA fiats by the city of St. Louis and its airport authority. At first glance, these events seem unrelated, but they’re part of the same long-term plan that has had a devastating overall impact on Bridgeton.

Grasping how these machinations fit together requires some understanding of the political jurisdictions that divide the St. Louis area. Bridgeton is one of more than 90 incorporated municipalities in St. Louis County.  These suburban fiefdoms surround the city of St. Louis, which is itself independent from St. Louis County thanks to boundaries drawn in the late 19th century. The idea of unifying the region is the subject of perennial civic debate that has never progressed beyond the talking stage. Because of this peculiar jurisdictional arrangement, the city of St. Louis has been stymied from exerting influence over the independent incorporated municipalities in St. Louis County.

Bridgeton is the exception to that rule: The city of St. Louis owns the airport — which is located inside the Bridgeton city limits.

The deal hashed out in 2005 between the city of St. Louis and the landfill owner was originally spurred by airport expansion plans initiated in the 1990s, most notably a proposal to build a controversial billion-dollar runway. The now-completed runway project required more than 2,000 homes in Bridgeton’s Carrollton subdivision to be razed so the airport could adhere to EPA sound-abatement guidelines.

Though many Carrollton residents opposed the forced buy-out, bulldozing moved forward in a matter of years. More than 5,000 Bridgeton citizens were dislocated, and the city of St. Louis is now the absentee landlord of the abandoned property, which resembles a ghost town. The homes are gone, but vestiges of habitation still haunt the place. Ornamental trees and shrubbery dot the landscape. Grassy lawns outline where homes once stood. Light standards and utility poles provide an eerie symmetry. A living room sofa sits in the middle of one former thoroughfare.

An empty  street in the abandoned Carrollton subdivision.   (photo by Alison Carrick)                                            

Across town from Carrollton, another Bridgeton subdivision now finds itself in limbo. Residents of Spanish Village endure the stench from the underground fire at the nearby West Lake Superfund Site, their lives in a holding pattern while the EPA’s bureaucracy and the city of St. Louis wrangle over the terms of the clean up.

Robbin Ellison Dailey is one of the Spanish Village residents whose lives have been affected by the West Lake mess. Her husband Mike, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was recently hospitalized because of the condition. The couple, who’ve been exposed to the air pollution from the dump for years, have filed a lawsuit against the current owner of the landfill. Late last year, independent testing confirmed the presence of radiological particles in their home, and since then other homes in the subdivision have tested positive. But the EPA’s sampling of Spanish Village residences did not detect increased levels of radioactive materials. The agency says there is no reason for concern.

Not surprisingly, Dailey doesn’t trust the EPA’s findings any more than she believes the airport’s reasons for opposing excavation at the landfill.

“I think it’s the lamest excuse I have ever heard,” says Dailey. “It’s like they’re [willing] to put safety of aircraft over the safety of individuals and communities that are having to live with this problem in their midst.” There is no need to sacrifice the safety of either, in her opinion. She says that airport controllers could guide planes around the landfill, using a different flight path. “They don’t have to come in over the landfill. This bird situation is absolutely ridiculous.”

Dailey’s view seems reasonable, but decisions regarding the landfill never have been dictated by common sense or the common welfare. Instead, the priorities of powerful special interests appear to be what’s guiding policy decisions.

According to the EPA’s 2011 supplemental feasibility study: “The city’s control over the site “shall end only if and when the City of St. Louis chooses in its sole and absolute discretion to abandon its negative easement.” Persuading the airport authority to relinquish the power it holds over the site is unlikely; it has shown no sign that its position has changed. In its 2011 report, the EPA noted that the airport authority had indicated that any “excavation remedy would create risks that they could not even calculate.”

Although the airport authority has paid lip service to addressing environmental hazards at the site, the landfill’s litany of pollution problems is apparently still off its radar. Besides the underground fire, the final cleanup plan must take into account the radioactive and chemical contaminants that are known to be leaking into the aquifer in the floodplain, just a mile from the Missouri River, which provides drinking water to a large portion of the region’s population.

When asked to give the city’s position on the West Lake issue, a spokesman for newly elected St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson declined to comment. The reticence itself sends a message: It’s business as usual at City Hall.

The original version of this story incorrectly cited Laidlaw Waste Systems as the company that signed the negative easement with the St. Louis Airport Authority in 2005. That is incorrect. Allied Waste, the then-owner of the Bridgeton Landfill, agreed to the arrangement.