News Blackout

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch overlooked EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s visit here  last month, helping coverup the Trump regime’s scheme to downgrade the West Lake Landfill Superfund Site’s status in favor of jump starting a money-making cobalt mine in Southeast Missouri. 

Ed Smith, Harvey Ferdman, Karen Nickel, Andrew Wheeler, Dawn Chapman and Bridgeton Mayor Terry Briggs at Bridgeton City Hall on July 31.

It should come as no surprise that the Flat River Daily Journal scooped the St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier this month, but it is, nonetheless, disturbing given the ramifications of what is at stake.

On August 1, the Journal, a small-town newspaper in Southeast Missouri, reported on EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s tour of a  shuttered lead mine near Fredericktown in Madison County, Mo. that is being resurrected to extract cobalt.

The Post-Dispatch did not report the story.

Earlier the same day, Wheeler had also met with community leaders at Bridgeton City Hall to discuss the troubled West Lake Landfill.

The Post-Dispatch missed that story, too.

Both the landfill and the mine are EPA Superfund sites. Together they illustrate the Trump administration’s environmental priorities or lack thereof. But readers of the Post-Dispatch remain largely unaware of this strange symbiotic relationship and its potential environmental consequences because the newspaper didn’t report on Wheeler’s visit.

The gaffe occurred despite the EPA announcing the Fredericktown stop in an online press release.

Opposition to Trump administration’s environmental policies by the newspaper’s editorial page may have played a role in the snafu, but whatever the reason, readers of St. Louis’ only daily newspaper were left in the dark.

Wheeler met the morning of July 31  at Bridgeton City Hall with concerned St. Louis County residents to discuss issues related to the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill site. Those present included Ed Smith, policy director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment; Harvey Ferdman, chairman of the West Lake Community Advisory Group; Bridgeton Mayor Terry Briggs; and Karen Nickel and Dawn Chapman of Just Moms STL, the group that has spearheaded the campaign to expedite a clean up of the long neglected site.

After the meeting in Bridgeton, Wheeler headed south to tour the cobalt mining site in Madison County, Mo., which is polluted with tailings from past lead mining operations.  Wheeler and Republican U.S. Rep. Jason Smith rendezvoused at the mine to promote the 20th anniversary of the EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Initiative, a program that spurs the reuse of contaminated land by private enterprise.

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler and U.S. Rep. Jason Smith touring Missouri Cobalt near Fredericktown, Mo. on July 31. [photo credit: The Flat River Daily Journal, Victoria Kemper.]

Both West Lake Landfill and the mine near Fredericktown are Superfund sites, but under the Trump administration they are categorized differently, and West Lake appears to now be getting the short end of the stick.

That’s because the president’s first EPA administrator Scott Pruitt created a Superfund Task Force that prioritizes Superfund sites nationwide. Wheeler has continued the program. The Westlake Landfill was originally on the national priorities list. But shortly after Wheeler announced the West Lake final record of decision in September 2018, he removed the site from the priorities list, inserting the mine near Fredericktown in its place.

” I actually addressed my concern with Wheeler that EPA might decrease its intensity on West Lake since it was removed from the administration’s personal priority list following the record of decision,” says Smith, the development director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. Smith adds that he hasn’t observed any noticeable decline by the EPA in carrying out its decision, and that Wheeler assured him of the agency’s commitment.

“As much as I don’t like many things the EPA is doing under this administration, I think we can agree the record of decision at West Lake is a major step in the right direction,”  Smith says. “MCE is continuing to engage EPA for further removal under its groundwater investigation with the goal of 100% removal.”

Despite that optimistic view, the situation on the ground appears less rosy.

Remedial action remains stalled at West Lake and is not expected to begin for years. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has fast tracked the clean up of the mine in Madison County, which is co-owned by St. Louis businessman Stacy Hastie, the founder of Environmental Operations Inc., a company that specializes in cleaning up polluted sites through the use of public funding and state tax credits.

Down the hatch: Mining tycoon and environmental cleaner upper Stacy Hastie.

As the Post-Dispatch and other news outlets have reported, Hastie’s company dominates the St. Louis environmental clean up industry by making hefty contributions to politicians, sometimes receiving de facto, no-bid contracts in return that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Hastie bought the defunct Madison County, Mo.  lead mine in 2018  with partner  J. Randall Waterfield, an Indiana financier. Their company — Missouri Cobalt —  says on its website that it will soon begin extracting cobalt, a valuable mineral now in high demand because of its use in the manufacture of  smart phones, electric car batteries, and guided missiles.

As a part of the arrangement, Hastie formed a separate company — Environmental Risk Transfer —  to handle the environmental clean up of the EPA’s Madison County Mines Superfund site, where the mine is located. The added side deal allows him to profit from both the mandated EPA Superfund clean up and the future mining operations.

This is seen as a win-win for Hastie and the Trump bund,  which favors business interests over environmental and human health concerns. In this case, Wheeler, a climate-change denier and former coal industry lobbyist, is the president’s chosen pitchman to promote merging government and private interests.  Reopening the mine also fits the administration’s trade policies, which favor domestic production and turns a blind eye to future pollution problems.

Hastie’s cobalt mine has received priority status from the EPA at the apparent expense of the West Lake Landfill clean up.  But with the Trump administration in control of the agency that might not be an altogether bad turn of events for those who would prefer the full removal of radioactive waste from the landfill.

The latest twists in the saga mirrors the site’s long, sordid history. The EPA has dragged its feet in cleaning up the radioactive contamination at West Lake since 1990, when it took control of the site, where Manhattan Project waste was dumped illegally in 1973.  More recently, it took a decade to finalize the latest, flawed decision after community opposition forced the agency to reconsider its initial plan to bury all the waste on site. The terms of that 2018 decision now calls for leaving almost a third of the radioactive contamination in the landfill, where it will continue to leak into the Missouri River aquifer, while further studies of groundwater contamination continue. The cost of partial removal of the waste is pegged at more than $200 million.

In June, a Post-Dispatch editorial lambasted Wheeler and the EPA for a plan to impose draconian measures that will further restrict public access to agency documents through the Freedom of Information Act. The editorial decried the new rule because it  would allow Wheeler and his minions to censor responses to FOIA requests with the stroke of the pen. Now the Post-Dispatch appears to be inextricably tangled in a game of tit for tat with Trump’s EPA. By not reporting on Wheeler’s visit the newspaper withheld vital news from its readers,  leaving citizens of the St. Louis region caught in the crossfire — victims of collateral damage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last

Unholy Bond

When U.S. Reps. Ann Wagner and Lacy Clay testified before Congress to have the West Lake Landfill clean up turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers in 2016, the public had no clue that a scandal-tainted St. Louis County government agency had paid big bucks to former U.S. Sen.Kit Bond’s lobbying firm to do its bidding on Capitol Hill. 

Academy Award Performance:
GOP Rep. Ann Wagner pounding home her message in testimony before the congressional subcommittee, July 13, 2016.

 

July 13, 2016 was just another day on the sound stage that is Capitol Hill. But veteran congressman Lacy Clay couldn’t help noting that his usual role had changed. As the audience filed into the gallery behind him, the Democrat from St. Louis took his seat at the witness table next to Republican Rep. Ann Wagner of St. Louis County.  In the moments preceding their testimony,  a C-Span microphone captured Clay’s candid remark:

“It’s kind of different being on this side,” Clay said.

Clay’s awkward small talk with his conservative counterpart ended when the chairman of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee gaveled the hearing into session at 10:03 a.m. By all accounts, what happened next in Room 2123 of the Rayburn House Office Building was a rare display of bipartisanship.

Wagner and Clay — who represent polar ends of the American political spectrum — bonded together that summer morning to send a unified message. The odd couple appealed to their fellow representatives to send House Resolution 4100  to the floor for a vote. If passed, the bill would have mandated the transfer of control of the controversial West Lake Landfill Superfund site in Bridgeton, Mo. to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Corresponding legislation had already been successfully steered through the Senate under the bipartisan guidance of Republican Sen. Roy Blunt and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

Under the lax management of the EPA, the cleanup of the radioactively contaminated site had languished for decades. Attempting to correct  the agency’s negligence was the shared responsibility of  both congressmen because the dividing line between their respective districts literally runs through the landfill. Angry residents in St. Louis County were demanding change and they made it clear that the Corps was their preferred choice to oversee the long-delayed remedy for addressing leftover nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project. The previous autumn, their protests had been amplified by local and national news coverage and the release of two documentaries on the subject.

Public pressure continued over the intervening months, stoked by monthly community meetings and non-stop social media posts. By summer, the heated issue had reached critical mass. Local activists traveled to Washington, D.C. to show support for their representatives at the congressional hearing. Besides C-Span coverage, Wagner and Clay’s joint testimony blanketed the local St. Louis news.

Unfortunately, despite the concerted effort the measure failed to clear the subcommittee. Similar legislation in the next session was also derailed.  The back-to-back failures occurred even though the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership ,  a local governmental agency, had quietly bankrolled the well-financed federal lobbying campaign for two years.

The details on how the grassroots, community-based movement morphed into a high-powered, Washington, D.C. lobbying project remain fuzzy. Calls and emails made to various private and public officials asking for comment have went unreturned.

Since its inception, no one has been in a hurry to divulge the machinations surrounding the deal, which flew under the radar using public funds without the knowledge of the vast majority of St. Louis area citizens. Organizing the congressional lobbying drive involved considerable time, a bundle of cash and lots of inside wheeling and dealing. To handle a job of this scale, the Development Partnership hired Kit Bond Strategies (KBS), the lobbying firm of former U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond of Missouri.

In hindsight, the failure of KBS to accomplish its goal set the future course for the West Lake clean up, which is now in the hands of the Trump administration.

Enter stage right: The Superfund Czar

The move to turnover the West Lake clean up to the Corps is now history.  Last month, the final EPA remedy for a partial clean up of the site — a decision that falls short of full removal — was announced by the agency.  If carried out as planned, large quantities of radioactive waste will remain on site and continue to be a threat to human health and the environment.

The long-postponed announcement came after the nascent Trump administration fast tracked the West Lake clean up in early 2017 as part of a campaign by then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to “streamline” the Superfund program. The task force created by Pruitt to accomplish that objective is now the subject of an EPA inspector’s general probe announced last month, which intends to examine the group’s secretive agenda. Pruitt and his top lieutenant Albert “Kell” Kelly both resigned earlier this year under a cloud. The controversial EPA administrator and former Oklahoma attorney general appointed Kelly, a Tulsa banker,  in early 2017 to the newly formed post of EPA Superfund Czar. Kelly’s appointment came shortly after the FDIC had imposed a fine of $125,000 and barred him from banking for life.

Lights, Camera, Action: Rep. Lacy Clay testifying before Congress, July 13, 2016.

With the latest rush of developments, the earlier pleas by Wagner and Clay to transfer the project to the Corps have now been largely forgotten, relegated to a footnote, a curious moment in time when congressional adversaries from opposite sides of the aisle put aside political differences for the common good. For a moment in the summer of 2016, it looked as if a spontaneous consensus had arrived on the scene in the nick of time.  The St. Louis area congressmen gave heroic performances on camera — and the video went straight to YouTube, where Wagner can still be seen vehemently driving home her talking points by pounding on the table. Clay’s oratory was equally impassioned. Their words expressed sincere convictions and righteous outrage, echoing the pleas of their constituents.

St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney.

It almost seemed too good  to be true — and it was. In retrospect,  Wagner and Clay now appear to have been reading  from the same script of a made-for-TV movie.

Linda Bond and hubby.

What the public didn’t know back then was that  the director of this staged congressional performance was KBS.  Linda Bond, the former senator’s wife, is  a senior partner in the lobbying firm. She signed the contract with St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney in January 2016.

The Development Partnership is a joint government agency of the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County, which wields broad powers and operates largely in the shadows with the benefit of millions of dollars in annual payments from  casino interests raked in by the St. Louis County Port Authority, an agency that shares the same staff as the Development Partnership. The County Port Authority’s purpose has nothing to do with ports. Instead, it acts as a conduit for the casino payments.

 

The 2016 contract between KBS and the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.

In 2016 and 2017, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership funneled $230,000 of public funds to Kit Bond Strategies, according to federal lobbying reports. Part of that total went to pay for the failed congressional effort to turn the West Lake Landfill Superfund Site over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — an agency that expressed serious reservations about assuming the responsibility for taking control of the project in the first place. The exact amount spent specifically on the West Lake lobbying effort is uncertain. A request under the Missouri Sunshine Law for further details is pending.  But this much is known:  the development agency’s contract called for KBS to be paid $10,000 a month for its services. The lobbying records show that the public money was doled out to the lobbyist in quarterly payments. The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership paid the lobbying firm an additional $60,000 in 2018 , but by then the effort to persuade Congress to turn the West Lake clean up over to the Corps had been dropped.

In July, a St. Louis County Council ethics committee announced it was embarking on an investigation of a wide range of questionable activities by the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership involving alleged improprieties related to the agency’s contract procedures and real estate transactions in recent years. Its lobbying contract with KBS is not known to be a part of that investigation.

The announcement followed a series of revelations published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch focusing on the dodgy dealings of the Development Partnership and the County Port Authority under the Democratic administration of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger  [1, 2, 3]. Among the allegations are those involving unusual  bidding practices by businessman John Rallo, a Stenger supporter and an heir to the Rallo Construction Co. fortune. Rallo has been the beneficiary of a lucrative real estate sale by the Development Partnership and he has also sought advise on two consulting  deals from Development Partnership CEO Sweeney, a Stenger appointee, in advance of submitting his bids, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Sheila Sweeney, Kit Bond, Lacy Clay and Steve Stenger celebrating the opening of STL Partnership’s Wellston Business Center expansion in July.

At the same time, political opponents of Stenger’s on the St. Louis County Council, have alleged that Sweeney is under federal surveillance. Councilman Ernie Trakas, a Republican from South County, and Councilman Sam Page, a North County Democrat, raised the allegations on July 24. The allegations were reported by Post-Dispatch reporter Jeremy Kohler in the newspaper and on Twitter.

The protracted controversy has been roiling for more than a year. But until now,  the ties between the Development Partnership and KBS have been unreported even though Sweeney’s signature is on the bottom line of the lobbying contract with that of KBS partner Linda Bond.

Trouble in River City

The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership is an autonomous county agency that distributes public money for various economic development schemes  with the help of casino revenue that it receives from the St. Louis County Port Authority. The port authority gets its funding from an estimated $5 million in payments paid by the River City Casino in South St. Louis County. Pinnacle Entertainment opened the casino in 2010. It is now operated by Penn National Gaming. The casino property is owned by Gaming and Leisure Properties Inc., a real estate investment trust that was spun off by Penn National, which controls a virtual monopoly on the overall operations and ownership of the St. Louis area gambling industry.

KBS lobbyist Julie Murphy Finn

The South County gambling site, which is located in unincorporated Lemay, is no stranger to controversy. Development of a casino at the location met stiff resistance from local businesses, churches, and residents in the past. Despite the widespread opposition, the St. Louis County Economic Development Council began wooing prospective casino developers there more than 20 years ago. Those initial efforts under the late St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall in the 1990s failed.  But they set the precedent for current practices.

Dec. 25, 1995 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story citing then-St. Louis County Port Authority Chairman Sheila Sweeney.

As early as 1995, the St. Louis County Port Authority accepted payments from an earlier casino developer interested in developing  the site. The chairman of the Port Authority at that time was Sweeney, who in 2018 is still pulling strings as head of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, the umbrella agency that controls the purse strings of  the  County Port Authority funds.  In 1995, Sweeney was already advocating spending payouts from gambling interests  to support the development of other sites in St. Louis County.

Dec. 25, 1995 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story reports then-County Port Authority Chairman Sheila’s Sweeney’s strident support of spending casino cash for development schemes throughout St. Louis County.

Others involved in past issues tied to  South County politics and the Lemay casino site include former South County Councilman Jeff Wagener, a Democrat who is now policy chief for St. Louis County Executive Stenger; and Wagener’s former assistant Julie Murphy Finn, the  Kit Bond Strategies’ lobbyist who oversaw the congressional lobbying  effort on behalf of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership in 2016. Wagener also sits on the board of directors of the St.  Louis Economic Development Partnership.

Murphy Finn was aided in her congressional lobbying assignment by fellow KBS lobbyist Kenny Hulshof, a former Republican congressman and gubernatorial candidate from Northeast Missouri.

Cold War Redux

But Hulshof and Murphy Finn were not the bosses of the operation. That distinction goes to KBS senior partner Linda Bond, who signed the sweetheart deal with Sweeney, the head of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.  Both women are savvy political operatives. Sweeney has been an inside player in St. Louis County politics for decades under multiple county administrations; whereas, Bond’s career in national politics stretches back to the Reagan era and is rooted deeply in Cold War politics.

Long before she married the senator, Bond worked for the Voice of America, the propaganda arm of the U.S. State Department.  From 1985 to 1991 she served as the director in Germany of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a non-governmental agency with long-established ties to the Central Intelligence Agency.  The late William Casey, the former OSS agent and CIA director during the first term of President Ronald Reagan’s administration, served a stint as the president of the IRC, which aided Eastern Bloc and Soviet defectors.

In this case,  however, there appears to have been no need for cloak and dagger skullduggery.  Instead, the deal between Kit Bond Strategies and the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership was as easy as walking next door and borrowing a cup of sugar. KBS and the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership are neighbors in the Pierre Laclede Center II, a high-rise office tower at 7733 Forsyth Blvd. in Clayton. The development agency calls Suite 2200 home, and KBS lists its address as Suite 2300.

In the end, the motive behind the 2016 lobbying deal seems to have been predicated not on bi-partisan cooperation and concern for the environment as much as it was realpolitik, and cold hard cash.

 

 

 

 

Was West Lake Landfill a Nuke Dump Before 1973?

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A 1981 report prepared for the Nuclear Regulatory Agency raises more questions about the origins of the radioactive waste at the controversial  West Lake Landfill Superfund site, including who dumped it and when.

No doubt exists that B&K Construction Co. hauled more than 40,000 tons of radioactive material from Cotter Corp.’s  Latty Avenue storage site in Hazelwood, Mo. and illegally dumped it at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo. between July and October of 1973.

But a 1981 government report obtained by the Environmental Archives now suggests some of the nuclear weapons waste at the landfill was quietly disposed of years earlier. Forty-five years later it remains a mystery where the latter nuke waste originated or who dumped it

The report, released under the Freedom of Information Act, is based on a 1980 site investigation by the Radiation Management Corp., a Nuclear Regulatory Commission contractor. The report states that the then-landfill superintendent recalled with certainty that the Latty Avenue waste was disposed on approximately two acres in the southern portion of the landfill.

Vernon Fehr, the superintendent who had first-hand knowledge of the landfill operations for the time periods in question, also said with certainty  that none of the radioactive materials from Latty Avenue  were dumped in the other contaminated part of the landfill, which is comprised of approximately 8 acres in the northeast section.

The NRC report states, “the second area is at least 10 years old (in 1981), and no one had any idea what radioactive material might be present there.” If that timeline is correct, it means large volumes of radioactive waste were secretly dumped at the landfill at least two years prior to  B&K arriving on the scene.

 

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Radiation Management based its findings on both the landfill manager’s testimony and a 1978 aerial survey of the landfill by EG&G engineering firm. The aerial survey discovered radioactive contamination above background on  2.6 acres acres in the southern part of the landfill and also present on  8 acres in the northeast portion of the site.

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Current attention has been directed mainly at area of the landfill nearest the underground fire, which is burning at the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill.

The eight acres in the northeast sector of the site include a toxic stew of chemical waste in addition to the radioactive materials. The mixed contaminants are known to be migrating off site and leaking into the aquifer. The landfill is in the flood plain, approximately 1.5 miles away from the Missouri River.

The exact nature of the all radioactively-contaminated materials and their precise locations remains uncertain because the EPA has failed to fully characterize the site since taking over the clean up in 1990.  In short, despite untold numbers of various tests and surveys over the years,  a comprehensive grid test of the entire 200-acre Superfund site has never been conducted.

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