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

Behind Closed Doors

While the underground fire continues to burn at the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill, the federal government seems more concerned about quietly hashing out deals with corporate interests. 

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Attend any West Lake Community Advisory Group meeting and you’ll see them there. They’ll be scribbling notes. More often than not, they’re well-dressed women in business suits, serious professionals. But they’re not government officials, scientists, or engineers.

They’re lawyers. Private lawyers.

The attorneys are quietly noting every detail being discussed at the public forums so they can report back to their corporate clients. They are the hired guns of the potentially responsible parties, those companies held liable under the EPA Superfund law for the cost of the  West Lake Landfill clean up. Except for these rare appearances, the lawyers mostly work behind the scenes, with little or no accountability to the public.

It’s not unusual for private attorneys to meet on the low, but in this case their talks are being  facilitated by the Department of Justice. Involvement of the DOJ, which is keeping an unusually low profile, raises more questions about the situation at West Lake, which is already mired by doubts and suspicions due to a lack of transparency by government regulators.

While the lawyers meet behind closed doors, an underground landfill fire is approaching the radioactive waste at the site, exposing residents to unknown risks.

The three potentially responsible parties that share the liability for the clean up of the site are the U.S. Department of Energy,  Exelon Corp., and Republic Services, owner of the troubled dump.

DOJ’s involvement isn’t new. It’s been going on a long time, sanctioned by obscure federal rules and regulations and codified by law.  But few people in the impacted community of North St. Louis County are aware of the DOJ’s influence.

After the Nuclear Regulatory Commission handed over control of the site to the EPA decades ago, the DOJ stepped in to act as an arbiter among the potentially liable parties [PRPs], negotiating the terms of a settlement agreement, a pact which is referred to as a “non-binding allocation of responsibilities.” In short, the deal specifies who pays for what.

The quiet DOJ negotiations  would have remained so if not for efforts of environmentalists intent on uncovering the tangled relationships among government regulators and private industry. The revelation was exposed by the recent release of internal EPA email records obtained by the Environmental Archives under the Freedom of Information Act. One of the emails references DOJ’s role.

On Nov. 23, 2015, Jessie Kerrigan of Lathrop and Gage law firm wrote to Alyse Stoy, EPA Region 7 general counsel:

“As I mentioned the parties do have an existing settlement agreement for allocation of SFS costs to DOJ. I have attached it for your information and to share with DOJ if that would be useful (given that the DOJ team has changed since the execution of this).”

Lathrop and Gage represents  Republic Services, one of the PRPs.  SFS stands for “supplemental feasibility study.” The supplemental feasibility study is being done as a part of reconsidering the EPA’s 2008 Record of Decision.

The message is vague but indicates that DOJ’s current role goes beyond being a mere negotiator. Instead, the email suggests that the DOJ is paying the cost of the supplemental feasibility study or  playing the role of  the EPA’s collection agent. But just how much money is being paid out by whom and for what purposes is unclear because DOJ’s books are closed.

 

 

 

 

 

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.