How Deep Did It Go Down?

Is the EPA under-estimating the depth of the problem at its West Lake Superfund Site?

In 1979-1980 Gary Schneider hauled Bridgeton municipal waste to West Lake Landfill for BFI. He says the quarry pit was 75-feet deep then —  seven years after B&K Construction illegally dumped tons of radioactive waste at the same site.

The EPA has recommended excavating and cleaning up the same site to a maximum of 16-feet.

 

 

The Absentee Trash Lord

For the last 20 years, Republic Services CEO Don Slager’s name has been associated with the West Lake Superfund Site, the resting place of nuke waste from the Manhattan Project. He virutally owns the smoldering mess in Bridgeton, but nobody has seen him out on the Rock Road lately. So where’s Don hiding out these days?

Donald Slager

Republic Services CEO Donald Slager oversees a waste empire that includes the smoldering Bridgeton Landfill and its evil twin, the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill.

In 2014, Republic Services CEO Donald Slager and his wife Kimberlee sold their mansion in Paradise Valley, Ariz. to a shadowy investment company for $5.4 million. Their whereabouts nowadays is uncertain. If the couple purchased another tony residence in the Phoenix metro area, they didn’t put their new digs in their name. Maricopa County property records indicate the only real estate the Slagers own are two pricey storage lockers. A third storage unit is in the name of the 2000 Slager Revocable Trust. All three are part of a Phoenix storage facility known as the Toy Barn and advertised as “garage condominiums.”

The Cayman Connection

Republic Services claims no environmental woes to snare a billion-dollar-plus loan with the help of its offshore insurer. 

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 12.23.31

Republic Services, owner of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill in St. Louis County, scored a $1.2 billion loan from a consortium of the world’s largest banks in 2014 by assuring its lenders that the company had no environmental problems that would effect its bottom line, StlReporter has learned.

Under the terms of the agreement signed on June 30, 2014, Republic claims that “existing environmental laws and existing environmental claims” could not reasonably be expected to a have a  “material adverse effect” on the company’s operations.  “Material adverse effect” is defined in the agreement as being a change that would negatively impact “operations, business, properties, assets or conditions, financial or otherwise, of the borrower and its subsidiaries taken as a whole.”

“No Problemo”

The assurances that the company has no notable environmental headaches came despite public controversy surrounding the environmental and health hazards posed by the company’s West Lake property, an EPA Superfund site, and corresponding calls for the buyout of nearby homeowners.

To qualify for the 2014 loan, the banks required Republic to assume liability for potential environmental issues and indemnify them against claims. Republic complied to the terms by designating an offshore subsidiary — the Bom Ambiente Insurance Co. of the Cayman Islands — as the company’s insurer. Unlike most of its other subsidiaries Bom Ambiente is exempted from the terms of the loan agreement.

Aon Insurance Management, a leading captive and reinsurance company, represents Bom Ambiente Insurance through its offices in the Cayman Islands, which are located in the same posh office building as a major offshore law firm.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 15.23.15

 

Spokespersons for Republic and Aon declined to comment.

So-called “captive insurance” companies are set up by their parent corporations as a means of providing affordable risk management services based on the concept of self insurance. Many risk-prone businesses locate their in-house insurance operations in the Cayman Islands to take advantage of favorable governmental regulations and the absence of income and capital gains taxes.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 15.55.50

Republic Services,  one of three parties liable for the EPA-mandated cleanup, opposes removing the West Lake waste. Instead, the company favors the terms of the original 2008 record of decision calling for capping the materials in place. That proposal is being reconsidered due to public opposition.  The cost of removal is estimated at $400 million or ten times the original plan.  But there seems to be more riding on the final decision than the cost of the clean up.

The future of the company may be at stake.

The banks that signed off on the five-year loan are among the most prominent financial institutions in the world. They include: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Barclays, BNP Paribas, Union Bank and SunTrust. Bank of the America, the lead lender, has committed $87 million.

The loan agreement spells out how Republic can borrow the money over the course of the agreement through regular loans, advances on credit, or so-called, short-term “swing-line” loans. The agreement does not stipulate the purposes for which the Republic uses the borrowed money. But Bridgeton Landfill and Rock Road Industries, two Republic Services-owned companies connected to the troubled West Lake property, are among the hundreds of Republic subsidiaries that are a party to the loan agreement.

In Schedule 5.12 of the loan agreement, Republic says it has no issues to report related to environmental matters. But the company’s February 2016 Security and Exchange Commission 10-K report discloses that for 2014 Republic accrued more than $227 million in costs coping with environmental matters at its troubled West Lake property.

Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 10.41.57

In short, the company readily acknowledged the high cost of addressing environmental matters at West Lake to the SEC earlier this year, but denied any problems would have a “material adverse effect” in paying back its debt in the 2014 loan agreement. To do otherwise would be a breach of the loan agreement and could be considered a default.

A Slow-Motion Train Wreck

Republic Services acquired the environmentally-troubled Bridgeton and West Lake Landfills in 2008 when it merged with Allied Waste Services. The impacted landfills are now closed, but Republic continues to operate a transfer station at the same location, which has been an EPA Superfund site since 1990.

The history of radioactive contamination at West Lake dates back to 1973, when the waste was illegally dumped. Federal, state and local regulatory authorities have been aware of the problem for more than 40 years, but failed to act.

The inaction made matters worse.

In December 2010, Republic told the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that an underground fire was burning at the Bridgeton Landfill, which is directly next to the West Lake Landfill and part of the same Superfund site. The stench from the fire raised dormant public concerns.

By February 2013, MDNR had cited Republic for noxious odors. The next month the Missouri Attorney General sued the company for violations of state environmental laws. That case is still pending. A negotiated agreement between the state and Republic Services to build a barrier to stop the fire from advancing closer to the radioactive waste is also stalled, as is federal legislation that would hand the cleanup over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

During these delays, the fire has moved closer to the radioactive material.

Meantime, the MDNR and the EPA have confirmed that radioactive materials are known to have migrated off site, further contaminating air, soil and water. Private lawsuits have also been filed against the company.

To those unfamiliar with the world of high finance, the reporting discrepancies and ongoing issues at West Lake would seem enough to raise eyebrows among Republic’s individual and institutional investors, including  firms tied to billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

But that hasn’t happened.

Apparently, Republic’s word is its bond among stock market traders. From a business perspective, environmental stewardship and standard accounting practices are based on the letter of the law. West Lake be damned. After all, the five-year, $1.2 billion loan is a fraction of  Republic’s long-term debt, which stands at $7.5 billion and counting.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 16.38.57

To Be Perfectly Blunt

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

Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Every Picture Tells a Story

Leidos oversees the testing of FUSRAP sites in St. Louis for the Army Corps. But its main gig is spying for the U.S. intelligence agencies, with zillions in contracts from the DOD, CIA, NSA and Homeland Security. 

IMG_3680

Ain’t nobody’s business but their own: Leidos hall of mirrors on South Grand in St. Louis.

The FUSRAP worker testing soil near Coldwater Creek in Florissant is employed by Leidos, a defense contractor that receives billions of dollars in federal contracts from intelligence agencies.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch front-page story on Sunday May 16, 2016 dismissed community concerns about radioactive contamination in Coldwater Creek and West Lake Landfill in North St. Louis County.

It took months to prepare the story.  Sources were selected carefully from pro-nuke   “experts.”  There were fancy graphics and a sidebar, which helped fill an additional two  pages inside. The digital version included a link to a sarcastic video that degraded those who took the issue seriously. The gist of the propaganda piece was that there is nothing to worry about. Its banner headline above the fold screamed, “Misplaced Fear?”

The rhetorical question was followed by a photograph of a worker in an orange safety vest and hardhat kneeling along the banks of Coldwater Creek.  The  cutline identifies him as health physics technician Antonio Martinez, but it doesn’t identify his employer.  To figure out who employs Martinez it’s necessary to zoom in and take a closer look at the picture. Martinez’s hardhat is inscribed cryptically with one word: “Leidos.” The name was taken from the middle of “kaleidoscope,” and according to a press release it “reflects the company’s effort to unite solutions from different angles.”  What those angles are is not exactly clear, however.

Judging by his attire and location, Martinez presumably works for the company’s environmental engineering division, which has a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that oversees the clean up of FUSRAP sites in St. Louis.

But Leidos has a darker side and lots of gray areas, too. Because there is so little light shone on the company’s clandestine activities, there is no way of knowing exactly what the shadowy firm does. A vast amount of its government contract work is classified top secret.  This much is known:

Leidos is the federal government’s largest cyber-intelligence contractor, bigger than Booz Allen Hamilton, the spooky security firm that employed exiled whistleblower Edward Snowden.  In short,  the company spies on people for the U.S. government, including American citizens.

Every picture tells a story: Leidos contract worker Antonio Martinez wearing his Leidos hardhat. (Photo by David Carson of the Post-Dispatch)

Leidos was created in 2013 when Science Applications International Corp. spun off a large portion of its classified government work. 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.

Leidos’ St. Louis offices are located on South Grand Boulevard in a renovated automobile repair garage. The building’s newly installed mirrored windows reflect the secretive nature of its government business, which is estimated to be valued at $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 the Department of Defense,  Homeland Security, CIA and NSA.

Leidos also has a contract worth more than $300,000  with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources through its  federal facilities management division. So the company is performing work for both the state and federal government with little or no public oversight.

Instead of “Misplaced Fears?,”perhaps a more appropriate headline for the Post-Dispatch’s hit job should have been “Misled and Smeared.”

Taking Care of Business

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 8.32.55 AM

When the DNR declared an emergency at the smoldering Bridgeton Landfill in 2013, the state agency skirted its formal bidding process, an out-of-state firm scored a sweet deal and the public was left none the wiser.

first published at STLReporter, Feb. 3, 2015

On March 18, 2013, environmental specialist Dan Norris and his boss Brenda Ardrey of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources quietly submitted a memorandum to Procurement of Services File RFP 3445-001. The memo shows that the department did not receive any bids that complied with the agency’s standards for air sampling services at the Bridgeton Landfill, where an underground fire has been burning near radioactive waste since 2010.

Nevertheless, a six-figure contract was awarded to SWAPE, an environmental firm from Santa Monica, Calif. The acronym stands for Soil Water Air Protection Enterprise. SWAPE, acting as a middle man, then hired a St. Louis-based subcontractor.  The paper trail indicates no complete bids were received even after the DNR extended the deadlines by more than two weeks. The DNR guidelines normally require a minimum of three competitive bids. Two companies ultimately proposed deficient offers. By its own admission, the DNR awarded the plum to one of those companies based on an incomplete proposal. The DNR was able to skirt its normal protocols by invoking an emergency clause in its procurement process.

“Essentially, there was a response to the bid, it just wasn’t complete,” says Norris, who recently left his job with the state regulatory agency.  “It was missing a couple things as far as the response to the actual form. DNR had not dealt with an event quite like this before. It’s not like there was just a playbook to go off of for sampling air around a smoldering landfill, at least not a playbook that Missouri had. “We were told to waste no time whatsoever on getting a contractor and getting boots on the ground out there to begin the air sampling. It was not the kind of thing that we wanted to hold up for administrative purposes. That’s why in early 2013 it was contracted out.”

Finding an environmental company then willing to challenge the interests of waste industry behemoth Republic Services, the landfill owner, appears to have been a difficult task for the DNR, according to public records obtained by StLReporter.  So the agency turned to a trusted consultant to act as its de facto headhunter. The consultant contacted industry sources and ultimately recommended SWAPE. After getting the nod, SWAPE quickly lined up a subcontractor in St. Louis to do part of the work.  Nobody involved in the deal will talk about it openly, citing contractual obligations.

When asked how the DNR first became aware of an environmental firm on the West Coast, Norris says: “I can’t comment on how we came to know SWAPE.” The two-year-old memo he co-signed indicates the firm was recommended by another contractor. Speaking from an undisclosed location by phone he also refused to talk about the price tag of the emergency air-monitoring contract. “I can’t comment on payment or billing or anything like that.”

Following an-age-old American custom, Norris has moved out West. He now lives in the Rocky Mountain Time Zone. He prefers not to divulge exactly where. Norris has exited Jeff City. But questions swirling around his leave-taking still plague his former agency like a bad case of the winter flu.

A Letter from Dan

Dan Norris - DNR State ID card

Dan Norris – MDNR State ID card

Early last month, Norris wrote a broadside, condemning the agency for its cozy relationship with Republic Services,  the company responsible for the site in North St. Louis County that is the location of a pair defunct landfills: one that’s smoldering and the other that contains radioactive waste dating back to the Manhattan Project.  The two adjacent dumps are both part of a long-delayed  Environmental Protection Agency Superfund clean-up site. In his parting shot, the former DNR staffer alleged that politics unduly influences regulatory decisions within the state agency, and that DNR employees are under the gun not to talk about it. The revelations have caused a stir inside and outside of the DNR.

Activists and community members familiar with the situation tend to agree with the whistleblower’s assessment, seeing Republic–the second largest waste hauler in the United States — as their foe. They point to Bill Gates’ stake in the company as evidence of the power that it wields. They allude to the company’s checkered environmental record elsewhere, including another smoldering landfill fire in Ohio. They also agree with Norris’ contention that Republic’s generous campaign contributions have swayed state lawmakers.                           

In that sense, it is not what Norris revealed that is relevant so much as the act itself. He broke the code of silence inside a department that in recent years has operated more like the CIA than a state environmental regulatory agency. Unfortunately, Norris’ criticisms of the DNR  are vague, and his complaints raise more questions than answers. His account of agency wrongdoing is sketchy. He lays blame but buttons up when asked for details.

Under prevailing rules, DNR has been assigned the responsibility of containing an underground fire and reducing the noxious odors at the Bridgeton Landfill. The state maintains that Republic is liable for the expense of the emergency air sampling costs, but it’s unclear whether the company has ponied up. Reached at his office in Washington, D.C., Republic spokesman Russ Knocke was unaware of the contract and said he would have to do some homework to determine whether the state has been reimbursed.

The radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill next door is the bailiwick of the federal EPA. As the two bureaucracies advance their separate agendas at a glacial pace, the fire is heading in the direction of the nuclear materials.

In Norris’ absence, the status of the clean up has become more uncertain than ever. The building of a state mandated barrier to stop the fire from advancing has been indefinitely delayed.  In the interim, doubts mount, finger pointing increases, and nobody seems in control. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster recently expedited the state’s case against Republic for violations filed two years ago, but there is no sign of a settlement. If anything, the company shows indications of being even more resistant to DNR’s appeals. Meanwhile, the activists are stepping up their calls for Gov. Jay Nixon to take action.

From outside DNR’s closed doors, the scenario seems bleak. There would appear to be no winners. However, department documents and correspondence show how one group consistently benefits from the intractable predicament — outside contractors.

A Quiet State of Emergency

Norris says he met DNR contractor Todd Thalhamer in 2008 at a training seminar. For the last several years, Thalhamer has given talks on landfill fires sponsored by Stark Consultants Inc., which is owned by Tim Stark, another DNR contractor. Thalhamer moonlights as a consultant, too, and owns Hammer Consulting Service in El Dorado, Calif. He works full-time as an environmental engineer for the state of California and is a firefighter in the El Dorado Volunteer Fire Department. Thalhamer received a bachelor’s degree in environmental resources engineering from Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. in 1992. His five-page resume indicates he worked on his first landfill fire in Sacramento County the same year he graduated from college.  He has been under contract as a landfill fire expert for the DNR for the last four years.

Reached by phone in California, Thalhamer says the reason the DNR retains his services is because he has a unique skill set. “The only other individual that I’m aware of that has my expertise is a colleague of mine in British Columbia, and he’s outside the United States,” says Thalhamer. “I have a very unique background. I’m a fireman [and] a registered civil engineer. I do environmental emergency response in California and with EPA,” he says. “I’m one of the guys who trains the landfill owners and operators throughout the United States. My name is known in the industry.”

“Once DNR got Todd Thalhamer on contract,” says Norris, “Todd was able to inform us about certain things that we needed to be watching as far as the gas extraction well field, [and] additional data that we should be tracking.” Besides Norris, the team included two other DNR staffers, consultants Thalhamer and Stark and, a graduate student. “We tracked the landfill gas data from that well field from month to month. We started plotting it on maps to see what the overall condition was. At some point, we started to see signs that the event was spreading and intensifying.”

Then the odors at the landfill increased.

“By 2012, I was making a push that we really needed to collect some air-monitoring data to get a better handle on what the potential risks were from the landfill smoldering event, as well as just what risk that might be as far as exposing the community,” Norris says.

The increased odors coming off the Bridgeton Landfill in 2012 gave DNR cause for concern as public complaints mounted over the stench. This set the stage for the events that would lead to the emergency procurement contract in early 2013 in which Thalhamer would play a pivotal role.

By this point, the California consultant had the DNR’s ear, and his suggestions  extended beyond the technical aspects of  fighting landfill fires. When odor complaints jumped in early 2013, Thalhamer told the DNR to openly request EPA air testing as a way of calming residents fears.  “We need to ensure the public that the odor is just that — an odor and not a health risk,” advised Thalhamer.  “The quickest way to reduce the environmental worry in the community is to request the US EPA perform community and facility air sampling. Contractor data should be as valid as US EPA but we need to show the community we are concerned enough to make this request.”

A few months earlier in December 2012,  the DNR had held a one-day training session presented by Thalhamer at Republic Service’s headquarters on St. Charles Rock Road. Those in attendance included, DNR staffers, representatives of the Pattonville and Robertson Fire Protection Districts, and officials from the St. Louis County Health Department. Brenda Ardrey of the DNR arranged the meeting and Republic, picked up the lunch tab for the sandwiches from a nearby Jimmy John’s restaurant.

Thalhamer charged $150 an hour for his services. Including various conferences calls, planning and travel expenses, the bill totaled $6,695.49.

His performance impressed Ardrey so much that she arranged for Thalhamer to speak the next summer at the Missouri Waste Control Coalition’s annual conference at the posh Tan-Tar-A resort on the Lake of the Ozarks. The 400-member coalition is comprised of private waste companies, government regulators and consultants.

ozarks

The conference setting had the trappings of a country club, including a golf course, where the MWCC held its annual tournament over the same weekend. The clubby atmosphere between business and government regulators goes beyond  the 18th hole, however.  Ardrey’s boss Chris Nagel, director of DNR’s Solid Waste Management Program, sits on the advisory board of the waste coalition, and Larry Lehman, DNR’s chief enforcement officer, is on its board of directors. Besides Lehman, other board members include Randy Tourville of Republic Services and Lisa Messinger of EPA Region VII.

After DNR decided to fund air sampling at Bridgeton Landfill in early 2013,  Thalhamer put SWAPE on DNR’s radar. Thalhamer and one of the owners of SWAPE had both worked on a case related to another Republic landfill fire in Ohio years earlier. Within a week, SWAPE had secured the DNR’s air-sampling contract without going through the regular bidding process.

That’s because a month earlier, DNR had quietly invoked an emergency clause in the state statutes and allocated more than a half a million dollars for the job. Internal DNR emails show officials carefully researched the matter to make sure the agency followed the letter of the law in declaring the emergency.

Few outside the DNR knew about the emergency. No sirens went off. The governor didn’t issue an evacuation order. Residents were not kept fully in the loop. Instead, agency insiders kept the situation hushed. The only other company that expressed interest in the contract submitted a proposal that was less acceptable than SWAPE’s.

Unlike others wary of consequences, SWAPE showed no fear of rousing the ire of Republic because it had already had a falling out with the waste giant in the past. On March 21, within 48 hours of receiving the contract, Paul Rosenfeld of SWAPE flew to St. Louis for a one-day meeting with DNR officials.

A subcontractor identified in an invoice only as JB also attended the talks. John Blank is the the owner of American Environmental Laboratories, a St. Louis-based firm that SWAPE hired as a subcontractor.  Blank says the terms of his company’s involvement remain confidential, but he does reveal that SWAPE issued the requirements for conducting the air sampling — “the what and the how” — and the St. Louis lab reported the results back to SWAPE and the DNR.

The meeting between SWAPE and the DNR lasted 11 hours, according to public records. Rosenfeld charged $195 an hour. The subcontractor charged $120. SWAPE billed DNR a total of  $5,821.86 for the day.

The terms of the emergency air-monitoring contract approved by DNR on Feb. 15, 2013 stipulated a 60-to-90 day deal valued at $600,000. SWAPE’s incomplete proposal submitted on March 29 totaled $594,060. After the contract was signed, invoices and purchase orders were issued in quick succession.

  • On March 29, 2013, SWAPE submitted an itemized invoice of $15,198.32 for services rendered.
  • On April 2, 2013 the state paid the company another $6,000 for expert testimony.
  • A state purchase order for SWAPE’s products and services dated April 3, 2013, shows a bottom of line of $349,000.

Whereas, SWAPE submitted detailed, line-item accounting of services rendered, the state purchase order only lists itemized expenses as “environmental, ecological and agricultural services: miscel [miscellaneous].”  SWAPE continued its emergency air sampling under the initial arrangement through August 2013.

Ardrey referred all questions about the Bridgeton Landfill to the DNR information officer Gena Terlizzi.  Voice and email messages left for Terlizzi went  unreturned. When contacted, Beth Glickman, office manager for SWAPE, said: “We typically don’t talk to the press. We are still under contract with them (the DNR) and won’t be able to answer any questions.”

When asked  about his role in the process, Thalhamer says: “As you probably know, I’m under contract with DNR so I can’t speak to  issues surrounding that. … I understand your plight. I work for a government agency and I fight the same thing that you’re asking me for. But I also know contract law and know I’d be in jeopardy of breeching the contract.” Toward the end of the conversation, Thalhamer suggests digging deeper, and offers journalistic advise, including filing a state Freedom of Information request.  Speaking about the SWAPE contract, he says: “There’s some interesting information there if you can get that Rubik’s Cube figured out.”

Less enigmatically, Norris concedes that there may be an appearance of  something amiss in the state’s handling of the emergency air-monitoring contract, but he has no doubt that the public’s interest was best served by the decision.

“SWAPE had the expertise, the history of sampling around landfill fires elsewhere” says Norris. “I think that they were probably in the best position at that point and time to do the air sampling whether it was done by them or a subcontractor that was progressing in a fashion that was protective of public health,” Norris says.

“There was additional concerns from the community living around the site in large part due to the increase in odors, Norris says.  Benzene and certain others [chemicals] were elevated in the landfill gas. There were certain chemical compounds that appeared to be elevated downwind versus upwind of the landfill at least slightly.”

Air sampling at the site measured  dioxins, furans, benzene, aldehydes, reduced sulfur compounds and volatile organic compounds, all of which can cause serious health effects through long-term exposure. But  test results at the Bridgeton Landfill analyzed by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found chemicals of concern to be below the threshold of concern for human health over the time frame of the emergency air sampling contract.

Norris doesn’t argue with those findings, but he does assert that politics is influencing science. “Politics seems to be invading the technical work to a greater extent than when I first started that’s for sure, [but] we were able to accomplish quite a bit even within the political confines during this event, especially in 2013,” he says.

Norris makes clear that his resignation and subsequent letter are unrelated to the SWAPE memo or the hiring of outside contractors in general.  “It was really kind of broader issues at the department,” he says. He mentions bureaucratic inefficiencies, the role of politics and lax enforcement as reasons for his discontent and departure, but stops short of placing the onus on anything specific, leaving the listener to turn Rubik’s Cube for himself.

Unit A at 205 Riverview Drive is vacant. A stack of native limestone blocks stands by the entrance, the only vestige remaining of the apartment’s last tenant. A for-rent sign is posted in the front yard and a sodden edition of the Jefferson City News-Tribune lies in the gutter. The brick duplex is located on a residential street in the sleepy Missouri capital, where on a mild January day a woman washes her shiny SUV in a nearby driveway. With a dog barking in the backyard and dinner on the stove in the kitchen, the occupant of Unit B leans against his front door jamb, warily answering questions about Dan Norris’ whereabouts. He is tight-lipped when it comes to the details, but says his neighbor of eight years moved out about three weeks ago and didn’t leave a forwarding address. — C.D. Stelzer

Tune In

 

Blog-header-Downtown copy.jpg

The First Secret City goes prime time beginning June 6th

We are pleased to announce that The First Secret City will be broadcast in June each Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. on the Higher Education Channel (HEC) in St. Louis. Our film is being aired on Frames, a program dedicated to offering films by St. Louis filmmakers.

HEC is available on cable channels 108.26 or 118.26 through Charter TV in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County. For those with AT&T U-Verse please tune in channel 99. If you use a converter box please tune in to channel 989.

We thank HEC and Frames host Jim Althoff for providing this opportunity to share our film on the radioactive waste issue with a wider audience.

Before the creation of the secret cities of Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford, the Manhattan Project hired the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis to refine the first uranium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. For the next two decades, Mallinckrodt continued its classified work for the Atomic Energy Commission during the Cold War. The resulting radioactive waste contaminated numerous locations in the St. Louis area some of which have not been cleaned up 70 years after the end of World War II. Told through the eyes of an overexposed worker, the story expands through a series of interviews that careen down a toxic pathway leading to a fiery terminus at a smoldering, radioactively-contaminated landfill. The First Secret City is a feature-length documentary that reveals a forgotten history and its continuing impact on the community in the 21st Century, uncovering past wrongdoing and documenting the renewed struggles to confront the issue.

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. 

Tetra Tech’s Tainted Past

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-8-29-33-pm

Apparently, this isn’t Tetra Tech’s first time at the rodeo. The company currently at the center of a controversy involving  an alleged conflict of interest at the EPA’s  West Lake  Landfill Superfund site has been investigated by federal law enforcement in the past.

In 2009, an official of Tetra Tech  pleaded guilty to defrauding a client of $2.4 million, according to the FBI.

Arthur T. Wilden, who worked at Tetra Tech’s  Fort Collins, Col. office, was convicted in federal court in Virginia in February 2009 of masterminding the scam, which involved Wilden’s brother, James Wilden, and Michael Schroll.

From 2004 to 2006, the Wildens and Schroll charged a Virginia-based real estate company for environmental testing by a Tetra-Tech subcontractor that was never performed.

Tetra Tech has now been hired by EPA Region VII to test for radioactive contamination at homes in Spanish Village, a subdivision near the West Lake Landfill Superfund site.

Another Colorado-based company, EMSI, is a longtime contractor for the potentially responsible parties (PRPs) at the  at the same EPA Superfund site.