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News media ignored dangers of dioxin.

Editor's note: This is the first article in a three-part series about how the media failed to report on the dangers of dioxin.

For most of the 1990s, both government officials and the mainstream media reassured the public that the hazards of dioxin were under control. But now it has come out that statements made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were either "patently wrong," as Congressman James Talent (R-Mo.) told the St. Louis Journalism Review, or blatant lies.

Despite the failure of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the local television news departments to expose the EPA's errors, government agencies have been forced to acknowledge that the problem is bigger than they had previously admitted.

"The fix was in," says Talent. "Incinerating dioxin was clearly wrong for Times Beach, but the EPA refused to consider even the alternatives it used elsewhere. The irony is that after 15 years, we are back where we started."

In fact, last autumn the EPA confirmed the existence of dioxin at two more sites in metropolitan St. Louis - on LeMar Drive in Ellisville and in McDonnell Park in Berkeley.

The EPA decided the dioxin in McDonnell Park was mostly "too deep" to be a problem. On LeMar Drive, it scraped the contaminated soil into a pile, covered it with a tarp and put a fence around the site.

Ever since then, LeMar Drive residents have asked, "When are they going to move the dirt?" And finally print and electronic news reporters have joined the clamor. "When will they move the dirt?" they shout.

But the EPA's problem is that it does not know what to do with dioxin-contaminated soil. The disposal method it assured the public was safe - incineration - it now knows is not. The local media shouldn't act so surprised; that information has been available to them for some time if they had only looked.

Post gets it wrong

In the early 1990s, the EPA invested a lot of time and effort in convincing the public that incineration would erase the dioxin problem - the ovens at Times Beach would destroy the compound once and for all. A few critics, such as Greenpeace and the Times Beach Action Group, were not convinced, but state officials and the news media hastened to support the EPA. On three occasions, the Post editorialized in favor of the agency's plan to burn dioxin wastes.

"There were a lot of studies that questioned the safety of incineration," says Talent. "And there were a lot of alternative technologies available that the EPA used elsewhere that didn't involve moving dioxin waste around or putting dioxin in the air."

Talent recalls a meeting with "a roomful" of hazardous-waste-disposal experts and an EPA official, in which the EPA official said alternatives to incineration could not be used at Times Beach because a lot of the dioxin was in sofas and engine blocks, "and you can't put those in the disposal machines." The comment was not only irrelevant, "it was patently wrong, because you wouldn't put sofas and engine blocks in the incinerator either."

The EPA was wrong about incineration too. Preliminary results of the follow-up study of dioxin incineration in Jacksonville, Ark. found diabetes increased in the population exposed to the incinerator's exhaust, says Denise Jordan-Izaguirre, regional representative of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The increase was marked enough it "showed up at first glance," she says. The Jacksonville incinerator was a model for the Times Beach facility. It began operating in 1993, two years ahead of the Missouri ovens. A similar follow-up study at Times Beach isn't finished.

The study results aren't really surprising. Jordan-Izaguirre says the ATSDR looked for an elevated incidence of diabetes because other research had suggested that exposure to very low levels of dioxin could bring on the disease.

Environmentalists protested against incinerator plans from the beginning. They noted that both the Arkansas and Missouri incinerators violated the EPA's own performance rules, they destroyed less dioxin than mandated by the department's public health regulations. Environmentalists in both states - the Government Accountability Project in Arkansas and the Times Beach Action Group in Missouri - asked federal courts to block incineration, but the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal Superfund law expressly forbade citizen groups from challenging dangerous hazardous waste cleanup plans. They could sue the agency for wrongdoing only after such projects were finished.

Post reporter Tim O'Neill and the newspaper's editorial board insisted that the state would not let the weaker performance rules govern in Missouri. Environmentalist Fred Striley said he asked editorial page editor Edward Higgins if the Post would print a retraction if environmentalists could prove that the newspaper's assertion was false. Higgins, he said, told him "no."

"They couldn't prove anything," Higgins told SJR. "They weren't a disinterested party, so I wouldn't look to them for facts."

Apparently Talent and the scientists and engineers who studied alternative disposal methods weren't "disinterested parties" either.

Riverfront Times reporter C.D. Stelzer assiduously chronicled questionable arrangements for a Times Beach incinerator, including the relaxation of performance standards. His investigations uncovered the conflict of interest between the company running the incinerator and the company monitoring exhaust for safety - they both had the same corporate owners. Stelzer's Time Beach stories won an award from the Missouri State Press Association.

Maybe fraud

Now it appears the Times Beach incinerator may not have met even the weakened performance standard. On Jan. 16, 1997, Congressman Jim Talent and environmental activist Steve Taylor handed U.S. District Attorney Ed Dowd evidence of possible fraud in the pilot tests used to certify that the Times Beach incinerator could burn dioxin safely. In a two hour presentation, they discussed altered incinerator operating logs, inconsistent labeling of test samples, altered test dates, invoices for extra sample traps, and the test report. Talent, who will not comment on whether he met with Dowd, says the way they tested the incinerator was "at the very least a catalog of omissions and inconsistencies, and maybe it was fraud."

The test burn at the Times Beach incinerator was supposed to stimulate an actual run to destroy dioxin contaminated soil. During the test run they would burn soil laced with a substitute for dioxin to see how well the facility destroyed the chemical. Incinerator operators were supposed to start the incinerator and let it run continuously throughout the test, taking samples of the exhaust at different times during the run to determine that dioxin could not escape out the smokestack. The operator's log indicates that when operators thought they were getting bad results, they stopped and restarted the incinerator to try and get a good run. Invoices show that operators asked for extra exhaust traps, and received them the night after the encoded test burn. Yet, some of the initial traps were missing from the batch sent to the laboratory for analysis, apparently replaced by traps from the shipment of extras. According to the test report, those traps contain exhaust from a test burn that occurred the day before they arrived in Times Beach.

The FBI reportedly is investigating Talent's and Taylor's allegations. If the discrepancies turn out to be nothing more than honest, but sloppy bookkeeping errors, they still undermine the credibility of incineration. If the information about what is happening in the incinerator is bad, how can anyone accept at face value the government's assurances that the incinerator is safely destroying dioxin? It seems to perfectly illustrate the adage "garbage in, garbage out."

The extent of incinerator problems was not previously known. If the EPA had disposed of all dioxin in Missouri, those problems. might not now be an issue. As new dioxin sites pop up, however, they rekindle fears of environmental poisoning. Bob Feild, the EPA's project manager for the eastern Missouri dioxin cleanup, blames the tardiness of the discovery of dioxin on LeMar Drive on the public. Some of the residents had suspicions that Russell Bliss had sprayed waste oil on a driveway off the street, but they never came to the EPA, he said. It wasn't until a potential property buyer took the initiative to test for dioxin that anyone knew it was there. If they had come forward immediately "there was a good chance we could have dealt with it," he said. Instead, the buyer hired an attorney, who waited seven months before contacting the incinerator operators, who in turn contacted the EPA. By that time, the company had dismantled the incinerator.

Fifteen years ago, Fred Lafser, then director of the Missouri Division of Natural Resources (DNR), reportedly told The New York Times that the state had traced less than half of the dioxin waste produced by the chemical plant in Verona, which was the supposed source of all of the dioxin spread around the state. He said the state had a list of 100 possible dioxin sites, but lacked the staff to investigate them all. Dioxin activists claim a similar EPA list from a year later "proves" that government officials know there are many more dioxin sites in the state, but they purposefully don't "discover" them.

This reporter recently contacted the DNR headquarters in Jefferson City to ask if investigators found the rest of the Verona dioxin. The first response was, "We don't have anything to do with dioxin. Check with the EPA. They are the ones handling the cleanup."

Pressed further for an update to Lafser's comment, the department's spokeswoman said, "Nobody here has been around long enough to remember him." This is the same DNR that, according to Post editorials, would zealously oversee the EPA's cleanup to assure that it met the strictest of standards.

Feild disavowed Lafser's estimate, but offered no assurance the agency had traced all the dioxin produced in Verona.

"It is really not possible to quantify the amount of dioxin waste there was," he said, "so we never really carne up with a total mass of dioxin we were trying to find."

Instead, the EPA diligently traced Bliss' activities between 1970 and 1972.

"We interviewed anyone with information on his activities, including Bliss, his former employees and his drivers," he said. "We would go to St. Louis and spend days driving with his former drivers throughout the St. Louis area to try to jog their memories."

Investigators checked not only the 100 sites Lafser referred to, he said, but more than 300 others as well.

Feild said he doesn't think there are many undiscovered dioxin sites in the state. "I feel confident we followed up on every lead we received," he said. Bliss' activities in between the years 1970 and 1972 are the only ones relevant, he said, because that is when he hauled waste from Verona, and Bliss was the only hauler to take waste from there.

Industrial processes at a variety of Missouri sites besides Verona produced dioxin. It is a byproduct of the manufacturing of a common insecticide, of wood preservatives and of paper, and it can even be produced in PCB-filled electrical transformers that overheat. There is a wealth of evidence indicating that Bliss hauled dioxin contaminated waste from such sites. Couldn't there be places he sprayed in other years with dioxin contaminated waste from somewhere other than Verona?

"We have no evidence that there was any other source of dioxin," said Feild, "but that gets into enforcement matters and I can't speak further about it."

Regardless of the source of dioxin, Feild said the discovery of any more sites now is up to the public.

"We are very anxious to follow up on any leads anyone may have," he said.

In SJR

10 Years Ago:

* Public-radio station KBDY was shut down by the Federal Communications Commission after receiving a complaint of interference from WLCA-FM in Godfrey, Ill. Although the St. Louis station was broadcasting with only 10 watts and Godfrey was 25 air miles away, WLCA manager Mike Dreith said they'd received complaints from North County listeners of KBDY signal overlap.

* KPLR (Channel 11) vice president Barry Baker was "pretty thrilled" about 'advertisers' response to St. Louis Cardinal baseball on his station. The 58 televised games were 94 percent sold out by late March.

* The Missouri Supreme Court was considering, for the third time, a request to allow television cameras in Missouri courtrooms.

5 Years Ago:

* Two St. Louis television stations, KTVI (Channel 2) and Channel 11 were said to be on the sale block. Times Mirror announced it was selling Channel 2 to Argyle Television Holding. Koplar Communications was in talks with Tribune Companies to sell Channel 11.

* Nan Wyatt was dropped as host of the 2 to 5 a.m. slot on KMOX.

* The Belleville News-Democrat chose not to run the comic strip "For Better Or For Worse" because it dealt with a teen's telling his parents he was gay.

Peter Downs is a St. Louis free-lance writer
COPYRIGHT 1998 SJR St. Louis Journalism Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Congressman James Talent exposes failure to report hazards of incineration; part 1
Author:Downs, Peter
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:Apr 1, 1998
Words:2143
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