By Peter Montague
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on August 15 ordered a grassroots citizens' group in Missouri to turn over all of its records to the agency within five days or face penalties of $25,000 per day. Steve Taylor, leader of the Times Beach Action Group (TBAG) in Ballwin, Missouri, and a frequent critic of EPA, says he and the group have no intention of complying with EPA's order.
In demanding the information from TBAG, EPA's Michael J. Sanderson cited the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which empowers EPA to gather information from the files of toxic dumpers and major polluters. This is the first time the law has been turned against citizen activists trying to protect the environment.
TBAG is so small that even one day's fine of $25,000 would bankrupt the organisation. EPA's threat represents a new twist on the phenomenon known as SLAPP suits.
SLAPP suits are Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. They are an increasingly popular tactic used by polluters in the US to intimidate and silence citizens who voice concerns about destruction of the natural environment.
The parties who bring SLAPP suits rarely win, but they tie up outspoken citizens in expensive and frightening litigation for years, thus deflecting effort and attention away from whatever the citizens had been speaking out about.
TBAG was formed in 1993 to oppose the incineration of contaminated soils excavated from the town of Times Beach, Missouri — a town so contaminated with dioxins and pesticides that federal officials evacuated all the residents in 1983.
The town was contaminated in 1971 by a waste oil dealer named Russell Bliss. Bliss picked up toxic wastes from Missouri chemical firms, mixed them with oil and dumped them into the environment.
Some of the oil was contaminated with the phenoxy herbicide 2,4,5-T and the 2,4,5-T was, itself, contaminated with dioxin.
Federal investigators from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta analysed soil samples at the affected stables and found 30 parts per million of dioxin; 5000 ppm of 2,4,5-T, and 1350 to 1590 ppm of PCBs.
CDC took great pains to identify the source of the 2,4,5-T and the dioxin (they decided it was a hexachlorobenzene germicide plant in Verona, Missouri, owned by Syntex Agribusiness), but the source of the PCBs was never identified.
PCBs were produced from 1929 to 1976 by Monsanto, a St Louis, Missouri, chemical giant.
Meanwhile, Bliss continued to dump toxic oil at sites throughout eastern Missouri. By 1983, EPA had identified at least 100 sites thought to be contaminated by dioxin. Mysteriously, the agency refused to release the names of the sites.
According to the New York Times, in 1983 only 21 of the 100 sites had been sampled, and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources seemed to be dragging its feet.
In a 1990 agreement with EPA, Syntex Agribusiness agreed to take sole responsibility for the clean-up of 27 toxic dump sites in eastern Missouri, including Times Beach. In 1992, EPA decided to incinerate 10,000 bags of contaminated soil from those sites.
When the plan was announced, citizens became alarmed that the incinerator would be putting dioxin and other toxins into the air.
As the incinerator project became a reality, TBAG became convinced that EPA and Missouri DNR had identified neither all of Bliss' contaminated sites nor the major chemicals at each site. Specifically, EPA and DNR seemed to be systematically ignoring PCBs.
TBAG conducted its own investigation, gathering thousands of pages of documents from state and federal sources — all of it public information.
Based on this information, TBAG's director, Steve Taylor, has accused federal and state officials of misfeasance, malfeasance, nonfeasance, incompetence, corruption and dishonesty.
TBAG's information has been a constant embarrassment to EPA and the Missouri DNR because its documentary evidence is so compelling. This is the information EPA is demanding to see.
Steve Taylor's response is: "EPA should do its own research". He says he has tried to interest EPA in TBAG's information in the past, but the agency has never even bothered to answer his letters. Now it is demanding all his files.
During 1996 and 1997, as the Times Beach incinerator project progressed, Taylor and TBAG:
- revealed that the laboratory analysing the samples for the Times Beach incinerator was 50% owned by the incinerator company;
- revealed that EPA and the CDC knew about the contamination throughout eastern Missouri in 1974 but waited nine years before taking any action;
- revealed that the risk assessment for the Times Beach incinerator did not consider PCBs or other priority pollutants that were in the soil to be burned and that many EPA sampling records were missing from the agency's files;
- revealed that EPA and Missouri DNR have refused to consider abundant evidence indicating that some of the PCBs in eastern Missouri came from one obvious source: Monsanto.
Now the Times Beach incinerator has done its work and has been dismantled. However, new sites contaminated by Russell Bliss continue to be discovered, and TBAG says still more will be found.
Furthermore, against all the evidence, EPA and DNR continue to exclude Monsanto from their investigations of Russell Bliss' illegal dumping. Consider these facts:
- In a sworn deposition on April 21, 1977, Russell Bliss himself said he picked up wastes from Monsanto.
- In a memo dated September 26, 1980, James H. Long, an official of Missouri DNR, identified Monsanto as one of the companies known to use Russell Bliss for hauling chemical wastes.
- On October 30, 1980, officials of the Missouri DNR and the Missouri attorney general's office interviewed Scott Rollins, one of Russell Bliss' truck drivers. Rollins said he recalled very clearly picking up wastes from Monsanto.
- In an interview January 5, 1981, Judy Piatt — owner of one of the horse farms where animals died from Bliss' oil — said she had followed Bliss' trucks in 1972 and had watched them pick up wastes from a Monsanto plant and then illegally dump them by the roadside.
- On February 9, 1983, Russell Bliss testified before a hearing of the Missouri Hazardous Waste Management Commission that he had a contract with Monsanto to haul away chemical wastes.
- Based on evidence presented at trial, a judge in Cole County, Missouri, on November 30, 1984, concluded that Russell Bliss had dumped hazardous wastes, including PCBs, in Dittmer, Missouri, and that "the only known source" of one of the chemicals was Monsanto.
Monsanto has denied ever having given Bliss any waste containing dioxin or PCBs. So far, officials of EPA are taking Monsanto at its word and, instead of investigating the chemical giant, are investigating and harassing the citizens who have brought these facts to light.
[From Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly. Like Green Left Weekly, Rachel's is a non-profit publication which distributes information without charge on the internet and depends on the generosity of readers to survive. If you are able to help keep this valuable resource in existence, send your contribution to Environmental Research Foundation, PO Box 5036, Annapolis, Maryland 21403-7036, USA. In the United States, donations to ERF are tax deductible.]