12 February 1998 Edition

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Covering up dirty deeds

Robert Allen in Missouri digs up a toxic waste scandal

Saint Louis is the Missouri city that gave us Jesse James, Budweiser, PCBs and dioxins. And if Monsanto, whose headquarters are in St Louis, get their way, the city will also be associated with genetic engineering.

The city skyline is dominated by several tall municipal buildings and a huge concrete and stainless steel arch shaped like a grey rainbow - a symbolic gateway to the west. Looking east across the Mississippi river into the site of one of Monsanto's chemical factories, the arch is also a focus for those who see it as a gateway into a better future.

Steve Taylor, for example. When he isn't fighting the casino bosses who have taken advantage of a loophole in the legislation to run their lotteries from riverboats on the Mississippi, he is trying to get the state and the federal government to come clean about toxic waste.

A few weeks ago another dioxin site was discovered in St Louis. Last month it was revealed that a health report into the occupational effects of PCBs, chlorophenols and chlorine, which was started in 1984, had not been published. And Taylor's not happy.

Last summer the government's $220m cleanup of dioxin sites in Missouri was completed when the last of the toxic waste was burned in a specially built incinerator. According to the authorities all of Missouri's dioxin sites had been located and included in the cleanup. According to Taylor, who fought the incinerator from the moment it was proposed until the day it was dismantled, they weren't and now he has been proved correct. The news that the report into the health effects of workers employed at Monsanto's Krummrich factory - where PCBs were manufactured until 1977 - had been suppressed was too much for him. ``There's a lot of issues in this town that need to be dealt with and there's not enough people working on them.''

CD Stelzer, an investigative reporter with the St Louis Riverfront Times, agrees with him. But Stelzer isn't as optimistic as Taylor is about the future. He fears, instead, that it will get worse. ``People don't care,'' he says.

This issue has come up because I have just interviewed Russell Bliss, whose entrepreneurial actions resulted in the poisoning of Missouri after he spread dioxin contaminated waste oil on roads, trucking lots and the streets of Times Beach in 1971. Bliss is now 63. And still adamant that he didn't know the waste oil was laced with a huge amount of dioxin. ``I blame the government,'' he says, stressing that it was the absence of adequate laws on the disposal of hazardous wastes that allowed him to collect toxic waste as if it was benign waste oil. Bliss believes he was set up, that the company who subcontracted him to collect the waste knew what was in it.

Bliss's activities became known when animals in a horse arena that had been sprayed died. The authorities identified dioxin as the cause of the deaths - despite the discovery of PCBs at various locations as well.

Steve Taylor has always said that the scapegoating of Bliss was a deliberate ploy to divert attention away from the activities of those who produced toxic wastes and didn't care how they were got rid of. Stelzer concurs. ``After the CDC announced its find, dioxin became the buzzword that grabbed headlines, spurred by its links to Agent Orange and the Vietnam War. The resulting clamour allowed the additional discovery of highly-toxic PCBs in the same soil to escape the media's attention. When officials began investigating, they suspected either PCBs or nerve gas. After finding dioxin, however, health officials turned their attention toward Agent Orange. The PCBs were forgotten about.''

Fred Striley, another activist, has reached an obvious conclusion. ``The companies and the regulatory agencies have... engaged in public relations campaigns to mislead the public; they have taken legal action to prevent evidence from being heard in court; they have refused to answer questions; and they have pretended they were answering questions when they were talking around the question. All the while, the incineration process moved inexorably forward under the guise of regulatory oversight. Although the incineration project is completed, it may be generations before its full impact is understood.''

Bliss's folly alerted the military and those with an obsessive desire to protect US national security, to the extent that decisions were taken at a high level in government to instigate a cover-up and a series of elaborate mechanisms were put in place to achieve this. The consequence was a web that embraced state and federal authorities, regulatory bodies, scientific and academic institutions, politicians, the media plus the military and the chemical industry. The controversy over Agent Orange had focused a few minds but such an elaborate web was destined to show signs of wear and tear. And Taylor is now convinced it is only a matter of time before the truth will emerge.

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