Finding of barrels of waste outside St. Louis raises concerns

Sunday, December 30, 2012 | 3:15 p.m. CST

WILDWOOD — Three barrels recently uncovered in west St. Louis County are drumming up bitter memories and raising new concerns about tainted land.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the barrels, filled with paint waste, had been buried for decades in a ravine on the outskirts of Wildwood. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hauled them away in early December, along with about 1,500 cubic yards of soil.

The barrels were among at least 1,200 on the land of the late Grover Callahan, a driver for Russell Bliss, a notorious polluter. Most of the waste was removed in the 1980s.

For some residents, the cleanup proves the EPA is going out of its way to alleviate concerns. Others wonder how the barrels were missed in the first place and worry about what remains buried.

"They screwed up," said resident Dan Topik, who lives in a subdivision near the Callahan property.

But Don Wenkel, another area resident, said the agency shouldn't be criticized for doing the right thing.

"They are never going to be satisfied," Wenkel said of critics.

EPA spokesman Chris Whitley said the barrels posed no risk to nearby residents and showed no evidence of contaminating groundwater. The cleanup cost about $200,000. He had no answer for why the agency had overlooked the barrels during its previous multimillion-dollar cleanup.

The barrels came to the agency's attention during a site review earlier this year of the so-called "Ellisville site," made up of three noncontiguous properties on the eastern edge of Wildwood. The properties together comprise about 100 acres and include the former home of Bliss, along with the late Callahan.

Bliss is best known for spraying dioxin-laced oil on the roads of Times Beach to keep down dust. Times Beach eventually was evacuated and demolished. A state park now sits at the site after years of cleanup.

Authorities discovered in the early 1980s that Bliss had buried hundreds of drums filled with dioxin and poured industrial waste into storage tanks and open pits. On Callahan's property, the agency found industrial waste containing volatile organic compounds known to cause long-term health problems.

The EPA spent $6.4 million on cleanup, much of which occurred before Wildwood incorporated.

In 2008, as a developer moved forward with plans to build nearly two dozen homes on land bordering the former Bliss home, some residents told City Council members that they believed the site was responsible for cancer diagnoses for a couple of children. Wildwood leaders put a moratorium on the development.

The city eventually spent more than $600,000 on its own environmental tests and legal fees, said council member Randy Ladd. The tests showed some residual contamination, but one city consultant said the area was safe.

The EPA maintains the site poses no risk to nearby residents. It declared in a letter in 1999 that the Callahan property was safe for residential use.

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Mark Foecking December 30, 2012 | 4:22 p.m.

I wish they'd state what was in the barrels. They may have been nothing more than mineral spirits. It sounds like EPA is just doing what they're supposed to here.

I wish more people would study chemistry, and learning what the difference is between a major chemical hazard and a technical (but minor) one. It'd save us a lot of trouble and stress.


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