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New Zoning Would Target Old Toxic Waste Sites- Opinion by Steve Taylor

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

Wildwood's Planning and Zoning Commission has proposed a "Special Circumstances Overlay District" (SCOD) that would increase oversight and regulation of properties identified as having unique environmental challenges.

The city has reason to identify such properties. When it incorporated 25 years ago, the City of Wildwood inherited toxic waste sites associated with the former town of Times Beach, Missouri. Times Beach, now the site of Route 66 State Park, was bought out by the federal government due to the spread of hazardous waste throughout the town, the source of which was Russell Bliss' waste oil company. Bliss was responsible for the contamination of 27 Eastern Missouri dioxin sites including Times Beach. Bliss reportedly picked up waste from numerous companies, dumping, spraying and burying a toxic mix of PCBs, dioxins and volatile organic compounds.

Bumper Sticker Circa1982. (Courtesy of Marilyn Leistner, last Mayor of Times Beach, Missouri)

The heart of Russell Bliss' operations was his farm off of Strecker Road, known today as the Bliss Ellisville site, located in Wildwood. Thousands of barrels of toxic waste were found buried on the site. It is on the Environmental Protection Agency's National Priorities List (NPL), which lists the most hazardous sites in the nation. And although the site has been remediated by the EPA, concerns remain as to lingering toxicity. During city council meetings there has been testimony regarding serious illnesses of children who lived near the site. Although anecdotal, the testimony was compelling, heartfelt, and underscored the fact that residents had unknowingly bought property near these sites.

The proposed overlay district has a provision that would increase transparency to potential buyers regarding such sites. The proposed ordinance would "improve disclosures to users and buyers..., specifically as properties are transferred years or decades later". This provision is one that I advocated for as a resident and when I was on the city council. There are numerous examples of Wildwood Residents finding out about their property's toxic past only after having purchased their home. I remember one such resident contacting me in my capacity as a councilman. They were distressed at having learned of their new home's proximity to a former toxic waste dump and were concerned about having their grandchildren visit.

The proposal for greater transparency and oversight for environmentally-questionable property makes sense, but given its history I would never support development of the Bliss Site. The best course of action would be for the city to purchase the property, and set it aside as a wildlife area or some other function that does not include residential use.

The SCOD proposal also refers to federal and state standards as part of assessing a site for potential development. Given a history of failed oversight of Bliss waste sites by state and federal agencies, we must be careful not to rely completely on agency data or analysis.

My lack of confidence in the EPA and DNR regarding assessment and oversight of Bliss waste sites comes from personal experience and objective data.

In the 1970s, I watched as Bliss trucks sprayed a horse ranch in Jefferson County, Missouri where my family kept horses. It resulted in the death of many horses. Over a decade later, EPA workers in haz-mat suits and respirators knocked on my door and told me they needed to take samples inside of my home in Castlewood. Although I asked numerous times, they refused to tell me what they were testing for. Later while watching the news, I discovered they were testing for dioxin contamination. During the same news cycle I also learned that it was the same dioxin sprayed by Bliss that had killed the horses at the ranch approximately a decade prior. The tests revealed dioxin throughout the town. During the resulting cleanup, straight answers were hard to get from the EPA.

In the 1990s I founded the Times Beach Action Group. We monitored the Times Beach Incinerator Project which was to burn the waste from 26 Missouri dioxin sites and we worked with various local groups including the Dioxin Incinerator Response Group. Our collective research demonstrated systemic problems with EPA data and the agency's characterization of contaminants. This research led to a temporary shutdown and retest of the incinerator. Press reports of these findings can be found in such in publications including Chemical and Engineering News and Rachel's Hazardous Waste News.

Historically, the EPA has been dogged by controversy over PCB and dioxin sites. It is a history that spans many US regions and was subject of Reagan Era Congressional investigation and the imprisonment of a high ranking EPA official.

Over the years I have spoken with Marylin Leistner, the last Mayor of Times Beach. We have shared stories about the frustrations of dealing with the EPA and DNR and how slippery they were when it came to data. I met with the late Judy Piatt who forced a recalcitrant EPA to investigate hazardous material sprayed by Bliss in her horse arena. If it were not for Piatt's dogged work, EPA might never have taken action to identify toxic sites and inform residents. Shortly before succumbing to cancer, she wrote a book about her experiences.. Judy Piatt also expressed frustration about regulators.

Yet the Bliss legacy lives on and it is imperative that we do not forget the track record of state and federal agencies regarding these sites.

I found as a young man that straight- forward answers and basic information was rarely forthcoming from EPA officials. In 1996 I wrote a guest editorial to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch outlining the history of scandals involving the EPA Region VII, and its poor oversight of dioxin and PCB sites.

I have spoken with several former colleagues who currently serve on the Wildwood City Council, regarding motivation of this new overlay district. They have assured me the zoning proposal is not a move towards development of the Bliss sites, but is a way to establish greater oversight of the properties and other environmentally compromised sites that may yet be discovered.

Greater oversight and transparency is a welcome change but we must remember that federal and state agencies have essentially abandoned these sites and shifted the burden to the city of Wildwood. It's up to us to get this right. We must remember that no ordinance can take the place of constant vigilance regarding the Bliss sites.

(PDF of Proposed Ordinance)

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