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Safe Site, Scary Tactics – Thanks to the Teamsters

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Thanks to Hollywood and the local media we’ve all come to believe that every site on the federal Superfund list is a toxic morass of oozing chemicals and other materials posing an immediate hazard to our neighborhoods and out children.

Things are not nearly that bad but, if you’re in the waste remediation business, it’s gold as far as public relations go. Unfortunately it’s also wrong and shouldn’t be allowed to drive public policy. Many sites are, under the broadest definition of the term, safe in so far as they can continue to co-exist alongside residential neighborhoods for some time until they are actually cleaned up.

One of these kinds of sites, in St. Louis, out near the airport, has come under increased scrutiny of late, thanks in part to attention drawn to it by local agitators working with the National Brotherhood of Teamsters.

It’s an odd union to be sure that is driving the discussion of how best to clean up the site, which has been on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priority List for almost two decades in a most unhelpful manner.

In December 2015 a self-anointed “public tribunal” was convened by the aggrieved and those who are agitating for action to discuss “human rights abuses” at the Westlake Landfill. In reality the whole business was more akin to a Kangaroo Court than anything else. The evidence presented was weighted to produce one and only one conclusion. As a matter of political theater it was first rate, ignoring all the science in order to better scare the people who paid any attention to it.

In fact the science is clear. A former limestone quarry, the site became a repository for radiological materials produced during The Manhattan Project that developed the first successful atomic weapons. At the time it was dumped, 1973, it was thought safe to dispose of the 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate cake mixed with 39,000 tons of soil by putting it in the fill and covering it over.

Now we know better. Study after study has found the Westlake Landfill to be safe, with nearby residents are no immediate danger of exposure to radiological toxins. Those who live nearby are understandably upset that no actually remediation has been made over its time on the list but the soil, air, andwater samples collected from all around the site show it is just as safe as any place else in Missouri.

All that research, however, is for naught: special interest groups have successfully raised the anxiety of people who live nearby into something resembling a kind of fever. Curiously one of the groups pushing the gloom and doom line the hardest is the Teamsters, an organization not generally known for its beneficence. At the so-called tribunal representatives of the union claimed human rights were being abused and called for the, “United Nations to monitor a successful resolution to this environmental and social crisis.” The union is known for its harsh tactics but this attempt to use “human rights” as a leverage point trivializes actual abuses around the world. It’s despicable, even for them.

The nexus to the union’s interest is not clear. The Teamsters would benefit if the company that owns the landfill lets them organize the workers but that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. There is however another possibility that deserves exploration.

If the folks in Washington could be persuaded to transfer oversight of the Westlake clean up from the EPA to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers then the Teamsters might find themselves sitting pretty, with unionized workers doing the job -- with all that entails.

The United States Senate has already approved a measure to take the site out from under the EPA -- at a time when the agency is just about ready to begin work on the clean-up after 16 years of study and planning - and give it to the Corps. It’s now over in the House, where supporters are looking to ram it through without serious consideration. Fortunately there are those in the congressional leadership who are opposed and have promised to take the matter through regular order.

If the transfer goes forward it should cause headaches for the residents living nearest Westlake Landfill. The move would push the timeline for the cleanup of the site back even further as the Corps would have to start all over again. There’s no telling how long it would take for work on the site to begin let alone finish.

People living around the Westlake Landfill are as deserving of a clean and safe environment as any of the rest of us. What the government has done must be undone – and they definitely didn’t deserve to wait 16 years for the EPA to design and implement a plan to effectively neutralize the threat of the 1973 contamination. More importantly, they don’t deserve to be subject to a fear mongering campaign that local activists and a powerful union are manipulating for their own ends.

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