Getting Burned

A North St. Louis medical-waste incinerator has spewed dioxin for a decade. Nearby residents say it's time to fight the fire.

East of North Broadway, the back streets flood after a hard rain. Each low-lying avenue parallels, crosses or dead-ends at the Norfolk Southern railyards, where slow-moving freights lumber through a landscape of gravel, rusty cyclone fences and discarded automobile tires.

This is the locale where infectious medical waste from the entire St. Louis metropolitan area is burned. The incinerator that handles the gargantuan task is housed in a plain-looking prefabricated building surrounded by a white stucco wall with blue trim. There are shrubs and landscaping rocks near the entrance. Uniformly shaped Bradford pear trees line the periphery of the property. Compared with its surroundings, the place almost looks pleasant -- except for the off-white plume of smoke coming from the smokestack.

The facility, which was originally built by a subsidiary of Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), has been quietly releasing pollutants into the air for the past 10 years. Stericycle Inc., the new owner, is continuing the practice. Nobody knows the precise amount of dioxin and heavy metals emitted by the incinerator. But this much is clear: When things go wrong, as they frequently do, noxious chemicals dodge safety controls for hours on end, according to company records filed with the St. Louis Division of Air Pollution Control.

Bernice Mathews, who lives near the BFI incinerator,  worries about the health of her younger neighbors: "Let's face it: They're poor people. I'm sure if they weren't poor, they wouldn't live down here. Me, I'm too damn old to move."
Jennifer Silverberg
Bernice Mathews, who lives near the BFI incinerator, worries about the health of her younger neighbors: "Let's face it: They're poor people. I'm sure if they weren't poor, they wouldn't live down here. Me, I'm too damn old to move."

At a certain hour, on a certain day, the incinerator encountered "draft problems." Or "the motoring coupling on the quencher pump failed." Scrubber pumps burned out. Fans quit working. Troubleshooting these glitches has caused others technical difficulties. Dealing with fire itself can set off an unexpected series of repercussions.

Take March 14, 1997, for instance: It must have sounded like a bombing off inside the primary combustion unit that day. "It is our best guess that one or more compressed gas cylinders were slipped into the waste stream and exploded inside the incinerator," says the incident report. "This caused damage to several devices including the scrubber damper modulation motors, which control the draft. The failures of these motors caused the dampers to close, which tripped the fan emergency controls and shut the fan off. This caused the bypass stack to open."

On another occasion, when the fan went down for an eight-hour repair job, the incident report casually notes, the "estimated quantity of pollutants emitted to the atmosphere (is) unknown."

None of these recurring accidents is known to neighbors, who are clueless about what goes on inside the company's walls, as they were when the incinerator began operations. The granting of a liquor license to a neighborhood tavern received more public scrutiny than the opening of the incinerator. One day back in 1990, truckloads of biohazardous waste just started rumbling down Carrie Avenue and smoke appeared on the horizon.

"It was sneaky, the way they did it, because nobody knew about it," says Bernice Mathews, a longtime resident of the area. "They just built it. I didn't know a thing about it. Then BFI sold it to this company, and God knows what they're burning now."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knows this much: Dioxin causes cancer, and exposure risks are 10 times greater than previously estimated. Earlier this month, the agency released a draft of its reassessment on the dangers of dioxin. The warning comes as tougher medical-waste-incineration rules are slated to take effect in Missouri later this year.

In St. Louis County, the Stericycle incinerator would already be prohibited from operating because of a strict local law that has been on the books for nearly a decade.

Mathews and about 40 of her neighbors have signed petitions asking that the city of St. Louis enact a similar law. The initiative has the endorsement of Ald. Freeman Bosley Sr. (D-3rd Ward), who has pledged to introduce the legislation before the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

"Hell, I didn't even know the damn thing was there," says Bosley. "When the Metropolitan Sewer District (treatment plant) goes awry down there, it smells like lightning hitting the outhouse. But here you have no idea of what's going on with it. There is no way that we have of being able to monitor what it is that they're burning. You don't even know you're breathing the stuff. That's why I don't want it here. It doesn't belong in a populated area. I'm intent on getting rid of it."

St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon, says a spokesman, is waiting to see the legislation before deciding whether to back it. Dionne Flowers, the Democratic alderwoman of the 2nd Ward, where the incinerator is located, has taken a similar position. On Friday, she got the aldermen to back a resolution asking the EPA to test soil samples around the incinerator.

Mathews, who is 75 years old, is concerned about the effects that the incinerator may have on the young people in the neighborhood. She says the health risks they face are directly tied to their economic plight. "Let's face it: They're poor people. I'm sure if they weren't poor, they wouldn't live down here. Me, I'm too damn old to move."

When Mathews and her husband settled here, she swore she would only stay a couple of months. But there was a housing shortage after the war. So the couple reluctantly moved on to Ouida Avenue. It was never exactly a desirable place to live, but over time she grew to love her home and took pride in it. Mathews raised a son and two nieces on Ouida. She recalls the neighborhood as being like a small town, nestled at the foot of the hill below O'Fallon Park. The lives of her German and Irish neighbors may have been thrown together by circumstance, but they all shared a sense of community.

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