Left Behind

Bellefontaine Neighbors residents have lived -- and died -- with asbestos for years. The problem's an open secret, but little has been done.

Over the course of the next several years, CertainTeed sent and received more information about the potential hazards of asbestos.

In 1968 and 1969, representatives from both CertainTeed and GAF attended an industry group's health-and-safety meetings, at which they were presented with medical testimony about cases of mesothelioma being diagnosed in people who lived near factories.

At a meeting held February 18, 1969, the top in-house lawyer for manufacturer Johns Manville warned that people who live near an asbestos plant or mine could be among those suing the industry in the "foreseeable future."

Discarded asbestos-containing pipes from the CertainTeed plant are still used by area residents.
Jennifer Silverberg
Discarded asbestos-containing pipes from the CertainTeed plant are still used by area residents.
Sarah Denen's husband, a former CertainTeed foreman, brought pipe home to decorate their lawn.
Jennifer Silverberg
Sarah Denen's husband, a former CertainTeed foreman, brought pipe home to decorate their lawn.

The prediction was on the money.

Suburbs such as Bellefontaine Neighbors popped up after the war, fueled by families yearning for big yards, attached garages and outdoor pools.

The community's men worked as butchers, office workers or factory hands at the Ford and Edsel plants, assembling gas-guzzling land-cruisers. Stay-at-home moms baked cookies for boys with crew cuts and girls with ponytails. Kids rode home after school on their bikes, without helmets, and played with steel-edged toys covered in lead paint.

The new ranch homes that popped up in the '50s were built with asbestos roof shingles, asbestos-tile flooring and asbestos insulation, but nobody knew to be concerned. Decades would pass before anybody heard about Love Canal, Times Beach or Herculaneum.

Bellefontaine Neighbors was a typical suburban community. John Duerbusch moved there as a kid in 1952 and left in 1966. When Riverview Gardens High School opened in 1957, it was one of the first schools in the nation modeled on a college campus. "We were considered the coddled kids of St. Louis," Duerbusch says. "There was a big article in Parade magazine about Arlington Heights in Chicago and Riverview Gardens here in St. Louis, and it was about how it was the first time kids had cars."

But there was a drawback to living in the area: Cement dust coated the community almost continuously. "The one thing I do remember is that white dust -- everyday," Duerbusch says.

The mayor, aldermen and residents repeatedly complained to St. Louis County government about the emissions from the factories on Maline Creek. In 1967, the county passed an air-pollution ordinance. According to an article published by the North County Journal in 1968, the county's air-pollution-control head told residents that the dust had been studied and that "there is no proven health hazard." The story reported that the county health department identified Missouri Portland Cement as the main generator of dust. CertainTeed's impact was not reported -- and the health department no longer has a copy of its study.

But back in 1968, the health department wouldn't have been testing for asbestos fibers, says Beaman, the county's current resident asbestos expert.

When CertainTeed and GAF decided to close their plants in 1979, they first had to figure out what to do with the open asbestos dump and decades' worth of waste. With state approval, the companies laid twelve inches of dirt on top of the open waste, along with some plant seeds and some riprap rock.

The EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources both inspected the closing of the dump. The federal agency had been monitoring asbestos pollution at the site since early 1979; DNR's air-pollution and hazardous-waste divisions, which by federal law are empowered to act on behalf of the EPA, had been involved.

When state and federal inspectors arrived on the site in late 1979, broken asbestos pipes and other waste were still scattered along Maline Creek. However, DNR's St. Louis-based regional administrator, Earl Holtgraewe, wrote in a memo dated January 21, 1980, to the director of the solid-waste-management program that "it would be just as well to leave it alone."

Neither agency required the companies to erect a fence to keep out children, who often played around the creek. After his inspection of the site, Holtgraewe wrote a letter to CertainTeed's vice president of manufacturing.

"It is our judgment," Holtgraewe wrote, "that the CertainTeed Corporation has taken the necessary actions to stabilize the asbestos waste pile and thereby restore the site to a condition in which it no longer poses a threat of contamination to the water or air resources of the state."

That was certainly the company's view. "There was nothing exposed," says Ambler, the retired division president. "Once it was covered over and approved by DNR and other applicable specifying agencies, the only exposure that happened was when that 100-year flood come through [in 1993]."

But records show that Ambler is mistaken.

For the next thirteen years, both DNR and the EPA tap-danced on the asbestos burial ground. In regular reports, the governments' inspectors described the waste site as a "low priority," even though they noted that soil was eroding from the asbestos waste and that the asbestos pier jutting into the stream was starting to crumble, releasing dangerous fibers into the air.

In December 1981, a state inspector noticed asbestos-cement pipe and other asbestos debris in the northwest corner of the site. The inspector also noted that the dump was within 350 feet of a nursing home and that the drinking-water supply was upstream. Two months later, the inspector wrote that there was now exposed asbestos slag, which, he said, "is now subject to sloughing off with the fluctuating stream flow and therefore poses some degree of concern."

« Previous Page
Next Page »