Left Behind

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

In May 1982, the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, which owns a sliver of the land, decided to clean up the creek bank and put the asbestos waste in a sanitary landfill. But after hauling away several truckloads, it stopped, realizing that removing the waste cost more than the agency was willing to spend. Instead, documents at DNR state that MSD brought a wrecking ball to the site in order to "pound the materials into the bank."

"I consider that to be hearsay, because I've never talked to anybody who actually had seen it happen," says Timothy Chibnall, an environmental specialist with DNR's hazardous-waste program. "But that's also what I heard and what some of the documents alluded to in the file. If that happened, was it a bad idea? Absolutely."

Despite continuing erosion, state and federal environmental regulators during the 1980s continued to describe the site as posing no immediate danger. An EPA report in 1986 suggested the agency would, sometime in the near future, "discontinue all involvement in this site." In May and June of 1988, erosion was unearthing even more buried waste in the creek. When the EPA tested the exposed material, it found that it contained as much as 25 percent of the white asbestos and 15 percent of the blue.

But even though asbestos waste, including blue asbestos, was percolating up out of the soil, neither agency acted.

In August 1989, the county health department heard from a housing contractor who was digging a backyard trench to install a sewer line for a home in Riverview, a village next to Bellefontaine Neighbors. As he dug, he'd come across piles of asbestos. At the state's request, an EPA inspector went to the home, in the 9800 block of Lilac Drive. He asked where the waste might have come from, and the contractor identified it as the same material that was all over the banks of Maline Creek. The inspector drove to the creek and saw the same asbestos waste. He collected samples of the waste from the house on Lilac and the creek and discovered that both were composed of 5 to 53 percent white asbestos and 1 percent blue asbestos.

The inspector's notes don't outline any theories to explain how the waste ended up in the backyard of a house on Lilac Drive. But Beaman, the county's asbestos-compliance officer, says that most believe that it comes from the asbestos piles the neighbors used to raid. And it is buried in lots of backyards -- Beaman says the calls about asbestos' being uncovered in Bellefontaine Neighbors backyards average about one a month.

Despite regulators' assurances in the '80s, the asbestos problem hadn't been buried at all.

With the dump site still eroding, the EPA hired Kansas City-based Ecology and Environment Inc. to assess the site in 1992. The company's tests revealed that the asbestos material strewn about the creek bank and sitting on top of the waste piles contained as much as 85 percent white asbestos and up to 15 percent blue asbestos. The consultant also found that the asbestos-containing waste was "friable" -- easily crumbled -- by the natural force of the creek's waters. With the erosion, more and more asbestos fibers were being released.

In November of 1992, EPA environmental engineer Paul Beatty inspected the site. He examined the creek bank and reported a "two- to five-foot-thick layer of asbestos-pipe debris sandwiched between two layers of cementitious material, each one- to two-foot thick." The material, which could be "crushed and reduced to powder by finger pressure," was 15 to 20 percent white asbestos and 2 to 5 percent blue. The same cement material was found in the dirt between the creek bank and a paved trailer-storage area, as was pipe debris. The waste, he wrote, "appears to be deteriorating due to weathering and is presently friable or is becoming so."

Instead of addressing the problem, the EPA commissioned yet another study, this time by TapanAm Associates Inc. The company's extensive report, completed in 1993, chronicles how development along the urban creek increased the velocity of the water and scoured the creek bank, allowing large amounts of asbestos waste to slide into the creek. The report describes a four-foot-plus stratum of asbestos within the creek bank, starting at the northwest corner of the CertainTeed plant site, that "may extend 1,400 feet downstream." It says the bank's condition ranges from "reasonably stable to severely distressed," and the asbestos waste is described as showing "signs of advanced deterioration.

According to the report, the safety steps taken in 1979 had failed. The rock blanket that had been laid down had washed into the channel bed or had been carried downstream by floodwaters, and the vegetation growing on top of the twelve-inch blanket of soil couldn't keep the asbestos waste underground.

The chilling report warned of two hazards facing Bellefontaine Neighbors:

"The first scenario is that the fibers in the water will be deposited on a surface which when dries causes the fiber to become airborne. Due to the quantity of material in the creek and the continual change in water level in the creek, this situation becomes a viable concern."

The second danger, the report said, was "that the fibers make their way to the Mississippi River and then into the intake of public water systems."

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