Left Behind

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

Some health studies suggest a greater risk of gastrointestinal cancers in people who drink water containing high levels of asbestos; other studies haven't found a link. Because there's no conclusive evidence one way or the other at this time, the federal government limits the amount of asbestos that can be present in the water supply.

"The literature does show that ingesting asbestos is not a good thing," says Chibnall. "There is an EPA standard on how much asbestos can be in the drinking water, and that became a concern at this site because the site is, I believe, upstream from the drinking-water intakes for the city."

The report recommended cleaning up the creek bank and reburying the waste pile.

Drew Tucker
Maline Creek flooded in 1993, washing asbestos debris over a large area.
Maline Creek flooded in 1993, washing asbestos debris over a large area.

But the Great Flood intervened.

When the Mississippi and Missouri swelled in 1993, breaking levees and inundating communities along the great rivers, floodwaters rolled up small tributaries, swallowing property along the way. When Maline Creek overflowed, it overran the eroding asbestos dump, and asbestos debris was swept throughout the area.

"There was an outcropping of asbestos landfill that sits up between the two properties. It was like a finger of that landfill that was exposed in the bank," Chibnall says, "and that material was determined to be friable."

In February 1994, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry noted that a six- to eight-foot ledge in the creek bank had been created when water eroded the earth below it. Not only was the ledge a physical hazard because it could collapse, it was made up mostly of asbestos pipe, asbestos remnants and asbestos scrap. The agency concluded that the creek had cut into the landfill, exposing "considerable quantities" of asbestos material.

A month later, in March 1994, Roger Randolph, head of the DNR's Air Pollution Control Program, sent an e-mail to Cindy Kemper, the head of the state's Solid Waste Program, noting that the site had been eroding for years but had now reached the "critical" stage. He admitted that there was a long history of complaints about the site but that the EPA wasn't interested in designating it a Superfund site and that St. Louis County wasn't interested in taking the lead in cleaning up the mess.

"The asbestos contamination is extensive and severe, with much of it friable, some of it 'blue' [crocidolite], and much of it located where kids play and near residential neighborhoods. This is a significant health threat," Randolph advised.

"However, the cost to clean it up could be $10 million or more," he added.

Chibnall, who was eventually appointed to head up the remediation project, says the project bounced back and forth between the DNR and the EPA. At first, nobody could figure out who had the legal authority to clean it up.

"The universe in which it fell was the Superfund universe, but there was some question as to whether they had authority [under] the Clean Air Act and Superfund," Chibnall says. As a consequence, Ed Sadler, the head of the state's Hazardous Waste Program, took the lead in 1994. DNR brought the state health department to the site in 1994, and the agency concluded that the CertainTeed site posed "a significant public health risk to area residents [including] children and adults at Turner School located northeast of the site."

State and federal officials were also busy sampling the soil in the flood-buyout area for asbestos. Thirty-one samples from homes on Lebon and Marias drives were taken, and each sample was divided in half. The city of Bellefontaine Neighbors hired a consultant to test the samples using phased light microscopy. The state tested the samples using a more sensitive testing method, preferred by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, called transmission electron microscopy.

The weaker test concluded that only one of the twenty homes contained friable asbestos and that the source was floor tile installed in the home. However, the state test showed seven samples with a concentration of white asbestos at more than 1 percent, the legal limit for asbestos. Ten samples had trace amounts of white asbestos, and fourteen of the samples did not contain asbestos. In addition, soil samples taken from a ballfield near Maline Creek and from the soil outside some of the homes indicated that white asbestos was present in the soil.

On December 12, 1994, county, state and federal officials met to discuss the findings of the 31 soil samples and the question of whether ATSDR should be brought back in to determine whether there was an immediate health risk and "short-term protective action" was needed.

But the course chosen was more testing. And the group decided not to tell the residents about their concern that the site might pose an immediate health risk.

According to minutes of the meeting, the officials decided: "Since there is very little that could be told to the public, no availability session will be held at this time."

In early January 1995, Daryl Roberts, the state health department's chief of environmental epidemiology, concluded that the asbestos concentrations in the residential areas weren't a "health concern." Roberts noted that asbestos material had been, over the years, used by residents for "outdoor projects such as mailbox uprights, parking bumpers, lawn edging and children's play equipment." Roberts said he'd been told the material had been removed.

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