Cleaning Up the Past

The waste may be gone, but the stigma lingers

Karen and Steve Goewert hopped in the car and headed for a weekend drive in Jefferson County.

Near Arnold, at the intersection of Highway 141 and Gravois Road, the couple discovered a spectacular housing development on one of the most scenic pieces of land they'd ever seen. The sign read, "Romaine Spring Estates."

The development is split-level: One section of home lots dots the top of a leafy ridge; the other lies at its foot on an oval plain cut by a burbling creek, hidden from the road by thick stands of trees. The creek feeds into a small reservoir, next to the site of a planned community clubhouse and swimming pool.

Romaine Spring, the Goewerts were told, was the first upscale housing development to be built in Jefferson County: average house price, $300,000.

One look at the ridge lots and Karen was hooked. These were views to die for, cheap by St. Louis County standards and only about twenty minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Before they knew it, the Goewerts had forked out a $500 deposit and were discussing which housing plan suited them best. "We thought, 'We can't pass this up," Karen recalls.

What they didn't know was that the scenic leafy ridge, with its panoramic views that stretched for miles, was a former federal Superfund site, a cleanup of dioxin contamination supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency. The land had been sprayed by the notorious Russell Bliss of Times Beach fame, whose toxic oil-based cocktail was used on rural roads to control dust. In 1983, the federal government bought the entire town of Times Beach and evacuated residents after uncovering the most calamitous residential contamination in U.S. history. In this case, Bliss had sprayed the Bubbling Springs horse arena -- now the site of the Romaine Spring housing development.

When the Goewerts put down the cash, they had no idea the area had a hazardous history -- they were tipped off by a friend who remembered stories about Bubbling Springs, the dead and dying horses, all poisoned by dioxin-tainted soil.

Karen called the sales agent to find out whether this was true. She says she "was routed around the office until someone finally admitted" that yes, this was another Bliss mess.

Karen's certain the EPA did a fine job with the cleanup. "It's probably safer than my back yard," she jokes.

What bugs her is, she says, is "when were they going to tell us? After we bought the place and spent $300,000?"

Therein lies the gray area between land redevelopment, eager homeowners and the legal system. No federal or state laws outline specifics as to when and how a buyer should be notified of a property's hazardous history. That's because it's a relatively new issue.

Since the Superfund law was passed in 1980, PCBs, dioxin contamination, slag piles of waste leaching their poisons into the soil and other hazardous materials have been the bugaboo of the EPA.

In 1999, the EPA established the Superfund Redevelopment Initiative, a push to redevelop once-hazardous areas and make them habitable.

The SRI is the sunny side of the EPA. The agency uses the phrases "restore community pride" and "enormous potential" and provides "tools for managing liability" while helping transform the toxic into the transcendent.

In California, where once the slag from a lead mine impregnated the earth, is a lush pro golf course. In Denver, a Home Depot sits on land once contaminated with radium. Dioxin-contaminated, flood-damaged Times Beach is gone, replaced by Route 66 State Park.

Of 190 Superfund sites nationwide, 28 are now wildlife centers, 47 are being used for recreational use, eight are agricultural fields and sixteen are being redeveloped into single-family, condominium or assisted-care sites.

In Missouri, eleven EPA response-action sites are now or will be residential areas. All are located in the greater St. Louis area, the EPA reports.

"It's worthwhile to increase people's awareness of former hazardous sites," says Robert Feild, site-project manager for the EPA. "The EPA has returned these properties to productive use. People need to understand that we clean up hundreds of sites, and redevelopment is commonplace. We've learned a lot since 1980."

When it comes to redevelopment, former toxic waste sites might make better business parks than bedroom communities.

"We're working up against a mindset," says Melissa Friedland of the Office of Emergency and Remedial Response in Washington, D.C. "For people to think of the land as anything [but contaminated], it could take years."

In legal terms, it's called "stigma damage." Although there may not be laws that spell out specifics to developers on how and when to disclose information, court judgments have been rendered under current laws regarding fraud and misrepresentation.

"It used to be a case of 'Buyer beware,'" says Joan M. Swartz, an environmental and real-estate lawyer in St. Louis County. "But I think the courts have gotten more strict on this issue. They recently nailed a seller for fraud for not disclosing."

Families who purchased homes in Turnberry Place in the early 1990s later learned the subdivision was among several housing developments building on one of Bliss' dioxin-contaminated properties. In 1994, a jury ordered a real-estate firm to pay more than $500,000 to seven homebuyers who sued.

"The Realtor and developer knew the property had a history; they got together and agreed not to tell the homebuyers," Swartz says.

An appeals judge ruled on behalf of the homeowners and affirmed the award of punitive damages.

In the absence of a specific legal how-to in selling redeveloped land, developers walk a fine line.

Mike Lawless, president of Lawless Homes Inc., one of three developers at Romaine Springs, asks buyers to sign a disclosure statement at the time of closing. He says he encourages sales agents to be "up-front and honest." He has also posted a sign in the sales office. And if someone asks, Lawless will provide an EPA report -- all of which may, or may not be, enough.

"The question should be 'Is the information enough?" Swartz says. "Does the buyer understand the documents? Did they give the buyer enough advance notice? Did they have enough time to question the information?"

At least a few homeowners didn't get much time to understand or get specific information about the situation at Romaine Springs. One couple was not told until closing; another was told about the dioxin but was assured by the sales agent that the biggest portion of the problem lay a mile or so down the road.

When another homeowner obtained a copy of the EPA report, after moving into his home, he was more than a little concerned. He interpreted the report to say that the water supply and bedrock were still contaminated. Although the EPA says this is not true, the homeowner was alarmed to learn that contaminated soil had stood in huts on the property until 1999.

The EPA cleanup at Romaine Springs meets "unrestricted use" specifications, Feild says. He has gone to the site himself to test the water. So has the developer, just to make sure.

Many homeowners in the Romaine Springs say they're not bothered by what happened some twenty years ago.

"These are people trying to get over stigma of cleanup," Feild says, "and property values are returning to fair market value for many of these sites."

Lawless Homes owns about 50 percent of the lots in Romaine Springs. Of 40 home sales, only one buyer has backed out because of the property's dioxin history, Lawless says.

"I've heard the other builders grumble that customers get cold feet," says Nan Antonacci, director of sales for Lawless. "We've not had any problems."

From an EPA perspective, it's important to restore these sites into habitable properties. And although the EPA is eager to redevelop the land, homeowners are anxious to live in more rural environments and the courts are catching up, there is one element of the equation that law cannot dictate: human nature.

Once the Goewerts found out about the dioxin, and in light of the way the agent handled the sale, they asked for their $500 back. The couple was worried not about contamination but about the investment. They figured the property might not have the resale punch it could because it was a former Superfund site.

"You know," Karen says in exasperation, "when you buy a house, you ask all the usual questions, like, 'Is it on a floodplain?' But we never figured one of them was 'Has it ever been contaminated with dioxin?'"

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