Convergence Projects – Hazardous Waste

This audio story explored new active hazardous waste sites in mid-Missouri. Our story was organically found, reported on and produced by Rosie Belson, Collin Krabbe, Lauren Wortman and Drew Mathieu.

Easy to get on, hard to get off: Hazardous waste sites in mid-Missouri are cleaned up but not cleared from government list

The barriers between hazardous waste and you

By: Collin Krabbe, Rosie Belson, Lauren Wortman, Drew Mathieu

Small shops and local businesses line the main road into Vienna, Missouri. Tucked away in the hills of mid-Missouri, the city slants down to meet the street. Behind the business sits a building that is not as well kept: the abandoned Langenberg Hat Factory. This site is thought to be the source of Vienna’s hazardous waste contamination problems.

Vienna Wells is one of 38 sites in Missouri that have been on the National Priority List. The Environmental Protection Agency designates certain sites that have long-term cleanup needs. Besides funding, the EPA helps out with determining the levels at which some chemicals become hazardous.

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Cleaning up hazardous waste sites isn’t a small job. The chemicals can seep into the soil, concentrate in the water or even disperse into the air.

In Missouri, the cleanup and monitoring process involves multiple organizations both on the state and national level. These organizations work in tandem to oversee the entire situation from physical cleanup to monitoring to addressing health concerns.

“In general, the public’s understanding of chemicals has improved dramatically over the years. In the past, with less knowledge and regulations, some industry mishandled chemicals and substances that are known to be harmful above certain levels,” said Tom Bastian, director of communications at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in an email.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources detected a high level of tetrachloroethylene (PCE), through routine testing of the public water supply in 1994. The investigation into the town’s wells began in 1994 and is still ongoing. Concerns were raised due to PCE’s designation as a probable human carcinogen in the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Missouri Registry Annual Report.

“They noticed the increase and sent the [hazardous materials team] and said ‘We got to figure out where it is coming from,’” said Shon Westart, public works superintendent for the City of Vienna.

To try and quickly fix the problem, Westart said the city started designing an apparatus to reduce the PCE levels in the water. Vienna received approximately $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build a water aeration system, which reduces the amount of PCE.  This funding was received before the EPA was able to determine if the site qualified to be a Superfund. Sites that are Superfunds receive aid from the EPA to conduct cleanup.

They are eligible to receive money that helps finance the long-term cleanup. They also have a national priority list spotlighting sites that need the most attention.

“The EPA establishes metrics regarding when certain substances might be at a level that causes a concern for public health there is,” said Ryan Hobart, communications director for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. “Measurements like parts per million, parts per billion for certain substances, whether they are in the water or they are in the air or soil that people might be exposed to, if they are above a certain threshold that the EPA has set.”

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources also relies on the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services that determines if the situation poses any health risks. They also handle community outreach.

“We are here if they need assistance in examining the health effects. We are here if individuals have questions about it and want a perspective of a state governmental health agency to assess what’s going on,” said Hobart.

Due to the water aeration system, Vienna’s water supply currently shows undetectable levels of PCE. For now, the site will remain listed as an active site per the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

 

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1. Trees rustle in the wind in front of Chester Boren Middle School on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016 in Centralia, Missouri. The school is currently under investigation for the possible improper disposal of hazardous chemicals.

2. Overgrown shrubs cover up part of a broken window on the side of the abandoned Langenberg Hat Company factory on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016 in Vienna, Missouri. The company is suspected to have been the source of chemical contamination in the town.

3. A wall decays at the old Langenberg Hat Company factory on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016 in Vienna, Missouri. The aeration tower behind the building treats water the factory is suspected of contaminating. Infographic: