Exit Interview: EPA's Karl Brooks says St. Louis still has challenges
The man who has been overseeing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's work in Missouri is moving on to join the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C. Here, Karl Brooks reflects on some of St. Louis' biggest issues, including West Lake Landfill.
Brooks has held the top spot in EPA Region 7 — which includes the states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa — since early 2010.
"Regrets and failures? No. I think we've engaged key stakeholders on pretty difficult topics." --Former EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks
In the St. Louis region, Brooks has been criticized for his management of the West Lake Landfill, a radioactive waste site in St. Louis County that is under the EPA's oversight. "This agency tries to keep our ear very close to the ground. We hear the criticism, we feel the frustration," Brooks said. "I would say, though, to them, that our primary mission is and remains protection of public health."
An underground fire has been smoldering at the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill for most of Brooks' tenure, raising concerns that the fire could reach the radioactive material, or that a new fire could start up there.
But the EPA has also achieved some significant environmental milestones in our region under Brooks' leadership, most notably a lawsuit settlement that has initiated a major sewer system upgrade in St. Louis city and county. "It was one of the biggest Clean Water Act consent decrees to fix a sewer system that this agency has ever negotiated," Brooks said.
I spoke with Brooks on one of his last days on the job here. You can listen to part of our conversation and read some of its highlights, below.
What do you consider the greatest accomplishments of your agency in the St. Louis area during your time as Regional Administrator?
- The EPA's 2013 consent decree with the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District. To settle a four-year legal battle, the MSD agreed to a $4.7 billion upgrade of the St. Louis sewer system over 23 years. "It will transform the way the St. Louis people take care of their wastewater," Brooks said. By eliminating illegal sewage overflows, the project is expected to significantly improve water quality in our local rivers and streams.
- The start of remediation at the Carter Carburetor Superfund site in North St. Louis. The current and former owners of the former carburetor manufacturing plant have agreed to pay $30 million to demolish the remaining buildings and remove PCBs, asbestos and other toxic chemicals from the site, which sits across the street from the Herbert Hoover Boys & Girls Club. Brooks said there would be a meeting in mid-March to update the public on the status of the clean-up.
You’ve been criticized for your handling of the West Lake Landfill, a radioactive waste site in St. Louis County. What would you say to people who are having to live with those risks?
- Brooks said he recognizes that people are frustrated but he said his agency's main mission is to protect public health. "We’ve been generally very open with the community about the scientific data from air monitors and from soil tests and from groundwater tests that establish that public health is being protected," Brooks said.
- Some would disagree. The EPA took longer than expected to release a report showing radioactive contamination in groundwater under the West Lake and Bridgeton landfills. And although in January the EPA released air quality reports suggesting that levels of radiation and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air around the landfills were "typical of what you would find in the environment elsewhere in St. Louis," it did not release data it had collected on sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, or carbon monoxide. An agency spokesperson told St. Louis Public Radio that the EPA would not be producing a report about those results, but that it would make the 80 gigabytes of sulfur data available online in the near future. In February, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources wrote a letter saying gas flares at the Bridgeton Landfill are releasing unhealthy levels of sulfur compounds, and the St. Louis County Department of Health confirmed it was planning a survey of people living near the landfills out of concern that the poor air quality there may be harming their health.
- Although Brooks will not be here to see it, he reiterated that the EPA is still on track to reach a final decision on what to do with the radioactive material at the West Lake Landfill within the next two years. "The engineers that I’ve been privileged to work with over here indicate that we are still looking at the latter part of 2016 to get that remedy decision out into the public," Brooks said.
Is there anything that you regret or view as a failure during your tenure?
- "Regrets and failures? No," Brooks said. "I think we’ve engaged key stakeholders on pretty difficult topics." That includes agriculture, which Brooks called "the engine house" of the regional economy. At the national level, the EPA has been considering changes to the definition of "waters of the U.S." under the Clean Water Act. Agricultural interests have opposed the rulemaking, fearing it will lead to increased federal regulation of farmland. In late January, the EPA withdrew the part of the rule related to agricultural practices.
- Brooks also mentioned — as a success — his office's outreach related to the EPA's proposal to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. "We in the region have been a strong participant in working with utilities and working with the states to try and put together a responsible, common-sense plan to reduce greenhouse gases, especially from existing coal-fired power plants," Brooks said.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing your successor, especially with respect to the St Louis area?
- Air pollution, a long-time problem in our region. Brooks said air quality here has improved but still has a long way to go. "St. Louis is a big, dispersed metro area," Brooks said. That means it has a lot cars and trucks emitting pollutants that contribute to smog. Brooks said St. Louis also has a lot of "stationary sources" of air pollution. Those include manufacturing plants, which he mentioned, but also power plants and other industries.
- The West Lake Landfill. "We are still on track to conclude the engineering and scientific work that will allow us to propose a final, long-term remedy for the West Lake site," Brooks said. Brooks has repeatedly stated that the EPA will decide what to do with the landfill's radioactive waste before the Obama administration leaves office in Jan. 2017.
Brooks is stepping down from his leadership post in EPA Region 7 to become Deputy Assistant Administrator in the EPA's Office of Administration and Resources Management, which oversees human resources, contracts, grants and facilities for the agency. His new role will likely involve much less interaction with the public.
His former Deputy Regional Administrator, Mark Hague, will take over as head of the regional office until a permanent replacement is appointed.
Brooks said his interim successor is very familiar with St. Louis and the West Lake Landfill. "I think our staff here, as well as St. Louis people, will enjoy working with him and appreciate his style," Brooks said of Hague. "He’s a no-nonsense, get-it-done person."
Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience