As I tried explaining this story to my co-workers and friends, I found myself coming back to the same phrase when describing what I had discovered.
As in the "little known" federal law that says the public -- in no uncertain terms -- has a right to know what chemicals are stored in their neighborhoods.
And the "little known" quasi-governmental groups known as Local Emergency Planning Committees. These committees are responsible for compiling information on those chemical risks, devising response plans in case of an emergency, and communicating those risks and plans to the public.
Don't forget the "little known" fact that tanks of toxic gases are stored close to residential areas, schools, hospitals, parks and office buildings all over the St. Louis metro area.
The simple fact I had to couch those things with the phrase "little known" begged me to ask more questions. The most basic being this:
If there are so many of these toxic chemicals stored so close to where people live, work and play -- and if the public has a clear right to know what chemicals are stored in their neighborhoods -- why don't they know?
The LEPC letdown
A Local Emergency Planning Committee is a group of volunteers who meet on a regular basis to discuss all manner of issues pertaining to what's known as "extremely hazardous substances."
For an example, here are the board minutes of the St. Louis city LEPC meeting from October 3, 2007. They discussed a handful of hazardous materials incidents, a bill put forward by St. Louis alderman Terry Kennedy on hazardous chemical shipments, and the purchase of promotional items emblazoned with the LEPC logo.
You may also notice my name in those board minutes, in the context of my request for documents I used to prepare this report. This line from the minutes is especially telling of the LEPC's ability to make public information... well, public:
"Currently there is no standard protocol for the release of this information; Vince [Stehlin, LEPC Chairman] is going to work with Dawn [Warren, Missouri Emergency Response Commission] to create one."
That's right. An agency responsible for giving this information to the public had no idea how to comply with a request for public records.
Why is that?
By law, an LEPC is supposed to represent a wide range of people with varying interests and backgrounds. A properly stocked LEPC should contain:
In reality, the LEPC's -- both city and county -- are stacked with members from the chemical industry and public safety agencies, but contain very few members of the general public.
In the city and county, no elected officials serve on the LEPCs. Instead, they assign subordinates to attend the semi-monthly meetings.
But they don't always show up.
According to city LEPC chairman Vince Stehlin, former St. Louis public safety director Sam Simon was removed from his seat because Simon repeatedly failed to show up for the meetings. Mayor Slay's office says the city's emergency operations director now represents his administration on the board.
You might think the media representatives on the LEPCs would be fighting to make this information more publicly accessible. But the media has no voice in the process.
In the city, both seats allocated to the print and broadcast media are empty. In the county, the media seat is held not by a member of the fourth estate, but by the retired media relations officer of the St. Louis County Police.
County LEPC chairman Robert Young said it's too difficult to find someone to fill the media seat on his board. He also admits he hasn't asked anyone recently. For good measure, Young asked me to serve. As a city resident, I am not eligible and had to decline.
So what's out there?
The simple answer... plenty.
Chairman Young estimates 2/3 to 3/4 of the county is vulnerable to a leak from one of 60 "extremely hazardous substance" storage sites scattered across his jurisdiction.
In the city, virtually everyone is at risk from just one site.
G.S. Robins is a chemical distributor located just south of downtown at the corner of 1st and Chouteau. According to public documents that detail the worst case scenario, G.S. Robins has enough chlorine gas on site to put out a toxic cloud more than six miles long.
Here's how that looks on a map:
Further south, Lemay is vulnerable to a leak from the Rockwood Pigments facillity at 303 E. Hoffmeister. An anhydrous ammonia leak could threaten people on both sides of the river.
Toxic chemicals are even stored in the densely residential north county area comprised of Vinita Park, Overland and Pagedale. Atlas Cold Storage has anhydrous ammonia on site, as well. The danger zone around its facility extends one mile in every direction.
How can I learn more?
The LEPCs exist to inform the public. But until the public knows they exist -- and starts showing up at their meetings -- they have little incentive to do so.
Here's who you need to contact and where you need to go to learn
St. Louis City LEPC
Vince Stehlin, Chairman
1315 Chestnut Lower Level
St. Louis, MO 63103
Phone: (314) 613-7233
Fax: (314) 622-3472
To see a meeting schedule, click here:
St. Louis County LEPC
Robert Young, Chairman
14847 Ladue Bluffs Crossing Drive
Chesterfield, MO 63017
Phone: (314) 628-5400
Next meeting: 10 a.m., February 26, 2007
Chesterfield City Hall
690 Chesterfield Parkway West
Madison County LEPC
157 N. Main Street Suite 33
Edwardsville, IL 62025-1960
Phone: (618) 692-0537
Next meeting: 9:30 a.m., April 9, 2007
157 N. Main St., Suite 438
St. Clair County LEPC
321 West F Street
Belleville, IL 62220-1193
Phone: (618) 277-3012
Next meeting: 3 p.m., March 5