Missouri bill that would weaken hazardous waste rules returns for another year

A Republican legislator says state regulators are harassing businesses, but critics say the change would put Missourians at risk

By: - March 4, 2022 10:23 am

Orscheln’s property on North Morley Street in Moberly. The company resisted calls from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to do certain testing for trichloroethylene at the site. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).

A GOP lawmaker is once again working to reel in what he sees as overly aggressive enforcement of hazardous waste laws by Missouri regulators he contends are “terrifying” small businesses in his district.

But critics say the change would put Missourians at greater risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals. 

“The people of Missouri are not clamoring for weaker protections from hazardous waste,” said Michael Berg, Sierra Club’s political director. 

Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield, is for the third time sponsoring a bill that would bar the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from deviating from federal regulations when it comes to controlling hazardous waste. 

Burlison says he has heard from several small businesses in his district who felt “intimidated” by DNR.

“To them,” he said, “it was just terrifying.”

Burlison first introduced the bill in 2020. He said his goal was to help tourist caves in his district that were struggling with DNR’s overzealous enforcement. Some have had to mitigate trichloroethylene, a volatile chemical linked to certain types of cancer that has made its way into their groundwater from upstream. 

After he filed an initial version of his bill, Burlison said he started hearing from other businesses, including one that had been in a standoff with the state over TCE — and that critics believed to be the driving force behind the idea: ORBCO, a Moberly manufacturing facility that’s part of Orscheln Industries. 

The company is owned by the family of Barry Orscheln, a member of the Missouri Conservation Committee and Gov. Mike Parson’s conservationist of the year. But his family’s Moberly manufacturing site, ORBCO, has been under scrutiny by DNR for underground TCE that has vaporized and made its way into the air, potentially putting employees at risk.

Orschlen has never been mentioned during public debate of the bill, in the past or during a hearing this week. The mid-Missouri ORBCO plant was engaged in a months-long fight with DNR over TCE when a version of the bill was first introduced in 2020. 

But the company’s argument against DNR’s authority  — that the agency was enforcing rules on TCE laid out in federal guidance documents, not promulgated regulations — managed to find its way into the discussion.

Burlison has long maintained he was motivated by the trouble caves were facing in his district and wasn’t aware of Orscheln’s issue until after he filed legislation. 

But soon after, Burlison said he was approached by the Orsheln’s lobbyist, former state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, as well as other representatives of the company in support of his legislation.

“When they came knocking on my door and told me that this affected them, too,” he said, “to me, it was like adding wind behind my sails because I knew I was onto something.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, neither TCE nor Orscheln were ever mentioned. 

Burlison’s bill also includes provisions requiring DNR to provide more explanation when they levy fines and to keep that information confidential. 

“I think it’s good transparency; I think it’s responsible,” Burlison said of the bill. 

John Madras, who worked at DNR for more than 30 years, including on hazardous waste issues, told The Independent keeping information about fines and penalties secret would undermine the public’s ability to ensure tax dollars are being spent properly and the law is being enforced equitably. 

“If none of this ever sees the light of day,” Madras said, “…nobody knows if somebody got a sweetheart deal. Nobody knows if somebody got thrown under the bus.”

Burlison’s bill is a scaled back version of the legislation he introduced last year that would have revoked several environmental commissions’ authority to set permit fees to fund DNR’s work. Under current law, that authority is set to expire in 2024. The provision was criticized by environmentalists as an effort to bankrupt DNR. 

The bill’s chief supporter, Associated Industries of Missouri, suggested an amendment during Wednesday’s committee hearing to make it clear the language barring DNR from enacting strict hazardous waste rules is not meant to wipe out a voluntary brownfield cleanup program that the state runs.

“We found that it’s a little easier to work with the Department of Natural Resources this year,” Ray McCarty, president and CEO of Associated Industries, told the committee Wednesday. “We’re very happy about that. And so I think that relationship is improving between the regulated community and the regulators.”

McCarty didn’t mention TCE in Wednesday’s hearing, either. Last year, he said seven or eight businesses were affected by the TCE enforcement but declined to name them. Orscheln is listed in the association’s “Circle of Elite Organizations.” 

ORBCO, or Orscheln Brake Lever Manufacturing Company, used TCE as a degreaser decades ago but stopped in the late 1970s. State records show it was discovered in the groundwater in 1988, and the company entered a consent decree with DNR in 1990 to clean it up. That agreement is still in effect. 

In 2019, DNR discovered TCE in sewer gas coming from manholes near ORBCO in Moberly. 

Based on the results, it told ORBCO it was required to do additional testing to assess the risk of TCE migrating from the site to other properties and the risk to the company’s own workers from the TCE that was vaporizing and entering the manufacturing facility through the air. 

TCE can cause kidney and liver cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, cardiac defects, leukemia, multiple myeloma, renal disease, Parkinson disease and scleroderma. 

A subsequent assessment of the ORBCO site by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) found there wasn’t enough data to assess the risk to human health. So health officials recommended further testing, kicking off a months-long dispute over Orscheln’s responsibilities. 

ORBCO executives said the contamination in the groundwater was already delineated and there was no indication it was migrating. But DNR said ORBCO’s testing plan was inadequate and threatened to obtain an order compelling ORBCO’s compliance. 

The manufacturer’s attorney then told DNR it was overstepping its authority by citing a federal guidance document— the same concern McCarty would eventually voice without naming Orsheln in a Missouri House committee hearing last year.

Eventually, ORBCO performed sampling in 2020.

This time, DHSS assessed the risk to workers and found “TCE concentrations in the manufacturing building exceed the comparison value for cancer effects for worker exposure in all areas except the office area.” 

ORBCO’s attorney, Stacy Stotts, disagreed with the health agency’s methodology in an earlier statement to The Independent. On Wednesday, she said in an email that Orscheln was unsure what was being asked “but Mr. Orschlen does not have any comment on this matter.”

Correction: This story has been updated to include Ray McCarty’s title as president and CEO of Associated Industries of Missouri.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on energy, the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she previously covered City Hall for The Kansas City Star, as well as state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City.