County committee considers legalizing reclaimed asphalt storage next to quarries

Oakville residents fear potential health hazard

By BURKE WASSON

What is seen by some as a chance to recycle asphalt for the benefit of St. Louis County’s construction industry is viewed by others as a public health hazard.

Such are the feelings with a bill being considered by the County Council that would allow for reclaimed asphalt pavement, or RAP, to be stored next to asphalt quarries and plants.

A County Council Committee-of-the-Whole hearing on the asphalt storage issue was scheduled for Tuesday night — after the Call went to press.

Third District County Councilman Skip Mange, R-Town and Country, originally introduced the bill to do, as he says, a service to the nine asphalt quarries in the county.

“The key to this whole thing is to recycle used asphalt,” Mange said. “That’s the whole purpose and whole key behind the whole thing is the ability to recycle this product instead of using it for fill or whatever somewhere else. The entire asphalt industry affects the entire construction industry. And it creates a less expensive product, too.”

But some Oakville residents who live near one county asphalt quarry — Fred Weber Inc.’s plant on New Baumgartner Road — contend that Mange proposed this ordinance as nothing more than a favor to Weber, which has contributed money to Mange’s campaign fund in the past. Weber currently has more than 275,000 tons of RAP storage illegally piled at its Oakville plant, and the proposed ordinance would make those piles legal.

Other nearby residents have suggested that RAP storage poses health risks to the surrounding area.

Oakville resident and Mehlville Board of Education member Tom Diehl has submitted more than 1,200 pages of documents and research to the St. Louis County health and planning departments that claim RAP storage is a health hazard. These include a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that concludes that asphalt fumes cause irritation of the eyes, nose and respiratory tract. Further studies from the Department of Natural Resources and the state health departments of Minnesota and Utah also show asphalt’s potentially damaging effects to people and habitats when stored near waterways and flood plains, which lie near Weber’s plant.

In contrast to these studies, some local and state health departments have not found any connection between health risks and asphalt piles stored near homes. The St. Louis County Department of Health, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services have studied the health effects of the asphalt piles on surrounding areas and concluded that their presence does not pose a health risk.

Mange said he trusts the research of the St. Louis County Department of Planning, which previously submitted a report to the council recommending the passage of the bill permitting such asphalt storage, and also points out the health department’s conclusion of RAP storage posing no risks to the public.

Regarding residents’ complaints that the passage of the bill would heighten the health risks in the area, Mange said it is not true. He said that while the existing asphalt plants might already have the potential to cause a health risk, the storage that this bill would allow would not pose any further danger to nearby residents’ health.

“It has no negative effect on public health,” Mange said. “And that’s the conclusion that the health department came to also. Truthfully, you think about it, and it’s not the recycled asphalt that has that potential. It’s the asphalt plant itself. In the process of making asphalt is where you create … that’s where you smell that asphalt and so forth. The same thing happens when you lay it. Actually, the reclaimed asphalt isn’t part of that. It’s the asphalt plant that they’re concerned about.”

As for speculative criticism that he introduced the bill as a favor to Weber, Mange said, “That has absolutely nothing to do with it.”

But while Mange denies that Weber’s plant served as motivation for the bill and that it is strictly a countywide issue, 6th District Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, disagrees. Weber’s Oakville plant sits in the county’s 6th District, which Campisi represents.

“The only reason why it was brought up was because of Fred Weber and Fred Weber Inc. and the asphalt piles that they have pending in court,” Campisi said. “By allowing this asphalt pile to stay there, it would be a travesty for the people that live around there. It really would.”

Campisi said he believes that Mange acted in the interest of Weber and not in the best interests of the county when he proposed this bill.

“You can look in Skip’s campaign finance report and you’ll see Fred Weber and Fred Weber companies have all given to his campaign,” Campisi said. “So they know each other very well. And I think it was at a time when he needed Skip’s help because he wasn’t going to get it from me. And he knows that if he had Skip and the other three Democrats (on the County Council), he’d have the votes to push this thing through. So I think that’s where we are with the whole thing.”

With Tuesday night’s Committee-of-the-Whole hearing scheduled, both Mange and Campisi said they were looking forward to hearing from various organizations. Some people scheduled to address the council were Diehl, attorney Lester Stuckmeyer, representatives from Metropolitan Congregations United and planning department officials, who Mange said would essentially restate their support of the asphalt storage that the bill would allow.

While he hopes to persuade council members to deny the bill’s passage, Diehl said he is also curious why the Committee-of-the-Whole was scheduled before an air-monitoring study of Weber’s plant is finished.

“The last I saw, the results weren’t going to be ready until this fall, which makes me question why,” Diehl said. “Is the county afraid that the results of the air monitoring will prevent their problems out there?”

Diehl said if the bill were to pass, he believes it would cause irreparable harm to St. Louis County and pose further health risks to areas other than the homes near Weber’s Oakville plant.

“I hope that we convince some of the council members that this would set a bad precedent as far as planning and zoning in St. Louis County, which has prided itself in the past on quality of life and always trying to improve our neighborhoods,” Diehl said. “This sets a bad precedent of legalizing an operation that is clearly a violation of conditional-use permits and the existing county zoning laws, and they’re just trying to save Fred Weber Inc. the expense of moving the asphalt piles. We’re just tired of the favors done for people who write checks to political candidates in St. Louis County.”

Diehl and his wife, Barbara, have filed a lawsuit against Fred Weber Inc. seeking more than $50,000 in damages to recoup legal expenses from Weber’s previous $5 million suit against Tom Diehl that alleged libel and defamation.

That lawsuit was dismissed in March 2005 by the Eastern District Missouri Court of Appeals and the Missouri Supreme Court in June 2005 refused to hear the case. A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union told a panel of Missouri legislators in July 2004 that Weber’s lawsuit against Tom Diehl was “a classic SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suit.” But attorneys for Fred Weber told that same panel that the lawsuit was not a SLAPP suit, but rather a legitimate defamation and libel lawsuit.

Mange further denies that the proposed bill is a favor to Weber and is confident that it will eventually pass because he sees such asphalt storage as a way to recycle and save costs throughout the county.

“This is something that affects the entire asphalt industry,” Mange said. “It affects all the quarries and every asphalt plant in St. Louis County. So yeah, they’re all very interested in it. That’s why it’s a countywide issue and not just a 6th District issue.”

But even if the bill comes up for final passage, Campisi said he would exhaust all avenues he can to stop it and would also like to schedule a public meeting in south county to address those ideas.