What a Dump!

10 07 2012

City officials deny illegal dumping in Carondelet Park. The clearing in the background is the location of the alleged illegal landfill.

Cloaked by a grove of trees just beyond public view at the  free-compost site in Carondelet Park, the city Forestry Division is covering up its real dirty work.

by Bill Newmann

With the first bloom of the crocus, the foragers begin to descend on the southeast corner of Carondelet Park with shovels and pitchforks in hand.  Among the gardening set, a visit to the South St. Louis compost pile is a rite of spring.

The pilgrimages, which continue throughout the growing season, have the down-to-earth purpose of adding soil nutrients to front yard rose beds and backyard tomato patches.  Not surprisingly, urban gardeners and  landscapers who participate in this humble ritual have long showered perennial praise on the St. Louis Forestry Division for the free compost and mulch it offers.

There is a dark side to Forestry’s green image, however.

The free compost – tons of it – is littered with every kind of trash imaginable. A stench fills the air next to a fetid clump of trash that has accumulated under a piece of heavy machinery.  Nearby, a green flip-flop protrudes from one compost pile. A hairbrush lies next to another.  Besides the abandoned footwear and the filthy article of grooming, there are countless fast-food containers, Styrofoam cups, plastic water bottles, and aluminum cans.

But the trash isn’t limited to the compost heaps.

The clandestine dump in Carondelet Park.

Hidden just out of public view, shrouded by foliage, an excavation site has been carved into a nearby slope.  Half-buried tree stumps are visible at the edges of this clearing.  The dry, barren ground here is tightly packed and bits of rubbish are strewn on its surface, including an expired Metrolink pass.  Tracks indicate that a bulldozer has recently graded the site.

The building and operating of a landfill requires passing a rigorous permit-approval process, says Dave Berger, the executive director of the St. Louis-Jefferson Solid Waste Management District. Berger says he  doubts the city would violate this law.

But  evidence suggests otherwise.

Forestry has apparently been quietly operating a landfill in the park for some time, which raises questions as to whether the city is in violation of the Missouri solid waste disposal law.  Enacted in 1972, it outlaws unregulated dumping by requiring local governments to utilize responsible trash disposal practices. The law also mandates that  dump operators register with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

The history of how this part of Carondelet Park became a dumping grounds goes back decades and involves a pact forged between the Forestry and Refuse Divisions.

The odd-couple of city agencies began their Carondelet Park affair in 1992 in the aftershock caused by Missouri Senate Bill 530, which banned yard waste from landfills.  In response, Refuse, the agency responsible for city trash collection, started hauling mountains of yard waste to the park.  As a part of the joint program, Forestry Commissioner Gary Bess – now Parks Department director – placed Forestry’s composting arm in charge of managing the debris.  Later, Bess expanded the operation to another site on Hall Street in North St. Louis.

In theory it was a good plan. But problems developed from the outset because it was impossible to keep the yard and household waste separate.  Inevitably, some residents deposited household and hazardous waste into yard-waste collection containers, a practice that has plagued the program for the past 20 years.  In addition, the Streets Department collects curbside leaves in the fall, which accounts for other manmade debris getting mixed up with the organic matter, says current Forestry Commissioner Greg Hayes.

In other words, the mixed-waste snafu threw a monkey wrench in the works from the beginning,  forcing the city to hire crews to sort the rubbish from the organic waste.  The worst loads were estimated to contain up to 90 percent trash and were taken to a transfer station on Hall Street south of the city’s north-side composting operation. But that level of effort was short lived. News accounts from 1992, only months after the program’s inception, quote Bess as touting cutbacks in his sorting crews.  Manpower and budgetary considerations were already taking precedent over the proper handling of the mixed waste.  Judging by the current trashy conditions, Forestry is still running its Carondelet operation with a skeleton crew.

In 2009, Hayes outsourced Forestry’s composting operation to St. Louis Composting Inc., a private company that has leased the city’s Hall Street site. Despite privatizing the composting duties, Forestry continues to oversee the Carondelet Park location.  Hayes denies the existence of a landfill there and says the amount of trash at the site is incidental.  If enough ever accumulates, he says, he is sure it is taken to a proper landfill.

Meanwhile, the Refuse Division, which is part of the St. Louis Streets Department, racks up $7 million in landfill tipping fees annually, according to its own figures.  Not surprisingly, Refuse constantly faces pressures to reduce costs by decreasing the volume of solid waste. The city agency has been scrambling to find creative ways of realizing these savings for years.

On Monday, St. Louis Streets Department Director Todd Waelterman told the Journal of Decomposition that he intends to inspect the Carondelet Park site. Waelterman says that burying waste in Carondelet Park is not one of the city’s authorized cost-saving measures. “There is no official landfill,” adds Waelterman.

Despite the official denials, it is clear that waste materials have been buried in the cleared-out area of the otherwise wooded hillside adjacent to the park’s most heavily traveled thoroughfare.

Getting to the bottom of who is responsible for this mess, however, may be more difficult than digging up and removing the waste itself. That’s because the city’s combined methods of dealing with municipal yard waste are far less delineated than the neat rows of trash-laden organic matter at the Carondelet Park site.  Instead, the unmonitored practices represent a muddy confluence of waste streams, where two city agencies’ responsibilities murkily overlap.

Drivers cutting through the park at rush hour can’t see the dump site because it is camouflaged by underbrush.

A close-up of the city’s compost blend

But hiding the eyesore from plain view is the lesser of evils.  Sinkholes elsewhere in the park attest to the prevalence of karst topography, which means the subterranean composition of the area is riddled with limestone holes similar to a block of Swiss cheese.  Burying waste here is a bad idea because any hazardous materials will ultimately enter the ground water and flow into the Mississippi River.

Given its proximity to the compost piles, there is a likelihood that the location has been a convenient dumping ground for trash that’s been inadvertently carted to the site.  In short, there is a high probability that rather than paying additional city workers to sort it, or have the rubbish shipped to the Refuse Division’s transfer station on nearby Gasconade Street, a decision was made to simply bury it in the park.

As it stands, the dumping of  trash-laden organic waste material continues undeterred, while the Forestry Division pawns off its sorting duties on the green-thumb crowd by giving the trash back to them gift wrapped in compost.  At least some of the trash that Forestry can’t recycle back to the unwitting public has ended up interred in the unregulated dump at the perimeter of the compost site.

If anybody at City Hall knows what is buried at the clandestine Carondelet Park dump, they’re not saying. Berger, the Missouri solid waste official,  seems to speak for everyone when he says, “It’s hard to believe the city would be doing something like this.”

A dumpster at the site




9 responses

10 07 2012

Nicely done. I’m very interested in the follow-up to this story.

11 07 2012
Lana Camp

As a resident of South City, and a city compost user, one problem I see day in and day out, is the fact that the yard waste dumpsters used to help create this compost are being grossly misused by many St. Louis Citizens. I frequently lift the lid to dispose of my yard waste, only to find garbage thrown in the mix, or all garbage.The sad fact is, most folks who live here and rent or are on Section 8 simply don’t care what happens to their environment or neighborhood or surroundings, if it doesn’t make them money.
No pride in your property, no pride for anything else.
I just don’t know how to offer a solution, other than to impose fines and to actually ENFORCE them. Perhaps the now bunk red-light cameras would be better put to use to monitor the alleyways that have the most issues with illegal, or improper dumping. This would mean that the Trash task force would actually have to view this footage, and follow through.
I would love to see the follow-up story to this.

11 07 2012
Tiffanie Jones

Thank you for what you are doing Bill, and for sharing. What a shame. I wonder if putting flyer’s around the neighborhood to increase awareness of the issue and about the importance of free clean compost to grow one’s own food might deter people from mixing trash with yard waste. Or better yet going into the schools to educate the children about this problem and the value of being self sufficient. Good luck and I too look forward to see how your efforts continue to benefit the community.

11 07 2012
Journal of Decomposition

All beautiful ideas, Tiffanie. Any one of these efforts will create a world of change.

11 07 2012

Thanks for the time and effort in this article Bill! I have used the compost at Carondelet for years, always having to screen my compost for plastics and metals. To true are the words from Lana. A lot of people just don’t care about sorting their trash. Also, i have seen that entire yard scraped clean and everything sent off to what i only can guess to be stl composting. Double A+ for mention of karst landscape of stl and surrounding area.

11 07 2012
Emily Beck

Lana’s comment unfairly stereotypes people who rent or are on Section 8. You don’t have to own property to take pride in your neighborhood, your city, your space, how ever you define it. People who don’t care come from all classes and abilities. Let’s not create or perpetuate more problems than this issue already poses.

12 07 2012
Coleman Franklin

It will have to be a multi-tiered approach. There hast to be and educational component focused on those that simply don’t know about the problem educational programs for children are always useful because schools with small budgets will let lecturers present for free and children have parent who you also need to present to. (win win.) Establish a relationship with your local politicians that care about what you are doing this will give you access to the adult population that are interested in their community advancement (thats why they listen to their alderman). Remember to make it appealing to the alderman as well. He has to either legitimately care or have political motivation to effect change whatever the motivation the goal is the same: To revamp the current system of refuse collection and compost. Once you have the support of the alderman, the parents, the kids and a few people with a little money enact your plan. The hardest part is will be finding the money and when you cant go to those alderman who care about what your doing and ask for tier help…remember they care! And they want to prove it…These will be the sponsors that finance the programs that you offer for “free” at the local schools. This plan can work and by the way having the whole sha-bang covered by “The Journal of Decomposition” isn’t so bad either;)

18 07 2012
See No Evil « Journal of Decomposition

[…] site’s existence, which was first reported by the The Journal of Decomposition last week [What a Dump!, July 10]. Hayes’ denial comes on the heels of a response from the Missouri Department of Natural […]

29 04 2014
Don Keller

That spot is full of the silt from the lakes in the park I watched them bring the mud in dump it there was a guy with a metal detector th st dug in the mud looking for something

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