Devil on the Rock Road

Tax records suggest access by a giant trash-hauler to landlocked property inside an EPA Superfund site in Bridgeton may be due to special dispensation granted by the Catholic Church. But nobody is confessing to such a Faustian pact.

St. Louis County property tax records indicate that the more than 20 acres shaded in yellow inside the EPA Superfund site are owned by West Lake Quarry & Material Co., which is owned by the Catholic Church.

St. Louis County property tax records indicate that the more than 20 acres shaded in yellow inside the West Lake EPA Superfund site are owned by West Lake Quarry & Material Co., which is owned by the Catholic Church.

The EPA website dedicated to the radioactively-contaminated West Lake landfill in Bridgeton offers a vague description of the Superfund site, describing its size as “approximately 200 acres.”

In that sense, the boundaries of the site are as uncertain as the exact location of the nuclear waste itself. On one hand, the uncertainty is due to the failure of the federal regulatory agency to pinpoint the hot spots. That failure comes despite 40 years of oversight.

But there is equal ambiguity related to the history of the impacted properties themselves and their current ownership status. It’s a mystery that the EPA and others, including the St. Louis Archdiocese, don’t seem to want to talk about.

As usual, the devil is in the details, and in this case the details involve the Catholic Church.

St. Louis County land records indicate that the main road leading into the site, as well as more than 20 acres in its interior are still owned by the West Lake Quarry & Material Co. The church took over the quarry operations after the business was bequeathed to it decades ago. Quarry operations ceased years ago, but the corporation itself remains active and charities tied to the church own the company.

St. Louis County real estate records indicate that the West Lake Quarry & Material Co. is the owner of land inside the EPA West Lake Superfund site in Bridgeton. The quarry company is owned by the St. Louis Archdiocese, but the tax bill is sent to a post office box in Phoenix.

St. Louis County real estate records indicate that the West Lake Quarry & Material Co. is the owner of land inside the EPA West Lake Superfund site in Bridgeton. The quarry company is owned by the St. Louis Archdiocese, but the tax bill is sent to a post office box in Phoenix.

In short, the church in this case holds the keys not to heaven but a radioactive waste dump, according to the county  records. But this is where it gets murkier.

Tax records reveal that the tax bill is not sent to the archdiocese or any other identifiable church entity.  Instead, the tax bill is sent to an anonymous post office box in Phoenix, Ariz., the headquarters city of site owner Republic Services, a responsible party for the EPA cleanup.  Since acquiring the property more than a decade ago, Republic has closed other operations, but continues to use the site as a transfer station.

A corporate registration report filed earlier this year with the Missouri Secretary of State’s office shows the president of West Lake Quarry as William Whitaker, a retired mining engineer who lives in O’Fallon, Mo. St. Louis attorney Bernard C. Huger is listed as the secretary of the corporation. The same two individuals are now the sole members of the board of directors. Both men say they represent the church’s interests in the company.

Missouri Secretary of State records from this year show the officers and board members of the West Lake Quarry and Material Co. are longtime representatives of the Catholic Church.

Missouri Secretary of State records from this year show the officers and board members of the West Lake Quarry & Material Co. are longtime representatives of the Catholic Church.

After the church was bequeathed the company, it needed a qualified person to run the business. “They found me 1,200 feet underground,” says Whitaker, who previously supervised a lead mine near Viburnum, Mo. When he took over, the West Lake Quarry was one of a number of holdings owned by the company.

“All of a sudden they (the church) owned a bunch of quarries and they had nobody to run the operation because the owner who was running it had passed away,” recalls Whitaker. “They asked me if I would come up and run the operation. I’ve been in the mining business since 1960, how many years is that?”

When informed that the company was still on the St. Louis County property tax rolls, Huger expressed surprise and attributed it to governmental error.  “I think we sold all that and they don’t have the records right. I don’t know. But that’s a long time ago. I think it’s all long since been sold.”

But a clerk for the St. Louis County Recorder of Deeds office told StlReporter that  property tax recipients were based on information contained in the property deed, and the quarry company’s name appears on the tax bill.

“The quarry is not operating but we keep it open just in case anything would come up from time to time,” Huger says. “There might be some workmen’s comp case come up. Someone might make a claim that (was) an employee. We had one of those a couple years ago. We just keep it open. But it’s really not active. It’s not doing any active business. Let’s put it that way.”

The current shareholders “are several Catholic institutions,” says Huger. He estimates that the business has been dormant 20 years. “I don’t know the exact date. But it’s been a very long time,” he says. At the time the previous owners willed the business to the church, it was a thriving concern. “West Lake Quarry and Material Co. was a big quarry operator with quarries up and down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers,” says Huger. “The company had towboats and barges.” Incorporation records show that the company’s barge fleeting operations extended southward to states bordering the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans.

Spokespersons for the St. Louis Archdiocese, the EPA and Republic Services refused to comment.

Why Republic Services, a responsible party  for the cleanup, is allowed to conduct a profit-making business inside the site remains a matter of debate. While church and state remain mum on the issue, the question elicited a series of responses at a recent monthly meeting of the West Lake Community Advisory Group (CAG), which acts as a liaison with the EPA.

“I don’t know if the actual road that goes to the transfer station is (part of) the Superfund,” says Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “That’s not something I’ve thought about before. So it’s possible that the road is not a Superfund (site).”

Matt LaVanchy, an assistant chief of the Pattonville Fire Protection District, expressed little doubt where the lines are drawn. “It’s my understanding that the areas that are impacted by the radiological material are under the oversight of the EPA,” says LaVanchy.

One thing is for sure: While the public remains confused over the issue,  Republic trash trucks continue to roll in and out of the site as if they have God on their side.

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Final Judgment

hulen.jpg.

Rubey M.  Hulen, the judge who signed off on the airport nuke-waste dump, later sentenced himself to death.

On the morning of July 7, 1956, federal district Judge Rubey M. Hulen, had breakfast with his wife before a scheduled doctor’s appointment at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis.

He never made it to the appointment.

An excerpt of the 1946 Land deed for the St. Louis Airport Site that includes Judge Rubey Hulen's signature.

An excerpt of the 1946 Land deed for the St. Louis Airport Site that includes Judge Rubey Hulen’s signature.

Instead, he was pronounced dead at the same hospital later that day. The family gardener found Hulen’s body at approximately 10 a.m. lying in the backyard at 16 Southmoor Drive in Clayton. The death certificate indicates Hulen died of a gunshot wound to the right temple. A .32-caliber revolver was found next to his right hand.

Nearly a decade earlier, on September 23, 1946, Hulen signed an order sanctioning the taking of 21-plus acres adjacent to the St. Louis airport. The acquisition by the U.S. War Department was carried out quietly on behalf of the top-secret Manhattan Engineering District, which purchased the land for $20,000 to store radioactive materials produced by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis. The materials were byproducts of uranium processing used to create the first atomic bombs and subsequent nuclear weapons work.

For the next twelve years, open dump trucks loaded with radioactive residues continued to be shipped from Mallinckrodt’s plant on North Broadway to the airport location. As the piles grew, radioactive contamination migrated off site, draining into nearby Coldwater Creek, which flows through the sprawling suburban communities of North St. Louis County.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began cleaning up the creek in the late 1990s and the work continues today.

At the time of his death,  Judge Hulen, a Roosevelt appointee, was preparing to sentence two former Truman administration officials on corruption charges. That decision may have not been the only thing weighing on his mind.

Two years earlier, he had overseen the extortion trial of five labor union officials, meting out stiff punishments to all of them, including a 12-year sentence to Lawrence Callanan, the boss of Steamfitters Local 562, a politically-active St. Louis-based union with ties to organized crime.

At the sentencing, Hulen admonished Callanan for his lack of contrition.

Hulen, a marksman and World War I vet, practiced shooting his handgun in the backyard of his Clayton mansion on a regular basis. Given the circumstances, the target practice may have been prompted by his need for self-defense.

Though the press presumed the judge’s demise  to be a suicide brought on by depression, the St. Louis coroner ruled the death  an open verdict. Following the incident, the Clayton Police searched the backyard but reportedly failed to find either the bullet or the cartridge that had been fired.

Among those who rushed to the hospital after the shooting was attorney Forrest Hemker, a family friend. Interestingly, the law firm of Greensfelder Hemker & Gale later represented the Catholic Church during its ownership of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill in the 1980s and early 1990s. The contamination at the landfill originally came from the airport by way of the interim storage site on Latty Avenue in Hazelwood.

Locked Out in Metropolis

Honeywell workers learn the high cost of good-paying jobs

The troubles started a few years back, says the big man in the lawn chair,   an umbrella shielding him from the summer sun. His eyes squint as he explains the circumstances that led to his sitting on this barren stretch of highway on the outskirts
of Metropolis, Illinois. As he stares into the distance, in the direction of his union
hall, his words express a Southerner’s fatalism echoed by the drawl of his voice.

He calls his plight a cliché, for it is an old and familiar story in these parts.
Knowing such tales rarely end well, he speaks with resignation beyond his years.
His is a story of haves and have nots, which has been played out in Southern
Illinois for as long as anyone can remember. Metropolis may lay claim to
being the home of the Man of Steel, but the struggles of mere mortals have defined
this place.

Vestiges of those struggles can be seen in the hardscrabble towns that dot the
Shawnee Hills, a topography that connects Appalachia to the Ozark Plateau both
geographically and culturally. For motorists whizzing along Interstates 57
and 24 it is impossible to catch a fleeting glimpse of the dual sense of sadness and
survival that steep these hills and hollows.

But those sentiments can be heard in the tenor of the big man’s voice as surely as
the thunderheads can be seen gathering on the horizon on this scorching August
afternoon.

He says the troubles began when Honeywell International Inc. disbanded his
union’s safety committee. In its place, his employer implemented a program named
“behavioral safety,” a euphemism for a system that blames individual workers for
on-the-job accidents. As a result, plant workers refrained from reporting accidents
out of fear that they would lose their jobs.

The big man furrows his brow, as he describes how the program essentially
helped mask the continuing safety risks inside the plant. Workers’ morale declined
and labor disputes inside the plant accelerated.

The big man compares the work he does – uranium processing – to coal
mining an occupation with a long history in the Southern Illinois. Both are dirty and
fraught with potential safety hazards and chronic health risks. Since coal mining
petered out hereabouts, the nuclear energy

Honeywell plant helps supply processed uranium to the gaseous diffusion plant in
nearby Paducah, which further refines nuclear fuel. The facilities, which are both
radioactively contaminated, are products of the Cold War, built more than 50 years
ago as a part of the nuclear arms race against the former Soviet Union. They
now help supply enriched uranium to the nuclear power industry.

The labor problems peaked earlier this summer, after contract negotiations
between Steelworkers Local 7-669 and Honeywell broke down over the
company’s plan to reduce retiree health benefits and cut the pensions of newly
hired workers.

 On June 28, Honeywell
locked out its 220 union employees. The
company replaced its union workers with
non-union employees supplied by Shaw
Environmental and Infrastructure of Baton
Rouge, Louisiana. Shaw, a billion-dollar
corporation, holds numerous government
contracts with the Department of Energy
and the Department of Defense.

The lockout has had a ripple effect
across the entire nuclear energy industry,
causing the price of uranium companies’
stock to skyrocket. Closer to home, the
lockout is on the brink of sending the
already recession-wracked local economy
into a tailspin. With tempers flaring on
both sides, a once-cohesive community is on the verge of coming apart at the seams. The lockout has pitted management against labor and neighbor against
neighbor. The risks of potential nuclear mishap have raised tensions in the town of 6,500.

It has happened before.

In the early hours of Dec. 22, 2003, the plant inadvertently released seven pounds of uranium hexafluoride (UF-6). The accident prompted the immediate
evacuation of nearby residents. News reports issued at the time said no one was
hurt, but four or five residents were sent to the hospital for observation.

As recently as April, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a meeting at
the Massac County Courthouse to discuss the findings of a two-year safety study.
The study was prompted by past radiological and safety hazards inside the
plant. Despite the NRC’s review, the agency has issued repeated exemptions to
Honeywell so it can continue to operate despite the contamination. According to a
recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Honeywell is being
investigated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department for allegedly dumping radioactive sludge at its Metropolis
facility.

Hard times never really left Little Egypt, the name some old- timers still call the
pyramid-shaped area between the two great rivers.

Behind each levee there are countless human tragedies, tales of woe passed
down generations, remembrances of floods and droughts and man-made calamities like the lockout now in progress.

At the steel workers union hall, a member of the local’s negotiating
committee opens the meeting with an invocation. He prays for the sick, and for
all who are now unemployed, asking in Jesus’ name for strength. Across the road,
in front of the plant, the union has erected a memorial. Forty-two crosses symbolize
workers who have died of cancer; 27 smaller crosses represent those who have
so far survived the disease.

Later, in the parking lot, the man who gave the prayer, a 30-year employee at the
plant, says he hopes for a resolution to the labor problems so the men and women of
his union can return to work. He acknowledges that the plant has pockets of
radiation that are dangerous, but expresses no ill will toward the company. His
concern now is for those operating the plant; they’re untrained and, in his view,
unqualified to do the work.

Sitting on the tailgate of a visitor’s car, he nods in the direction of the uranium
plant, and says: “Somebody’s going to get killed.”

Carolyn Bower Remembers Lou Rose

Rose_mug

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Lou Rose, circa 1969.

It started with a veteran reporter’s morbid curiosity, not an altogether novel point of origin. Reporters by nature often find themselves peering into the darker sides of life — and death.

Good reporters also possess an instinct for detecting stories others overlook. It’s called a “nose for news.” The late Lou Rose, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, was a bloodhound when it came to following the faintest of trails.

In the late 1980s, Post reporter Carolyn Bower remembers Rose sitting at his newsroom desk clipping obituaries of children who had died in St. Charles County, Mo., where the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works once operated a uranium processing plant. Rose had a hunch there might be a correlation between the infant deaths and radioactive waste deposited at the shuttered plant and a nearby quarry.

Ultimately, Rose, Bower, and fellow Post reporter Theresa Tighe teamed up to do an eight-part series on the St. Louis area’s forgotten radioactive waste sites. Gerry Everding, a free-lance reporter, also contributed to the effort. The investigative team ended up digging through thousands of documents, interviewing hundreds of people and visiting dozens of sites. The investigation continued for more than two years. Their work resulted in an eight-part series that ran in the Post-Dispatch in February 1989.

Death in Venice

Residents are concerned about mortality levels at the site of a 20-year-old radioactive cleanup

Canvassing the neighborhood 2Diane Ratliff, a native of Venice, Ill., remembers when the dump trucks first started lumbering up and down Meredosia Avenue in the early 1990s. She then surmised the drivers must have made a wrong turn. “Where the hell were they going?” she asked herself.

Nobody informed her or any of the residents of the neighborhood that a radioactive clean-up was taking place down the block.

That was 20 years ago, and Ratliff, a special education teacher for the East St. Louis School District, is still searching for answers as to whether exposure to radioactive waste may have affected the health of her family and neighbors. She is among a group of citizens who are now pressing the federal government for an epidemiological study of the area to determine the impact that the radioactive site may have had on public health.

In 1989, the Consolidated Aluminum Corp. (Conalco) and Dow Chemical Co. began to quietly clean up a 40-acre site adjacent to a foundry in Madison, Ill., that the two companies formerly owned. The plant and dump site are both located on the boundary between the Metro East cities of Madison and Venice. [read earlier story by clicking here]

The clean-up entailed dividing the area into a massive grid made up of hundreds of squares and then using a complicated formula to measure the contamination levels in each of them. To carry out the job, contractors constructed a laboratory, rail spur and loading station.

By the time the project ended in December 1992 more than 105,000 tons of thorium-contaminated slag had been loaded into 978 rail cars and shipped to a low-level radioactive waste facility in Utah, according to a final report prepared for the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety (IDNS), the state agency responsible for overseeing the clean-up.

The 1992 report states: “Because of the proximity of the contaminated area to a residential neighborhood, and the inconvenience that the construction activity imposed upon the neighborhood, the construction was done in a manner such that all contaminated material above natural background was removed and the area was backfilled immediately. ”

Larry Burgan, a community activist and former foundry employee, has doubts about that conclusion. “It makes it sound like they were doing the residents a favor,” says Burgan. “But they also could have been doing it quick to get it out of sight [and] out of mind.”

Canvassing the neighborhoodEarlier this summer, Burgan and Ratliff’s brother, Calvin Ratliff, canvassed the neighborhood, asking among other things whether residents had ever been informed of the safety risks posed by the radioactive waste or its removal. None of the residents with whom they spoke indicated that they had ever been contacted.

Instead, contractors appeared to have launched the first phase of the clean-up without warning.

At 8 a.m., March 5, 1990, heavy equipment operators began excavating more than 15,000 cubic feet of radioactively contaminated soil along Rogan Avenue, a neighborhood street that borders the 40-acre site. The work continued for the next two days. Contamination in this area was found from six inches to five feet below the surface, according to the final report.

To ensure compliance with state safety regulations, Conalco and Dow installed eight air-monitoring stations to measure airborne concentrations of contaminants during the clean-up, but a portable generator that powered one monitor was stolen early in the clean-up and never replaced. Despite the loss, the work continued and the final report dismissed the significance of the incomplete data.

The assessment, prepared by Roy F. Weston Inc. of Albuquerque, N.M., does stipulate, however, that one of remaining air monitors registered high concentrations of radioactivity on numerous occasions and exceeded permissible levels at least three times. But the risk to residents was deemed safe because all the radioactive contaminants were “assumed” to be Thorium 228 and not its more potent sister, Thorium 232. Moreover, concentrations of radioactive airborne contaminants were averaged out over several months to lower the estimated dosage to within established limits set by IDNS.

The history of radioactive contamination at the foundry dates back to 1957, when Dow began processing uranium for fuel rods under a subcontract with St. Louis-based Mallinckdrodt Chemical Co., which was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The plant was one of hundreds of low-priority radioactive sites nationwide identified by the federal government’s Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program in the 1990s. The subsequent government-mandated clean-up, which was overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2000, focused mainly on uranium contamination inside facility and did not include additional monitoring or remediation at the adjacent 40-acre site.

The thorium waste was the byproduct of another facet of the foundry’s operations — production of lightweight alloys used for military and aerospace applications. Between 1960 and 1973 Dow dumped millions of pounds of sludge containing 4 to 8 percent thorium behind the plant on the adjacent property. After Conalco took over the operation, the dumping continued for years, including monthly shipments of thorium waste produced at Dow facilities in Bay City and Midland, Mich.

Company guidelines also permitted up to 50 pounds of thorium sludge per month to be poured directly down the sewer. The radioactive contamination could also have been released into the environment by the plant’s several 20-foot diameter exhaust fans.

Venice waste siteThe Ratliff family has lived in the brick bungalow at Meredosia Avenue and College Street next to the foundry since 1950. Louis D. Ratliff, Diane Ratliff’s late father, built the house. He died in 1974 from brain cancer. An informal survey of a two-block stretch of Meredosia Avenue conducted earlier this year yielded anecdotal evidence of 44 cases of cancer or lung disease among longtime residents, many of whom are also now deceased.

“Before sunset there was always a cloud emanating from the plant,” says Ratliff, who attended elementary school across the street from her family home. The special education teacher now worries about spots that she says have developed on her lungs. Ratliff also worries about her siblings, whom she says have been diagnosed with sarcoidosis; a debilitating, chronic disease that commonly causes inflammation of the lungs and other organs, and in some cases can be deadly.

The clean-up of the site that was initiated 20 years ago did nothing to allay her fears. It only left unanswered questions.

“They were supposed to have examined the yards for contaminants,” says Ratliff. “But that didn’t happen.” — C.D. Stelzer

first published in FOCUS/midwest, September 2009

Unfortunate Son

Larry Burgan's hands

first published in FOCUS/midwest, May 2009

Co-workers once called Larry Burgan “Lucky Larry,” but that was before anybody knew about the radioactive dust over all their heads.

There were nights in the autumn of 2005 when Larry Burgan says he slept with a loaded AK-47 assault rifle next to his bed. He suspected his phone was tapped; he feared that someone might torch his house. The reason for his wariness: A 12-pound bundle of documents released to him by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, and the explosive contents therein.

The documents, which Burgan obtained under the state’s freedom of information law, outlined the extent of radioactive contamination at Burgan’s former workplace, Spectrulite Consortium Inc., in Madison, Ill. The plant was one of hundreds of low-priority radioactive sites nationwide identified by the federal government’s Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program in the 1990s.

Not only did Burgan’s cache of government records confirm that workers were exposed, it also raised new and troubling questions about the risks posed to residents of an adjacent neighborhood in Venice, Ill., over the past 50 years.

“For decades radioactive dust was falling on me and my coworkers everyday,” says Burgan, a 50-year-old disabled steelworker. “Millions of pounds of uranium were processed through my machine and no one ever told me — never told us. We deserve justice; justice not just for the employees, but the residents, too.”

The problems at Spectrulite began the year before Burgan was born, when the foundry was owned by Dow Chemical Co. Dow processed uranium at the plant between 1957 and 1961 under a subcontract with St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Chemical Co., which was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Dow’s work caused radioactive debris to accumulate on overhead girders — where it was ignored for decades.

In 2000, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversaw a radioactive cleanup at the Spectrulite plant, a spokesman for the agency assured employees and the public that the radiation levels inside the plant were low and there was no reason for concern. But in less than a year Burgan’s health began to decline. He says the first hint was when he noticed shortness of breath after climbing stairs. Then he developed a pain in his right foot. His hair began to fall out. Over the next year, his condition improved temporarily and then worsened. He started experiencing severe joint pain throughout his body. His doctor’s visits became more frequent and he was having difficulty doing his job. Eventually, he became bedridden and unable to walk. A severe rash covered his entire body.

“I was covered with scabs — large ones and small ones,” Burgan later wrote in his personal journal. “They would crack and bleed. . . . It was a nightmare.”

Burgan’s nightmare was far from over. His union, United Steelworkers Local 4804, was forced to go out on strike when the company demanded wage and benefit cuts in the new contract.

“Just like that my job was over,” he recalls. “I got sick and they got rid of me.” Unpaid bills piled up. The union stepped in and covered his mortgage payments during the 11-month strike. But despite the help, Burgan ultimately had to declare bankruptcy and go on disability.

Burgan’s nadir came one afternoon as he hobbled to the bathroom with the help of his wife. Passing by a mirror, he stopped to look at his reflection. “I didn’t recognize myself,” he later wrote.

After months of excruciating pain, his condition began to gradually improve. As he recuperated, Burgan pondered the cause of his illness. One of his coworkers suggested that chronic exposure to the radiation at work may have been responsible.

Once he was able to walk again, Burgan drove to a friend’s house who owns a computer. It didn’t take long for him to find a possible link between his health problems and his occupation. His online research led Burgan to an Army Corps Web site devoted to the cleanup of the Spectrulite plant. His friend printed out several illustrations related to the Corps remediation work there. One of the images was an overhead view of the plant. The spot directly over Burgan’s old work space was represented in glowing red, indicating the highest level of contamination in the factory.

Burgan later wrote down his reaction to this discovery in his journal: “My mouth opened in disbelief. My eyes watered up. One single tear fell and landed on the picture, staining it.”

_________________________________

A photograph from 1993 depicts Burgan as a young man. He is smiling for the camera, cigar in hand, seated in a chair, with his feet propped up on the 50-ton extrusion press that he helped operate.

The day the snapshot was taken he was hamming it up. Burgan doesn’t smoke. The cigar was a prop. He had asked a coworker to take the picture so he could show his wife what a cushy job he had. The then-35-year-old steelworker viewed his job at Spectrulite as relatively easy. Burgan’s union wages and benefits afforded him and his family a middle-class life, and the opportunity to live the American dream. There was plenty of overtime available, too. Fellow employees even called him “Lucky Larry” because Burgan had a knack for finding money at work.

But Burgan was unknowingly paying a price that can’t be calculated in dollars and cents. The photograph shows that his work station was near Beam Z, the most radioactive hotspot in the foundry, 13.6 times above the safe guideline limits. Burgan and hundreds of his fellow steelworkers were not told they were working in a radioactively contaminated work place until 2000 even though their employer and the federal government were both aware of the dangers in 1989 — when he started working at the plant.

The Department of Energy conducted the first radiological testing at the facility in March 1989, which showed elevated levels of Uranium-238 and Thorium-232. A series of stories published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the previous month had spurred the government to do the testing. A team of Post-Dispatch reporters worked for more than two years on the project, scouring thousands of documents, interviewing hundreds of people and visiting dozens of sites. Some of the information in the series was based on the earlier research of Kay Drey. In 1979, the St. Louis environmental activist had interviewed a terminally-ill truck driver who had delivered uranium ingots from Mallinckrodt Chemical in North St. Louis to the Dow plant in Madison. The truck driver attributed his lung cancer to his occupational exposure to radiation in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Madison plant had assembled tanks during World War II. Six years after the war, the federal government sold the facility to Dow. In 1957, Dow was licensed by the AEC to process fuel rods for nuclear reactors under the subcontract with Mallinckrodt. The uranium processing continued for four years. During that time, radioactive dust escaped as the uranium was heated up and forced through the extrusion press.

But uranium wasn’t the only radioactive material discovered by the Energy Department in 1989. Government records obtained by Burgan also show elevated levels of thorium present in the overhead girders. The records also show that by the summer of 1960, the plant had imported 80 tons of thorium pellets from Canada. Thorium was used in the making of lightweight alloys for military and aerospace applications, another job that Dow did at its Madison plant.

As work continued, the nuclear waste mounted. Dow’s original disposal plan called for the waste to be incinerated. But the burning couldn’t keep up with the increased volume of waste that was being generated. So between 1960 and 1973, Dow dumped millions of pounds of sludge containing 4 to 8 percent thorium behind the plant in a vacant lot that is adjacent to neighborhood residences. This level is several times over the current safety standards. Company guidelines also permitted up to 50 pounds of thorium sludge per month to be poured directly down the sewer. The radioactive contamination could also have been released into the environment by the plant’s several 20-foot diameter exhaust fans.

But Burgan suspects that some of the elevated levels of Thorium-232 detected overhead may have been of more recent origin. In 1992, Spectrulite leased out one of its presses to Martin Marietta, Burgan says. Employees of that firm were brought in to oversee the operation, which occurred for eight days over a two-month period. When Burgan asked what type of metal was being processed, he was only told that it was a “special alloy.” It didn’t dawn on him until much later that the method that Martin Marietta used was similar to the way Dow processed uranium in the same press decades earlier.

“It all started making sense after all the documents were in front of me,” says Burgan.

Armed with the government records, Burgan began his efforts to gain compensation for himself and his fellow workers. His campaign has included countless calls to state and federal regulators, members of the Illinois congressional delegation and the media. Burgan has testified before the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Workers Health twice, and he also persuaded five of his former co-workers to submit affidavits to substantiate their potential exposure. As a result, former Spectrulite workers who worked at the plant as recently as 1999 are now eligible for inclusion in the Energy Employees Illness Compensation Program. The program provides $150,000 to workers or their surviving family members. To qualify, workers must show that they contracted one or more of the 24 types of cancer that are officially recognized as being associated with radiation exposure.

Proving the hazard was a laborious task. The potential health risks posed by chronic exposure, says Burgan, were repeatedly downplayed by both his employer and the federal regulators. At a company safety meeting in February 2000, for instance, Burgan says a manager told workers that the planned radiation cleanup at the plant was “just a way of the government trying to waste money.” On another occasion, Burgan says he was told by a company foreman that the radiation would only be harmful to those who were allergic to it. Around the same time, the project manager for Corps of Engineers told the Post-Dispatch, “Someone would have to eat 250 pounds of the contaminated material to create a health risk.”

Despite the Corps official’s dismissive comment, the agency ultimately concluded that the safe level of exposure for cleanup workers at the site would be two to four hours per year. Burgan estimates his exposure over 12 years at 25,000 hours.

In February 2000, the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety contested the Corps’ cleanup plan as insufficient. In its comments, the state agency stated: “The Corps has not demonstrated that the proposed scope of removal is protective of public health . . . [and] has inadequately assessed the dose to the first critical group (workers) and has entirely ignored the second critical group (residents).”

Burgan’s sights are now set on helping the former residents and those who still live near the plant. For the past few months, he has been meeting weekly with former Spectrulite workers and residents at the Venice City Hall. An organizing committee of concerned citizens is now moving forward with plans to request an in-depth health study of the community by the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry. Among the primary concerns of the committee are health risks to children at a nearby elementary school. Former Dow Spectrulite plant in background

Calvin Ratliff, a former Spectrulite worker who lived near the facility from 1950 to 1993, has conducted an informal survey of a two-block stretch of Meredocia Avenue near the plant. By his count, there were 44 cases of cancer or lung disease among longtime residents, many of whom are now deceased. A larger sampling of longtime neighbors tallied 68 cases of cancer or lung disease in the neighborhood.

Having worked there himself, Ratliff is aware of the different parts of the plant operations and the potential for emissions to escape into the outside environment. His concerns are close to home.

“I lost my father at 54 from a brain tumor and my sister has thyroid cancer,” he says. “I never thought anymore about it until the [Spectrulite] workers brought their claims.” Ratliff adds that he and his sister both have sarcoidosis, a debilitating, chronic disease that commonly causes inflammation of the lungs and other organs, and in some cases can be deadly.

The former resident and plant worker says he has uncovered evidence that a private environmental cleanup company removed 90,000 cubic yards of aluminum slag and contaminated soil from the vacant lot behind the plant in the fall of 1992. The contaminants included Thorium-230 and Thorium-232, as well as PCBs. More than a thousand railcars of waste were excavated and removed from the site, according to the information in Ratliff’s possession. Neither he nor Burgan are sure of who contracted the company to remove the waste. The other unanswered question is whether the cleanup removed all the contaminated soil.

The plant at Weaver and College streets operates today as Magnesium Elektron of North America, a non-union company and a subsidiary of Luxfur Group of Great Britain. Larry Burgan pushes for answersAfter going bankrupt in 2003, Spectrulite’s owners sold the company, but continue to hold a stake in the operation and the property itself. The plant no longer processes radioactive materials, but it continues to process toxic heavy metals that are used to make lightweight alloys for military use.

Both Burgan and his wife survive on a monthly Social Security disability income of slightly over the poverty level. He attributes other serious illnesses, infant mortality and birth defects in his family to secondary exposure to radiation from the radioactive dust that he brought home on his work clothes. The possibility of this haunts his every waking moment.

“My wife is ill from transference, bringing my dusty clothes home everyday,” he says. “All my grandchildren passed away. I’m living on $31 a month over the poverty line, without me or my wife able to work. I have to stand in the food lines at Salvation Army. I’ve been doing this for years. It’s not because of choice or because I’m lazy. It’s because I was put here by people who poisoned me.” — C.D. Stelzer

 

The First Secret City

A knock at my door woke me up before 8 a.m. one morning in June 2013. When I peeped out the window, the two men on my front porch struck me as being Mormons at first glance. I soon found out, however, that the neatly dressed pair were not concerned about my salvation but whether I was a terrorist.

The FBI agents departed my apartment a half hour later, after I debriefed them on the subject of my documentary and assured them that my activities were not intent upon disturbing domestic tranquility. My cooperation with federal law enforcement included naming my collaborator, the co-director of this film. So in a very real sense, I am an FBI informant.

The G-men had been dispatched to my doorstep by the Department of Homeland Security, after my license plate number had been turned over by a security guard at the Mallinckrodt Chemical plant on North Broadway in St. Louis. The security guard had stopped us on a public street on a Sunday morning, wanting to know why we were photographing the facility. He told us then that our names would be provided to Homeland Security, but I had dismissed the warning as an idle threat.

The agents were stern but polite. I did most of the talking, filling the silence in my living room with pleas of innocence. They wanted to know if I had any terrorists intentions. I told them we were making a documentary on the nuclear waste that Mallinckrodt had created as a part of the Manhattan Project and the subsequent Cold War.

The agents seemed surprised. They said they were unaware of the issue.

They are not alone.

In the 70-plus years since Mallinckrodt first began generating radioactive waste as a byproduct of its government-sponsored uranium processing work, a majority of St. Louisans have remained uninformed about the contamination that continues to threaten their health and the environment.

As a reporter for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, I had covered the issue decades earlier, beginning in the early 1990s. I became reintroduced to the subject in 2008 when my editor at Illinois Times in Springfield sent me a thick press packet that had been sent to the newspaper. The contents of the manila envelope had been assembled by Larry Burgan, a former steelworker from Granite City, Ill. who had been exposed to radioactive contamination in his former work place. Burgan had started a one-man campaign to shed light on the problem that impacted not only his fellow workers but nearby residents of the plant in Venice, Ill. where had worked.

Months went by before I started going over the materials Burgan had painstaking collated. After reading it, I called him and asked for an interview. I then wrote a story based on Burgan’s research for an online magazine FOCUS/midwest in May 2009 and did a follow-up that September. But unlike hundreds of other stories I had written in my journalism career, I didn’t let this one go. I began investigating the subject further myself.

In early 2010, I enlisted the support of a local videographer and started working on a film on this subject. That project ended more than two years later because of a disagreement over the content and direction of the film. Countless hours of hard work was lost as a result.

In late 2012, my original idea was revived with with the help of my new partner Alison Carrick, the co-director and cinematographer of The First Secret City. Without her hard work and devotion to this project the film would have never been completed. Her understanding of the issue and the narrative form combined with a keen eye and an uncompromising dedication to the creative process can be seen and felt in every frame of this film.

The title is based on the little-known-about role that St. Louis played in the making of the first atomic bomb. Before the creation of the secret cities of Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford, the Manhattan Project hired the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis to refine the first uranium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. For the next two decades, Mallinckrodt continued its classified work for the Atomic Energy Commission during the Cold War. The resulting radioactive waste contaminated numerous locations in the St. Louis area some of which have not been cleaned up 70 years after the end of World War II. Told through the eyes of an overexposed worker, the story expands through a series of interviews that careen down a toxic pathway leading to a fiery terminus at a smoldering, radioactively-contaminated  landfill. The First Secret City reveals a forgotten history and its continuing impact on the community in the 21st Century, uncovering past wrongdoing and documenting the renewed struggles to confront the issue.

–C.D. Stelzer