Hot Property

 

 Profiteering and Political Cronyism Presaged the Dumping of Radioactive Waste at West Lake LandfillColonial

In 1969, the city of Bridgeton paid more than $200,000 for a 26-acre tract of land now known as the Bridgeton Athletic Complex (BMAC). The beneficiary of the land deal was an investment group headed by the late Kenneth Davis, co-owner of B&K Construction, the company responsible for later dumping tons of radioactively contaminated dirt at nearby West Lake Landfill.

Foes on the Bridgeton Council then estimated that investors made nearly a 100-percent profit on the deal, according to Bridgeton City Council minutes uncovered by STL Reporter.

Opponents also raised questions as to whether politics played a role in the lucrative transaction. Their suspicions centered on the cozy relationship between then-St. Ann Mayor Clarence Tiemeyer, one of the other investors in the land deal, and his frequent business partner Kenneth Davis, the co-owner of B&K.   Tiemeyer was then considered the most powerful municipal leader in North St. Louis County.

The Bridgeton land deal transpired during the scandal-ridden mayoral administration of Earl Davis (no known relation to Kenneth Davis). Mayor Davis was indicted in 1969 by the St. Louis County prosecutor for bribing a land developer in a separate scheme. He was acquitted of that charge.

The BMAC ball fields became a point of controversy again last year, when a group of community activists charged that soil samples indicated the presence of Lead 210, a radioactive isotope at the site.

After the activists announced their findings in May 2014,  then-Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers and EPA officials dismissed the evidence as unscientific and assured the public that the athletic fields were safe for use. Subsequent testing by the EPA confirmed the presence of radiation above background levels at the site but not exceeding the agency’s standard of remediation.

Activists countered by disputing the EPA’s methods and protocols.

Despite the recent attention, the history of the property has been largely ignored.

B&K Construction of St. Ann, Mo. dumped the radioactively contaminated materials at the landfill in North St. Louis County in 1973 while working under contract for the Cotter Corp. of Colorado.

Robert and Kenneth Davis, two brothers, formed B&K in 1954. During the long tenure of St. Ann Mayor Clarence Tiemeyer, the company maintained a profitable relationship with the city, receiving a raft of contracts for street repairs. In return, Kenneth Davis helped raise money for the mayor and his political allies.

Tieymeyer and Davis had other close ties, too, including sitting on the board of directors of Cherry Hills Country Club and Colonial Bank. The same bank would later be revealed to be the depository of Bridgeton Park Department funds even though it paid below average interest rates on the money.

A report issued by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1970 indicated that B&K employed off-duty police officers to guard the facility, which raises questions as to the possible complicity of local law enforcement in the illegal dumping, which has never been thoroughly investigated.

Tiemeyer was a political ally of the late Rep. Robert Young, who maintained an office in the same strip mall as B&K’s headquarters on Cypress Road. Young, a Democrat and a member of the politically powerful steamfitters union, served in the state legislature before becoming a U.S. congressman. In the early 1970s, press accounts revealed that Irene Young, the congressman’s wife, received payments from the city of St. Ann for acting as an insurance agent for the city.

During this period, Young’s union — Local 562 — held sway over politics in North St. Louis County, while its leadership was known to have ties to organized crime.

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The Blow Up Film Fest

official-selection

The First Secret City is an official selection of the Blow Up Film Fest in the category of Best Documentary. We are really honored to be included in this category. Thanks to the Blow Up Film Fest and the selection committee!

The “Official selection” means that you are now eligible for the nomination…An official selection will be privately screened for the BFF judging panel, and if it wins its category, it will be screened to the public. The screening categories include: Best Narrative Feature, Best Narrative Short, Best Animation, Best Documentary Feature, Best Documentary Short, Best Student Film, Best Experimental Film.

 

Borderline Crazy

Mallinckrodt radioactive waste generated in St. Louis ended up at the Lake Ontario Ordinance Works in upstate New York

Between 1944 and 1950, radioactive materials produced as part of the Manhattan Project by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis were secretly shipped to a site near Love Canal in New York state, according to a long-forgotten investigative story by the New York Times.

The contaminated site, ten miles north of Niagara Falls, was the original location of the Lake Ontario Ordinance Works. The Times published the details of the environmental quagmire in June 1980, more than 35 years ago.

In its investigative report, the Times revealed that more than 20,000 tons of radioactively contaminated materials were transferred from uranium refining operations in Townawanda, N.Y. and St. Louis in 1944 (see below excerpt from New York Times story). Mallinckrodt began purifying uranium for the first atomic bombs manufactured in World War II in March 1942, and continued the operations for 20 years during the Cold War.

Much of the uranium was known as Belgian Congo pitchblende, the purest form of the ore. During World War II, the Congo was still a colony of Belgium. Under an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Belgian-government-owned African Metals Corp. retained ownership of the valuable minerals found in the residue after processing.

Radioactive waste from Mallinckrodt is also known to have contaminated sites in St. Louis County, Mo.; Canon City, Col.; Fernald, Ohio and elsewhere. Before Mallinckrodt began its uranium refining operations it, it procured a waiver for all liability from the U.S. government.Niagara_2

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Nuclear Fallout

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THE LEGACY OF HIROSHIMA EXTENDS DIRECTLY TO ST. LOUIS

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Aug. 2, 1995

Down at the end of the industrial court, where the concrete turns into a circle, a beige-colored, double-wide mobile home is parked between the Stone Container Corp. and Futura Coatings Co. The address, at 9200 Latty Avenue in Hazelwood, is landscaped sparsely with yews that have been manicured beyond salvation. On Saturday night, the trailer’s air conditioner hums even though nobody is there. Unpainted wooden steps lead to the door, as does a ramp for the disabled. A small gravel parking lot also includes handicapped-designated spaces.

For the most part, the site seems like any suburban-industrial park except for the small nuclear warning signs on the nearby cyclone fence. Behind the barrier is an imposing mound that juts over the surrounding one-story warehouses. The manmade hill is covered by grayish-black rocks and topped with a green net or tarp.

Although it is not identified as such, this radioactive waste site, which is now watched over by the Department of Energy (DOE), is a monument to the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima. Other contaminated locations that indirectly commemorate the origins of the atomic age are scattered across the St. Louis area, from the Mississippi River to Lambert Field and out to Weldon Spring in St. Charles County. They are dangerous reminders — twentieth-century vestiges of nuclear war.

Much of the radioactive waste that remains here is an unwanted byproduct of uranium purification conducted at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works on North Broadway. In 1942, the St. Louis chemical manufacturer began refining uranium for the Manhattan Project, the secret wartime program to develop the atom bomb. The uranium used in the first atomic test explosion and two subsequent military strikes against Japan was processed in St. Louis.

The first atom bomb used in actual warfare exploded over Hiroshima at 8:15 in the morning on Aug. 6, 1945. More than 100,000 people died, either instantly or of radiation sickness. The 2-kiloton bomb was nicknamed “Little Boy.” The atomic annihilation would be repeated three days later on Nagasaki. Japan quickly surrendered.

“This much is known, Japanese civilians who survived the attack on Hiroshima say they didn’t hear any noise at the moment the bomb detonated. Instead, they describe a blinding light, disintegration, darkness, and fire.

“In short, hell on earth.”

Whether the atom bomb attacks saved more lives by bringing a rapid end to the war is still a matter of great debate. President Harry S Truman, a Missourian, claimed that using the bomb prevented what would have been bloody land invasion that could have cost the U.S. a million more casualties. This much is known, Japanese civilians who survived the attack on Hiroshima say they didn’t hear any noise at the moment the bomb detonated. Instead, they describe a blinding light, disintegration, darkness, and fire.

In short, hell on earth.

Photographs of the aftermath show miles of charred rubble. Many survivors bore terrible burns. The estimated heat generated by the bomb blast was four times as hot as the interior of the sun. The Hiroshima explosion could be seen from a distance of 250 miles.

The Manhattan Project cost the U.S. taxpayer about $2 billion. The subsequent nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union skyrocketed the into the trillions. In the rush to produce nuclear armaments, expedient means took precedence over safe disposal of radioactive waste. Generations of future Americans will be strapped with the expensive task of mopping up. The Department of Energy (DOE) now estimates the tab at more than $100 billion. By the end of the Cold War, there were 14 active nuclear weapons facilities in the U.S., occupying more than 3,350 square miles. The DOE has counted 8,700 radioactive and chemical dump sites nationwide that need remediation.

As a part of the Manhattan Project, Mallinckrodt developed a crude method of uranium purification using ether as a coolant. African pitchblende, which contained high concentrations of uranium, made up much of the crude ore the company then processed. The combination of extremely radioactive materials, wartime haste and lack of experience led to over-exposures among uranium workers here. Due to wartime secrecy, the workers weren’t given a clear indication of the dangers.

After the war, production at Mallinckrodt continued. Safety measures increased, but so did the waste. The legacy in St. Louis now amounts to 2.3 million cubic yards of radioactive material. Much of that unwanted stockpile is still untreated.

At the Mallinckrodt plant on North Broadway, for instance, the radioactive levels in some buildings still exceed what is now considered safe by the DOE. Earlier efforts to clean up the site only served to spread the waste. In the decade following the war, the federal government secretly moved hundreds of tons of radioactive waste and debris from the chemical factory to a 21.7-acre site north of Lambert Field. In the process, truck routes, ground water and surface water all became contaminated. Later, efforts to reuse some of the radioactive material resulted in the dump site on Latty Avenue. From there, some waste was illegally hauled to the West Lake landfill in Bridgeton. In addition, at least 5,000 truckloads of radioactive waste were transported to a quarry near Weldon Spring. By 1957, the AEC had opened a new uranium processing plant there.

Mallinckrodt operated the facility for the next ten years. It, too, became radioactively contaminated. Unlike the sites in St. Louis County, however, a DOE cleanup of the quarry and nearby plant is now underway.
A 1981 study of more than 2,000 Mallinckrodt uranium division workers showed an increase in three different cancers, including a 24 percent above-normal rise in the rate of leukemia . In addition, a controversial a series of cancer cases has plagued one block of Nyflot Avenue, a residential street in North County, a dump route where radioactive waste was spilled. In 1993, the Missouri Department of Health (MDOH) ruled the cancers on Nyflot were probably not related to radioactive exposure. But some environmentalist doubt MDOH’s conclusion.

The consequences of living with the emotional fallout from the bomb raises other concerns. Denial, rationalization and other psychological defense mechanisms have been a means by which responsible politicians, military leaders and the public at large have been able to cope with the sheer magnitude of the carnage that ended World War II, as well as the ensuing threat that it could happen here.

“As a cultural historian, … it seems to me that the prospect of a nuclear war, — evidence of the destruction of two cities — had a profound effect psychologically, often in ways that (we) didn’t recognize,” says historian Paul Boyer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Boyer, the author of Bomb’s Early Light, a cultural history of the nascent atomic age, believes the bomb undermined an essential sense of continuity in American society. “Much of American culture … since the period from 1945 really has to be understood in terms of this underlying anxiety and sense of uncertainty,” says Boyer.

Secrecy and deception added to the unease. After the war, the federal government embarked on a campaign to misrepresent the potential hazards of radioactive fallout, Boyer says. “The Eisenhower cabinet … said we’ll just confuse the public, … (and) say there’s no danger — people don’t understand these scientific complexities, anyway. … They didn’t know what they were doing. There were terrible poisons being pumped into the air,” says Boyer.

Today, there is ample evidence that public distrust of the government was warranted. In the post-war years, approximately, 250,000 combat troops were placed in close proximity to above-ground nuclear test blasts in Nevada and Utah to simulate possible wartime conditions. As a result, soldiers were exposed to as much as 12 billion curies of radiation, or 148 times more than was released from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union. Untold numbers of civilians, who lived downwind from atmospheric testing, were also exposed. Recently, Congress belatedly passed legislation granting $50,000 to civilians who can prove they got cancer after being subjected to radioactive fallout from the atmospheric nuclear test that occurred between 1951 to 1963. The Committee of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War estimates fallout from weapons testing has caused 430,000 additional cancer deaths in the last 50 years.

Even as it denied the seriousness of nuclear fallout, the government was conducting secret experiments on radiation exposure. A 1986 congressional investigation headed by U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts found that, as a part of the Manhattan Project, American scientists injected unsuspecting patients with plutonium. Afterward, the surviving subjects weren’t informed of the experiment for more than 20 years, because the word “plutonium” was classified information during World War II. The list of these kinds of incidents is long.

By early 1945, Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-American physicist, had begun circulating a petition among colleagues that implored the government not to use the atom bomb on Japan and keep it a secret. Well over 100 scientist signed the pact. By the time the appeal reached the White House, however, Truman had departed for the Pottsdam Conference in Europe, but not before Gen. Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project director, had convincingly argued in favor of using the bomb.

The scientists who foresaw the dangers of atomic weapons were far from alone. The military leaders who raised questions or opposed dropping the bomb on Hiroshima included Gen. George C. Marshall, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, and Adm. William H. Leahy. Yet the majority of the scientific and military community involved in the Manhattan Project remained true believers.

Physicist Arthur Holly Compton, the post-war chancellor of Washington University, became one of the most staunch defenders of Cold War diplomacy. In an open letter to U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri, Compton wrote: “There are those … who believe that by arming our nation with the most effective weapons we are exciting the world toward war. My own appraisal of history is the reverse.” Although acknowledging the dangers of nuclear fallout, Compton stood fast in his support of nuclear weapons testing. “In my judgement,” wrote Compton, “the hazard has in certain quarters been grossly exaggerated.”

Compton had won the 1927 Nobel Prize for his work on X-Rays, which he did while the head of the physics department at Washington University. Later, at the University of Chicago, he became involved in overseeing work being done there on the Manhattan Project. As a part of that role, Compton came to St. Louis in April 1942 and asked chemical tycoon Edward J. Mallinckrodt, to help purify large quantities of uranium needed for the project. Three months later, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works was cranking out a ton of purified uranium daily. By December 1942, a team of scientists at the University of Chicago, led by Enrico Fermi, had generated and controlled the first nuclear chain reaction.

During his post-war tenure as chancellor at Washington University, Compton attracted nuclear scientists such as Arthur C. Wahl and Joseph W. Kennedy, two of the discoverers of plutonium. Kennedy died at age 40 of cancer, only two years after he and his partners had sold the rights to the plutonium separation process to the AEC for $400,000.
After witnessing the first atomic test explosion at Los Alamos, N.M. on July 16, 1945, another leading physicist — J. Robert Oppenheimer — recited an ancient Sanskrit verse from the Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu holy book. “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds,” said Oppenheimer. Less reverently, his test director Kenneth Bainbridge responded to the atomic explosion by saying, “We are all sons of bitches now.”

Following the detonation over Hiroshima less than a month later, Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the bomb, gazed at the inferno below and exclaimed: “My, God, look at that son of a bitch go!” , Later, Lewis revised his reaction in his journal by writing, “My God, what have we done?”

That question obviously entered the mind of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Two days after the Hiroshima bombing, Stimson had a heart attack. He resigned soon after the Japanese surrender. In a February 1947 Harper’s magazine article, Stimson defended the decision to drop the bomb, but nonetheless warned of its grave consequences.

“The face of war is the face of death,” wrote Stimson. “War in the twentieth century has grown steadily more barbarous, more destructive, more debased in all its aspects. Now, with the release of atomic energy, man’s ability to destroy himself is very nearly complete. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended a war. They also made it wholly clear that we must never have another war.”

2004: A Nuke Odyssey

The Department of Energy finally promises to clean up the St. Louis areas’s long-neglected radioactive waste in the next 8 years, but leaves many questions unanswered

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Dec. 11, 1996

It took more than 50 years, but last week the federal government finally pledged to clean up the St. Louis area’s long-neglected radioactive waste sites by 2004.Undersecretary of Energy Thomas P. Grumbly made the historic announcement on Thursday at the Clayton Community Center. The 850,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste — located at scores of sites around the area — are a byproduct of the nuclear weapons manufacturing dating back to World War II. Those attending Grumbly’s speech included public officials and members of a citizens’ task force who submitted recommendations to the Department of Energy (DOE) in September.

“There will never be a bunker in the St. Louis area — at least on my watch.” — DOE undersecretary Thomas P. Grumbly, December 1996.

Grumbly drew applause when he announced “there will never be a bunker in the St. Louis area — at least on my watch.” The applause echoed the results of a 1990 non-binding referendum in which city and county voters overwhelming disapproved of any plan to permanently store the nuclear waste here.

One result of that public outcry has been bi-partisan political support for disposing of the waste outside the area. Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, and Democratic St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and County Executive Buzz Westfall all attended last week’s meeting to show support for the DOE’s commitment to ship the waste as soon as possible. Some 28,000 cubic yards of contaminated materials from 21 sites have already been sent to a low-level radioactive waste dump in Utah. Moreover, Congress allocated an additional $23 million to continue the clean up in 1997.

But the fate of the remaining nuclear waste is still very much a matter of speculation. “There are some serious issues that remain,” said Talent, after the meeting. “It’s promising, but I don’t want to pretend that it’s all worked out, that it’s to everybody’s satisfaction.”

The congressman’s reservations may be understated. One sticking point in completing the project appears to be the 22-acre airport site — the largest in the area. In his speech, Grumbly emphasized that the DOE remains unconvinced of the need to clean up the airport site to the unrestricted-use level recommended by the local task force, the Sierra Club and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“He (Grumbly) just doesn’t feel that a site at the end of a runway needs to be cleaned up … the same way you would a residential site,” says Talent. “It’s a legitimate point, but I don’t think that the DOE has looked adequately at the effect on the ground water. The (waste) is sitting on an aquifer.”

Leaving any of the radioactive material at the site would risk further contamination of underground and surface water. But earlier this year, a report by a DOE-appointed panel of geologists declared that the water would miraculously not migrate off the site, and, therefore, it would be safe to leave the waste in place. Two of the six panel members – including one from the DNR — took exception to the findings, however. On Thursday, Grumbly suggested that another hydro-geological study be conducted in the next three months to determine what level of safety would be required.

“We all feel like it needs to be cleaned up so it won’t continue impacting Coldwater Creek,” says environmentalist Kay Drey, a member of the citizens’ task force. The creek is on the long list of remediation sites, which also includes: haul routes, a former athletic field in Berkeley, a landfill in Bridgeton, and parts of the Mallinckrodt chemical plant on North Broadway, where uranium was first purified in 1942.

The DOE, according to Grumbly, would like the entire mess tidied up within eight years, an optimistic goal given the bureaucratic impediments. Aside from the DOE’s lead role, the DNR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are mandated by Superfund law must to oversee and approve the project. Grumbly, nevertheless, expects a formal Record of Decision (ROD) for the clean up by the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30. That gives the DOE a little more than nine months to work out a myriad of details.

One of those details is prefaced by a dollar sign and has a lot of zeros behind it. “We have no money to do this,” says Drey. The environmentalist points out that the $23 million dollars earmarked for the clean up this year represents a significant increase in past funding for the project, but is still only a fraction of what will be needed to complete the job. The uncertainty over future funding is not expected to abate so long as the Clinton administration and the Republican-led Congress try to out hack each other in deficit reduction. Or as Grumbly puts it, “We’re in a very competitive budget environment.” The effect of the imminent departure of Energy Sec. Hazel O’Leary is also unknown.

As recently as July, the DOE estimated that removal and off-site storage of the waste would cost $778 million. A revised estimate cited last week ranges from $250 to $600 million. The wide difference in the bottom line hinges on, among other things, the choice of technology and the level of clean up specified in the yet to be completed ROD. The contract to carry out the clean up is held by Bechtel National, Inc., a subsidiary of the giant engineering corporation. Potential local sub-contractors that are queuing up include: Sverdrup Evironmental,the National Center of Environmental Information and Technology, Clean Earth Technologies and R.M. Wester and Associates.

Despite the expertise and available alternative technologies, Grumbly gave little indication Thursday that the DOE is seriously considering anything more than digging the irradiated dirt up and hauling it away. If the DOE chooses to clean up the airport site to less stringent levels than recommended locally, it will save money. But the legal and ethical question then becomes whether the scaled-back remedy is protective or human health and the environment.

For many Westerners, who will likely be on the receiving end, there is nothing ethical about any of this. The probable final destination for St. Louis’ radioactive waste seems to be either Utah or Washington state. The Envirocare low-level radioactive waste depository in Clive, Utah has already received some St. Louis shipments. In 1993, before any of the St. Louis waste arrived, state inspectors found Envirocare in violation of a dozen safety regulations.

But the questionable Utah facility now has competition. Last year, the Washington state Department of Health granted a low-level radioactive dump license to the Dawn Mining Co. in Ford, Wash. The majority of Dawn Mining is owned by Denver’s Newmont Mining Co., the largest mineral extractor in North America. Rather than pay for filling a 28-acre, 70-foot-deep, uranium-tailings pond on the Dawn property, Newmont wants to charge the government $5 a cubic foot to accept low level radioactive waste. Although the DOE hasn’t agreed to the proposal yet, representatives of Dawn Mining have tried to solicit the support of the St. Louis citizens’ task force as far back as November 1995.

The Spokane Indian tribe and Dawn Watch, an environmental group, are opposed to shipping the St. Louis waste to their community. “Our position is the site is still an unacceptable location for a commercial waste dump,” says Esther Holmes, a member of Dawn Watch. “(We) have been advocating that the site be cleaned up using clean fill at the company’s expense.” The tailings pond is located near a tributary of the Columbia River and threatens a nearby Indian fish hatchery.

Acute vs. Chronic Exposure

Scientists from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) will be available to answer questions tomorrow about the health effects due to exposure to radioactive waste in the Coldwater Creek watershed of North St. Louis County. The open house will be from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m at the Indian Trails Branch of the St. Louis County Library at 8400 Delport Drive in Overland.

In the video clip,  Faisal Khan, the director of the St. Louis County Health Department explains the difference between acute and chronic exposure. Khan was interviewed by the directors of the The First Secret City in March of this year.

 

Downstream View

A Look back at how the DOE helped contaminate the Mississippi watershed and then funded a $25-million study to examine the effects.

By C.D. Stelzer

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Jan. 27, 1993

 

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NEW ORLEANS, La. — A change in perspective can sometimes cure myopia.

Take the case of the Weldon Spring quarry, where the Department of Energy (DOE) has already begun its pell-mell release of treated radioactive water into the Missouri River (“Rushing Water,”RFT Jan. 6).

About 700 miles downstream from the nuclear drain site, William C. Van Buskirk, the dean of Tulane University’s school of engineering, sees things a little differently than the DOE’s gung-ho officials.

When informed of the situation at Weldon Spring last week, Van Buskirk took an immediate interest. “It’s a fascinating test case,” he says. The quarry offers the research advantage of being small and self contained, according to Van Buskirk.

There is good reason for the dean’s academic curiosity to be aroused over the waste. Van Buskirk is about to receive the first $5 million installment in a five-year, $25 million grant to study extensively the effects of mixed chemical and radioactive wastes on aquatic environments in the Mississippi River basin. Mixed chemical and radioactive wastes, of course, are the problem at Weldon Spring quarry, upstream on the Missouri River, before it meets the Mississippi.

“This is exactly the kind of research we need done before the DOE dumps anymore radioactive waste into the Missouri River,”says Kay Drey, a St. Louis environmentalist who has opposed releasing the water. Drey wants concerned citizens to ask their elected officials to call for a delay in future discharges of the Weldon Spring water until further studies are done.

A related petition drive to achieve the same end is being coordinated by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in University City. The petition states: “The lack of field experience in removing this particular combination of radioactive and hazardous wastes, and the lack of equipment capable of detecting and accurately measuring the residual pollutants make this project an experiment, not an engineering achievement.”

“Ironically, the Tulane grant was issued by the DOE — the same agency responsible for releasing the treated radioactive water earlier this month into the Missouri River nine miles upstream from two St. Louis area water intakes.”

“I mean, you don’t dump first and study second,” says Drey.
But dumping first and studying second is exactly what has happened.
Ironically, the Tulane grant was issued by the DOE — the same agency responsible for releasing the treated radioactive water earlier this month into the Missouri River nine miles upstream from two St. Louis area water intakes.

A spokesman for the DOE regional headquarters in Oak Ridge, Tenn. tells the RFT that there is a good chance the Tulane grant was issued by a part of the DOE that was unaware of the imminent release of the contaminated water from Weldon Spring. In other words, the DOE’s bureaucratic left hand didn’t know what its partner was doing.

Jerry Van Fossen, the DOE’s deputy project manager at the Weldon Spring site, is unfamiliar with the Tulane grant, but says that the agency normally cooperates with such work. “In this particular case, where you have a university or two universities that have a grant with the DOE, we would be required to coordinate with whoever holds that grant with the agency,” says Van Fossen.

The belated interdisciplinary study will engage between 50 to 100 researchers at Tulane and Xavier universities, Van Buskirk says. The studies may employ not only experts in chemistry and medicine, but also legal scholars and philosophers, who could ponder the effects of public policy and the impact of the media, Van Buskirk says.

Scientists taking part in the research plan to examine the development of new technologies to clean water and soil. Other research will look at how pollutants move through rivers and soil and investigate the effects of pollution on specific aquatic ecosystems. Researchers also intend to study the ways people are exposed to water-borne contaminants and how that exposure effects their health.

“They’ve got a real mess on their hands,” Van Buskirk says,referring to the DOE. “They don’t have the technology to do the cleanup and they don’t have the manpower.” There is a great deal of fear in communities about radioactive and chemical contaminants, according to Van Buskirk, and the university can play a role in allaying public concern by offering scientific data. “Maybe we would be more believable than the EPA or DOE,” he says. U.S. Sen. Bennett J. Johnston, D-La., was instrumental in Tulane receiving the grant, Van Buskirk says.

With this kind of senatorial backing tied to the DOE pursestrings, hope for a truly independent study has to be somewhat tempered. “Sen. Bennett Johnston is one of the most devoted promoters of nuclear power in the Senate,” says Drey. In addition, Drey says the Louisiana senator is a strong supporter of DOE policies. If the DOE chose to allow Tulane to study the Weldon Spring site, “I have to think that they are going to get the results that they want to get — which is there is no problem.

“(But) even raising the question helps. … We have to hope there will be a real scientist who is not paying attention to where his money comes from. Maybe that’s naive, but we have to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Fly Me to the Moon

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What’s up at the West Lake Superfund site? It’s anybody’s guess. The official operational status of the smoldering landfill at the site has been in limbo for months.  The extent of the ambiguity and accompanying confusion is reflected at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources website, which indicates the Bridgeton Landfill project at the site was completed mere months after the first men landed on the moon.

The unfortunate reality is that cleaning up Manhattan Project radioactive waste at West Lake and other sites in the St. Louis area remains incomplete 46 years after NASA’s successful Apollo 11 lunar landing.

 

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Lucky Larry

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

This story first appeared in FOCUS/midwest online, May 2009.

 

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.”

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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 story published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the previous month had spurred the government to do the testing. The story 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 (cdstelzer@gmail.com)

C.D. Stelzer is a veteran investigative journalist based in St. Louis and senior writer forFOCUS/Midwest.