Sister Cities?

St. Louis Shares its nuclear waste — but not a lawsuit — with a Colorado town

by Richard Byrne Jr.
The Riverfront Times, July 24, 1991

Canon City, Colo., and St. Louis have a lot in common. A lot of radioactive waste, that is.
For the most part, it’s the same waste. Much of Canon City’s waste came from materials piled up in St. Louis during the 1940s and 1950s.

Like St. Louis’ nuclear waste, Canon City’s waste was moved to its current resting place a true estimate of the dangers to the public.

Like St. Louis’ nuclear waste, it’s creating fear — and perhaps illness — in those unfortunate enough to live near the Cotter Mill processing plant in Canon City.
Unlike St. Louis’ reaction to the waste, the folks in Canon City recently filed a class action suit.

It’s a suit that makes some startling allegations:

*Radioactive waste was carelessly shipped and spilled on the journey from St. Louis to Canon City. One carload of radioactive material was, the suit claims, “lost.”
*Traces of the waste from the uranium-processing plant near Canon City have been found in Arkansas River.

*The company that runs the plant — Cotter Corporation — has a long history of failing to meet state guidelines for the processing and storage of radioactive materials.
Cotter also had a hand in St. Louis’ radioactive contamination as well, when unbeknownst to regulators, it abandoned 8,700 tons of radioactive materials too weak to be reprocessed in the West Lake Landfill in St. Louis County at a depth of only three feet.

Can we learn something from the folks in Canon City?
In the past few years, St. Louisans have become acquainted with their nuclear waste. It’s about time, too. For years, St. Louis’ role in the dawning of the nuclear age and the risks associated with it were either underestimated, glossed over or, worse yet, kept secret.

But even now, as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) circulates its draft cleanup plans for the downtown Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, and as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issues a report calling the St. Louis Airport site (SLAPS) and Latty Avenue sites a “potential public health concern,” St. Louisans aren’t moving to gain significant input into the cleanup plans.

The residents of Canon City have taken their battle to court and sued the processors (Cotter Corporation and its parent company Commonwealth Edison) who brought the St. Louis 
Airport Cakes” to their town and the two railroad companies (Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and Santa Fe Pacific) who shipped it there.
the plaintiffs recently filed their fourth amended complaint in federal district court in Colorado.

“What we’re trying to do here is to get these companies to step forward and take care of their responsibilities,” says Lynn Boughton, a Canon City resident and one of the leading parties in the lawsuit.

The suit, which seeks a half-billion dollars in damages, charges the companies with , among other things, “negligence,” “willful and wanton conduct,” and “outrageous conduct.” The suit cites health risks to area residents, a precipitous drop in property values and the inaction of the defendants, even to this day, to take measures to improve the situation.

“No cleanup’s been undertaken yet,” Boughton says angrily. “Even after our suit’s brought all this to light. The only thing that’s happened is that (Cotter) has fenced the area.”

Cotter Corporation did not respond to RFT calls, but the lawsuit says that in a deposition conducted in February of this year, Cotter President (and Commonwealth Vice President) George Rifakes denied that there are carcinogenic materials at Cotter Mill.

The history of Canon City’s waste is inextricably tangled with St. Louis’ nuclear history — a history as long as the nuclear age itself.
In fact, the radioactive material that ended up in Canon city also resides at all four of St. Louis’ waste sites. The was was originally generated by the processing of uranium ores at the downtown Mallinckrodt plant from 1946 to 1956, and was stored at SLAPS for another 10 years.

In 1966 the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) the precursor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), sold the residues to Continental Mining and Milling Corporation for $126,000.

Continental moved the materials to their site at 9200 Latty Ave. in Hazelwood. It was during this move that the haul routes along which the waste was moved were contaminated as well.

“The trucks that moved it weren’t covered or wetted,” says DOE spokeperson David Adler. “This move is what caused the haul-route contamination.

The stuff that Continental moved to Latty Avenue was residue from some of the highest-grade uranium available in the early 1940s — imported to the United States from the Belgian Congo.

“These materials were pretty hot stuff,” says local activist Kay Drey. It’s all the stuff that we still have out there. “

Continental went bankrupt a few years later, and that’s where Cotter stepped in, buying the residues, or raffinates, in order to dry them and ship them to its plant in Colorado to extract the remaining uranium. Cotter shipped these residues by rail to Canon City between 1970 and 1973.

According to the lawsuit, Cotter’s shipping [of the waste] was a disaster. Two of the railroad sites used to unload the raffinates are contaminated with hazardous radioactive waste. The lawsuit claims that is documentation of spillage of materials along the railroad tracks and that one “entire carload of uranium is unaccounted for.”
The suit also claims that public access to these sites was never restricted and that placards warning of radioactive material were never placed on the site.

If you think that’s bad, however, it’s nothing compared to what the lawsuit claims happened at Cotter Mill itself. The lawsuit claims that Cotter didn’t have a license to process the raffinates they shipped to Colorado and that two-thirds of the material was processed before Cotter notified the state. The suit also claims that some of the raffinates brought to Colorado were never processed and sit on the grounds, without cover and exposed to the elements. (Much of the St. Louis waste is covered with a tarpaulin, which has occasionally blown off.

The raffinates that were processed, the suit claims, have seeped into the groundwater, making their way to the nearby Arkansas River.
`Boughton, a chemist at Cotter until 1979, says that the company didn’t even tell its employees about the danger.

“No one told us what the isotopic content of this material was,” Boughton says. “We had processed a lot of the material when it came back to us through a lab that was following the material.”

What the material was full of, the suit claims, is thorium-230 and protactinium-231. Both are highly dangerous wastes, with measurable concentrations also present in the St. Louis’ piles. Boughton was later diagnosed as having lymphoma cancer — a cancer associated with thorium-230.

The lawsuit also lists a long series of citations of Cotter Mill — by the AEC and the state of Colorado — for non-compliance with license regulations, citiations dating back to 1959.

St. Louisans can feel bad for the residents of Canon City. they can even regret that it’s waste form the St. Louis area that has wreaked such havoc on their lives and property. But what relevance does Canon City case have for St. Louisans?

First, of course, is Cotter’s illegal dumping of 8,700 tons of radioactive waste at West Lake Landfill, near Earth City. A History of the St. Louis Airport Uranium Residues, prepared by Washington, D.C.’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), claims that Cotter dumped the waste “without the knowledge or approval…”

The IEER report also claims that the NRC has urged Cotter to “apply promptly for a license authorizing remediation of the radioactive waste in the West Lake Landfill.” The reports also says that Cotter has not yet taken any remeidal action.

But lawyers and activists insist that it’s not just the waste here in St. Louis that should turn local residents eyes to the Colorado lawsuit.

Louise Roselle, a Cincinnati lawyers who is aiding in the Colorado lawsuit, claims that the Colorado suit “is part of a growing amount of litigation in this country by residents around hazardous facilities.”

Kay Drey says that the Colorado suit is also interesting because of the research that’s being done on the materials that are contaminating Canon City.
“That’s basically the same stuff we have here,” Drey says. It’s just more splattered here — at a couple different sites.”

It’s the splattering effect in St. Louis that makes these sites more difficult to characterize and to remediate. The DOE is in the middle of the process of remediating a number of St. Louis sites — particularly SLAPS, Latty Avenue, and Mallinckrodt. But a record of decision —the DOE and Environmental Protection Agency’s official decision on what to do with St. Louis’ waste — is not due until 1994.

Drey says that St. Louisans need to keep the pressure on and take an interest in their nuclear waste.

“We need to let our leaders know that we want this stuff out of here,” Drey says. “What’s interesting about this lawsuit is that (Canon City) is looking into what it casn do with its waste.”

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The Sacred and the Profane

After witnessing the first atomic test explosion at Los Alamos, N.M. on July 16, 1945,  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.”

The Weldon Spring Saga

from the Riverfront Times by C.D. Stelzer, 1993

At Weldon Spring, in rural St. Charles County, Mo.,  a quarry and nearby uranium plant were contaminated with chemical and nuclear materials.  As a result, radioactive water is now seeping through limestone into the groundwater. If the quarry water is not removed, there is a chance the seepage will soon reach nearby well fields that supply most St. Charles County s with water.

The contaminants include TNT and DNT, World War II-vintage esxplosives dumped at the site by the Atlas Powder Co. After the war, tons of mixed radioavtive wastes were thrown in the quarry by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works. The waste continued to be hauled to the quarry until 1968.

So in 1986, the DOE began an ambitious 12-year cleanup at the two sites. The estimated cost to the EPA Superfund has doubled since 1989, and now stands at between $650 and $850 million. About $4 million of that money has gone to build the water treatment plant at the quarry.

The discharge is the first of 20 million gallons to be released into the river over the next five years. After drainage, solid radioactive wastes will still have to be removed. The second batch of quarry water is supposed to be treated in late January [1994].

Compton, Mallinckrodt and the Wash U Connection

Arthur Holly 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 Manhattan Project 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.

Deaths in Venice

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.

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. ” …

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.

The Dow-Madison Site

“For decades radioactive dust was falling on me and my coworkers everyday,” says Larry 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. …

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.

Industrial and Residential Exposures

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.

Poisoning the Workers

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.

Human Guinea Pigs

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.

John Gofman’s Revelation

by C.D. Stelzer, the Riverfront Times, 1997

JOHN W. GOFMAN, a professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, has long contended that there is no safe level of radiation exposure. “I concluded it’s impossible for such a level to exist given the evidence on how radiation works,” says Gofman. The term “low-level radiation” is a political term used by the nuclear industry to lull the public into accepting exposure risks, he says. Similar phrases also downplay the consequences. “The terms `tolerance level,’ `allowable level,’ `permissible dose’ — those are all phenomenal words that are supposed to tell Joe Six-Pack, `Nothing to worry about — there ain’t no harm.’ That’s why these terms came into existence,” he asserts.

The 79-year-old Gofman is in a unique position to advise on such matters because he is a physician and holds a doctorate in nuclear physical chemistry. His research at Berkeley during World War II attracted the attention of J. Robert Oppenheimer, lead scientist in the Manhattan Project. After working on the atomic bomb at Oppenheimer’s request, Gofman completed his medical studies. But in 1969, Gofman fell from grace with the atomic establishment when he challenged the “acceptable” levels of radiation exposure then allowed.

After being ostracized by the atomic establishment for years, Gofman’s scientific opinions have been widely accepted of late. In 1990, for instance, after years of debate by U.S. scientists, a report by the fifth conference on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR V) concluded that radiation effects are proportional to dose in all cases. More recently, says Gofman, “The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation said that the weight of evidence comes down on the side of no safe level. And the British National Radiological Protection Board in 1995 published a document in which they have now said that there can be no safe dose.”