Spreading the Contamination Around

from the Riverfront Times by C.D. Stelzer, 1995

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.

Covering Up Human Radiation Experimentation

from  Riverfront Times reporting by C.D. Stelzer

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.

Thorium in Coldwater Creek

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

Three thousand people live within a one-mile radius of the airport site, according to DOE estimates. From the airport, Coldwater Creek flows northeast for 15 miles, touching the communities of Berkeley, Hazelwood, Florissant and Black Jack before discharging into the Missouri River. The city of St. Louis drinking-water intakes at Chain of Rocks, which supply water to hundreds of thousands of people, are five miles downstream from where the Missouri joins the Mississippi.

By any standard it is a densely populated watershed. DOE guidelines for thorium and radium concentrations mandate they not exceed 5 picocuries per gram averaged over the first 15 centimeters of soil and 15 picocuries per gram in subsequent soil layers of the same thickness. Analysis conducted for DOE in 1985 indicates that soil next to Coldwater Creek is contaminated with as much as 14,000 picocuries of thorium-230 per gram. The naturally occurring background level for the same radioactive isotope amounts to 0.2 picocuries per gram.

The corresponding guideline for acceptable DOE levels of uranium-238, which is also found at the airport site, is 50 picocuries per gram. In 1981, DOE initiated a two-year groundwater-monitoring program at the site and discovered uranium-238 at concentrations up to 2,230 picocuries per gram. Other evidence shows radioactive waste is spread across the site at levels thousands of times greater than considered acceptable.

A curie is the amount of radiation emitted from one gram of radium, equal to 37 billion decays per second. A picocurie equals a trillionth of a curie. Curies are used to measure the amount of material present; they don’t indicate the amount of radiation given off or its biological hazards.

Such DOE standards ignore potential health consequences, according to a 1991 congressional study. “The present regulatory-driven approach … places far more emphasis on characterizing the contamination than on investigating health impacts and may prove ill-suited to identifying public health concerns, evaluating contamination scenarios according to their potential for adverse health effects, or establishing health-based clean-up priorities,” the Office of Technology Assessment report states.

Arthur Holly Compton Embraces the Bomb


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 judgment,” wrote Compton, “the hazard has in certain quarters been grossly exaggerated.”

Coldwater Creek Overview

Coldwater Creek overview
based on 1997 Riverfront Times  reporting by C.D. Stelzer

COLDWATER CREEK, which is next to the Airport Site, flows through a large section of North St. Louis County and has acted as a convenient vehicle to transport the toxic materials. So far, radioactive contaminants are known to have hitched a ride downstream more than seven miles, according to the DOE. And the migration is continuing. Tests conducted in late 1994 show stormwater runoff at the location still exceeding acceptable radiation levels set by the agency. Drinking-water intakes for the city of St. Louis are located several miles downstream from the site, on the Mississippi River at Chain of Rocks. The radioactive migration by way of groundwater has also been confirmed but is less well understood.

For years, the DOE claimed the waste presented no danger. But the scientific community, which has been moving much more slowly than the waste, has finally concluded that no safe level of radiation exposure exists. By the time this decision was made several years ago, it was also widely accepted that one direct effect of long-term exposure to low-level radiation is cancer.

The $8.3 million cleanup along Coldwater Creek is the first stage of the long-anticipated project. The initial phase involves removing at least 6,000 cubic yards of the contaminated soil to a licensed repository for low-level radioactive waste, located in Utah. The amount is only a small fraction of the contaminated materials that may ultimately be excavated and shipped from the site. The approximate completion date: 2004.

[Obviously, that deadline has long passed.]

Airport Site Description, 1997

Airport Overview
from 1997 Riverfront Times reporting by C.D. Stelzer

It’s hard to tell, at a glance, that the work in progress here is part of an overall federal project estimated to cost nearly $800 million. Ordinary building materials — bales of straw, rocks and plastic sheeting — create a setting common to construction sites. But this is no ordinary erosion-control action. Soil at this location, known in regulatory circles as SLAPS (St. Louis airport site), harbors deadly byproducts of the nuclear-weapons industry, which developed during World War II and mushroomed in the Cold War. From 1946 until the mid-1960s, the U.S. Army — and, later, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) — dumped hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of radioactive waste, residue from uranium processing at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis.

As a consequence, the acreage, which is now owned by the St. Louis Airport Authority, has been contaminated with increased levels of uranium-238, radium-226 and thorium-230, according to the DOE. This is no new discovery, of course. Official foot-dragging has been going on for decades. More than 20 years ago the DOE discovered that contaminants had migrated into ditches next to McDonnell Boulevard, where they have settled only inches from the surface. There are still no signs to warn passersby or curious onlookers of this danger.

Failure to inform the public and act in a timely manner has been the hallmark of this case. At the same time, public-health officials have consistently downplayed or ignored the potential health consequences of radiation exposure. After allowing the waste to spread for more than 50 years, the federal government is now belatedly rushing to deal with the problem in a fashion comparable to its past negligence. In the process, rules have been sidestepped and decisions made without a full understanding of their implications. The powers-that-be first attempted to keep the problem a secret, after World War II, for “national-security reasons.” By the late 1970s, however, the festering pollution had become a heated public issue.

The waste itself has proven even more difficult to contain than the controversy over it.

Latty Avenue

Much of the radioactive waste that remains here is an unwanted by product 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 the initial atomic attack on 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  annihilation would be repeated three days later on Nagasaki. Japan quickly surrendered.

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.