The Scar

A cancer victim asks me for answers to the festering radioactive waste issue in North St. Louis County.

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Last night before the screening of the First Secret City at Saint Louis University, a woman came up to me and showed me a long, deep scar on the bicep of her left arm. Even though her skin was black, I could clearly see the severe bruising she has from her most recent radiation treatment.

She is 44 years old and has leiomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that I can’t pronounce.

The woman pulled out her I-phone and showed me how to spell the name of the disease that is ravaging her body. I had to borrow a pen and a piece of paper from her so I could jot down the spelling.

One of the causes of leiomyosarcoma is exposure to ionizing radiation. But her doctors won’t say whether that’s the cause of her life-threatening condition.

She has lived in Florissant, Mo. since she was three years old. Her family home is next to Coldwater Creek, which is known to be contaminated with atomic weapons waste dating back to World War II.

She told me that she didn’t sign up for this.

She didn’t volunteer to be a victim of the U.S. military’s secret nuclear weapons program. She asked me for answers.

That’s what I’m looking for, too.

A Member of the Club

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch trots out a nuke industry shill to defend the latest missteps  by of the EPA at West Lake Landfill

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On April 2, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the EPA had finally admitted that radioactive is migrating beyond the boundaries of the West Lake Landfill Superfund site. That would normally be a cause for praise. The remainder of the story, however, staunchly defended the agency’s less-than-sterling record mainly by downplaying the significance of its latest self-professed lapses.

The latest findings by the Missouri Department of Natural Resoures show contamination above federal permissible levels. The findings contradict repeated denials by former Region 7 Director Karl Brooks and others even though publicly available EPA documents have confirmed the movement of the contamination off site in the past. The lack of candor by the EPA raises questions about the agency’s overall characterization of West Lake.

But have no fear.

To assure the public that all is well at the radioactively-contaminated site in North St. Louis County, reporter Jacob Barker quotes Bill Miller of the University of Missouri Research Reactor.

Referring to the newly discovered radioactive soil, Barker reported that Miller’s calculations indicate “a person would need to eat 20 pounds of dirt to be exposed to as much radiation as the average American gets annually from naturally occurring radon.”

Miller’s calculation is presented without rebuttal. The obvious inference is that Miller is a scientific voice of reason and that his viewpoint is objective.

A closer look at Miller’s background hints otherwise.

Miller’s employer, the University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR), is inextricably tied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy. The DOE is one of the responsible parties for the cleanup of West Lake. Moreover, before it became a responsible party the DOE was in charge of the site prior to inexplicably handing it over to the EPA in 1990.

So the expert cited by the Post-Dispatch is not objective. Instead, he is an advocate of the mammoth nuclear industry, which is subsidized by the federal government. Miller’s job depends on maintaining the status quo in regard to all things relating to federal nuclear policy.

Signs of Miller’s bias don’t stop there, however.

MURR depends on the nuclear industry to stay in business. For example, its first customer in 1967 was the Mallinckrodt Nuclear Corp. Mallinckrodt is the company that created the nuclear waste that is scattered around the St. Louis area, including the West Lake. The company began processing uranium for the Manhattan Project in 1942. Mallinckrodt continued its uranium work during the Cold War for the Atomic Energy Commission until 1967.

More recently, Mallinckrodt has employed the services of health physicists that formerly worked for MURR. MURR in essence acts a de facto training ground for Mallinckrodt. In short, there is a revolving door between private industry and the university research reactor.

By presenting Miller’s opinion without providing its readers with details of his employer, the Post-Dispatch misled the public. The question is did the newspaper do this intentionally.

The Gravity of the Situation

The Rams former practice field is perched precariously on the edge of an uncontrolled nuclear waste dump.

Under the terms of its agreement with the St. Louis Regional Sports Authority,  the newly relocated Los Angeles Rams have the opportunity to buy the football team’s former 27-acre  practice facility in Earth City for $1. Late last month, the sports authority went to court to keep the land grab from happening. The property once had an assessed value of $19 million.

But its current value is likely far less.Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 17.49.10

That’s because Rams Park is directly adjacent to the West Lake Landfill Superfund site. A portion of that site contains an underground fire that is getting closer to radioactive waste that was dumped there illegally in 1973. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources and EPA have been watching this slow burn occur for five years and haven’t taken steps to deal with it yet.  As a result, the toxic stench at the site has been besieging nearby residents for just as long.

There is another dilemma at West Lake, however, which is the opposite of fire. Chemical and radioactive waste continues to seep into the groundwater.  The location of the landfill makes the situation more dire because it sits in the Missouri River floodplain several miles from the confluence with the Mississippi, which supplies water to the city of St. Louis.

Surface water is no less a concern.  The training facility is downhill from the landfill. Testing conducted in 1991 found radioactive contamination in Earth City. The findings of that report were later disputed, leaving the question unresolved.

Last week, the EPA admitted what it had already determined years ago. Radioactive thorium has escaped the confines of the Superfund site at another location. The migration is  on the perimeter of the landfill in the vicinity of one of the hundreds of businesses in Earth City.

The development, which is protected by a 2.6 mile  levee that is overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is comprised of four separate business parks totaling  more than 1,800 acres. An estimated 22,000 people work here. The business conducted in Earth City drives a sizable chunk  of North St. Louis County’s economy.   Its market value is $1.2 billion.

With more than a billion dollars on the line, real estate and business interests would probably  prefer to forget about this mess, to act like nothing is wrong. They’ve been denying the problem for a long time. It’s like a sickness that nobody wants to admit they have. But it never goes away, and ignoring the growing symptoms only makes matters  worse.

Wealthy landowners, lords of the local press, powerful corporations, revenue hungry governments , influential private and public institutions — all have a stake in Earth City and its future.  That future is at best uncertain.

The satellite images of Earth City resemble Venice. Canals crisscross the district, acting as an integral part of the drainage system.  Looking down on the backside of the landfill it’s apparent that the sloping ground abuts one of these waterways.  The view from on high also shows what appears to be a former cess pool next to the Rams’ former practice field.

The spring rains will soon fall on the Missouri floodplain; and once again rivers will rise, and gravity will cause water to wash inevitably into the canals of Earth City.

The Regional Sports Authority has a piece of real estate it would like to sell you.

Caveat emptor.