Buried History

Retired trucker Kenneth Kerpash says he witnessed two trucks  buried at the West Lake Landfill in the early 1980s.  In March,  he went public for the first time, repeating his claims to KSDK-TV. But there hasn’t been a follow up — and due to a technical glitch the original broadcast is no longer available.

Kenneth Kerpash speaking to EPA officials in March

In March, Kenneth Kerpash accompanied his daughter to an EPA meeting  in Bridgeton.  They felt it was important that they voice their support for a timely and thorough clean up of the nearby West Lake Landfill Superfund Site, which remains contaminated with nuclear weapons waste due to  decades of neglect by the agency.

Kerpash’s interest in the issue is personal.

The 65-year-old  retired truck driver from Troy, Mo. worked for the West Lake Quarry and Materials Co. for 14 years.  His wife now has stage four ovarian cancer. He believes that her illness may be the result of him bringing home radioactive contamination on his work clothes.

Kerpash carries another burden: He witnessed an incident at the quarry that he kept secret for 30 years.

Kerpash worked for the company from 1971 to 1984. Mallinckrodt Chemical Works created the waste while processing uranium for the Manhattan Project during World War II. In 1973, a local construction company dumped some of the Mallinckrodt mess at West Lake on St. Charles Rock Road — where it has remained ever since.

After Kerpash made his public comments to the EPA officials that evening, a TV news crew from KSDK-TV followed him to the corridor of the Machinists Union Hall to do a spot interview.  Reporter Christina Coleman, a relative newcomer to St. Louis, didn’t recognize Kerpash.

But her cameraman did.

KSDK’s Christina Coleman.

In 2013, KSDK had aired an expose featuring Kerpash,  who then appeared in silhouette to shield his identity. In the report, he anonymously alleged witnessing two trucks being buried at the landfill in the early 1980s. His claim is significant because the EPA has never conducted a grid test of the entire site since assuming authority over it in 1990.

When asked in March, Kerpash repeated the same story with the camera rolling.  This time, however, he was no longer just an anonymous source. He had come out of the shadows and attached his name and face to his account.

But the latest version of his account never aired, and Channel 5 hasn’t contacted Kerpash since then.

The original story — by former KSDK reporter Lisa Zigman — is no longer available at the television station’s website. In its place is this announcement: Error 404: The case of this missing page is unsolved … but don’t worry we have our best investigative reporters tracking down leads.  … Stay Tuned …”

KSDK says that the missing page is easily explained:  “A few years ago, we updated our publishing system, which in turn invalidated the links to articles published prior to that date. We are also unable to access these stories.”

It’s been more than three months and Kerpash hasn’t heard back from either Channel 5 or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, who also interviewed him the same night.

Former 5 reporter Lisa Zigman broke the story in 2013.

Kerpash is a private person. Public speaking is not his forte. He has never sought the limelight. It has been a struggle for him to come forward and reveal what he knows. Since speaking to the media earlier this year, his wife has been in and out of the hospital, and he sometimes wonders why he went public. But even now  as he copes with emotional and financial upheaval that has torn his life apart, he still feels a responsibility to provide full disclosure about what he viewed on the job so many years ago.

His memories of the incident remain vivid.

“It was in 81 or 82,” says Kerpash.  “They was S series  International single-axle tractors blue in color with white, tandem axle trailers. They was pulled down in a slot, in a ditch, on the construction fill and they was covered up right at dark. I’m just about positive that was in the fall of the year like September or October.

“[I] Don’t have any idea who was driving the trucks. I seen the guys get out of the trucks. They was in white overalls. They went and got in a dark-colored Mercury or Lincoln closed the door and went out the front gate.

“They had two dozers on the landfill, ” he says. “I was hauling four to midnight and I was hauling concrete rock that night.  I got off at midnight and this happened right around probably eight or nine o’clock, and they was covered up before I went home.”

Kerpash doesn’t know what the trucks contained, but remembers noticing the bulldozers moving construction fill southwest of the landfill office. “They dug a trench probably about 80 feet long and it was probably 15-16 feet deep.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hiding in Plain Sight

Thousands of KATY Trail users pass by the abandoned Hamburg Quarry without being aware of it.  A former quarryman believes what they don’t know about the site and its checkered history should concern them. 

The abandoned Hamburg Quarry next to the KATY Trail State Park in St. Charles County.

Cyclists whizzing by the abandoned Hamburg Quarry on the KATY Trail in St. Charles County rarely slow down to take a gander at its sheer limestone walls or the placid waters below.  Most aren’t even aware the historic excavation site is within a stone’s throw of the popular bicycle path.

That’s largely because the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the KATY’s caretaker, doesn’t advertise the site. The  Missouri Conservation Commission — the current owner — also doesn’t promote the scenic spot. The University of Missouri, which once counted the property as an asset, isn’t inclined to acknowledge its past connections to the location, either. The Department of Energy and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose jurisdictions touch on the quarry,  seem to have forgotten about the place, too.

It is as if the history of the abandoned quarry  sank to the bottom of the submerged pit along with the state and federal government’s institutional memory.

But quarryman Kenneth Kerpash hasn’t forgotten the place. Hamburg Quarry is where he remembers  seeing  thousands of rusty, leaky barrels stored back in 1972.  He also recalls being told in so many words to look the other way. The scene is permanently chiseled in his mind’s eye.

The 65-year-old retired Teamster truck driver from Troy, Mo.  has carried the weight of that memory ever since.  For a long time, he didn’t talk about it, worried his knowledge might jeopardize his job. He stopped working for the quarry operator in 1984, and his unease ebbed.

But in In February, the trucker’s concerns reemerged.  After decades of indecision, the EPA finally announced its proposed remedy for the the radioactively-contaminated  West Lake Quarry and Landfill in North St. Louis County. Since taking over the site in 1990, the agency has neglected to clean up nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project that was illegally dumped in 1973.

For Kerpash, the West Lake and Hamburg sites are linked for one simple reason:  both were operated by the same company — West Lake Quarry and Materials Co. — his former employer. He drove a heavy truck for the company at both quarries from 1971 to 1984.

Kerpash  doesn’t claim to know what the barrels at Hamburg Quarry contained. But based on what he does know about the nearby Superfund site that bears his former employer’s name — he suspects the worst. Though the two sites share a common history, there is one stark difference. While knowledge of the troubled West Lake Superfund site has garnered media attention in recent years, the Hamburg Quarry has largely been forgotten.

“There was probably 2,000-plus 55-gallon barrels,” he says, referring to the dump site he observed at Hamburg Quarry.  “The  bottoms was deteriorating and rotting. I asked one of the operators about it and he said, ‘We’re not loading over by them so don’t worry about it.'”

In hindsight, Kerpash believes his exposure to hazardous materials at Hamburg and West Lake Quarry may be the cause of his family’s chronic health problems. He has no way of knowing for sure, but he now suspects he may have brought the contamination home with him on his soiled work clothes.

“… My wife and my daughter … washed my clothes. You never give it a thought. But you never know what you carried in,” he says. “My wife [now] has stage four ovarian and paraovarian cancer. My daughter has had cancer twice. I’ve had tumors taken out of my back and large colon.

“If I can can help somebody’s life or kids [from] problems that my family’s had, I want to help them to get this cleaned up,” he says. “I think the EPA has been holding back, and I think they need to get up and get going,” says Kerpash. “It needs to be cleaned up not in ten or 15 years. It needs to be cleaned up now.”

Kerspash’s account raises the question whether radioactively-contaminated waste may also have been quietly disposed of at the West Lake Quarry and Materials Co.’s Hamburg Quarry operation — which the company leased from the University of Missouri.

Mallinckrodt Chemical Works’  former Weldon Spring uranium processing facility is 1.5 miles north of Hamburg Quarry.    From 1957 to 1966, Mallinckrodt processed uranium there under contract with the Atomic Energy Commission. Waste from the operation was stored on site or dumped at nearby Weldon Spring Quarry.  Mallinckrodt’s St. Louis plant also dumped radioactive debris from its St. Louis facility at the Weldon Spring Quarry.

Sharing similar geologic characteristics, it’s easy to get the Weldon Spring and Hamburg Quarries confused.  Both are within walking distance of each other via the state-owned KATY Trail. The difference is that Weldon Spring Quarry, which remains under the watchful eye of the Department of Energy, was drained and cleaned up in the 1990s, while Hamburg Quarry remains largely off the radar.  Hamburg Quarry is not identified by name on Google Maps and the Missouri Conservation Commission map for the area identifies it only as a “restricted area.”

The Hamburg Quarry is identified only as a “restricted area” by the Missouri Conservation Commission.

 

The Department of Energy ultimately funded a 16-year clean up of the Weldon Spring Quarry along with Mallinckrodt’s Weldon Spring uranium-processing plant, which was completed in 2002 at a cost that soared to nearly $1 billion.  The waste from both locations is now stored at the former plant site in an in a giant “containment cell,” which now is one of the highest elevations n St. Charles County.

A 1996 DOE map shows the locations of radioactive contamination near Hamburg Quarry next to the KATY Trail.

In 1996, the DOE published a cost-benefit analysis related to the removal of radioactively- contaminated soil that had migrated from the uranium plant’s perimeter, flowing downhill. The study includes a map that pinpoints hot spots on a creek that drains into the Missouri  River near Hamburg Quarry (see inset).

Another part of the DOE’s clean up involved treating the radioactively-contaminated effluents at the uranium plant and discharging the waste via a pipeline into the Missouri River. That pipeline’s terminus is located directly across the KATY Trail from the Hamburg Quarry.

Kerpash’s wariness seems reasonable when juxtaposed with his former employer’s dodgy history and the context of the situation. The most striking and obvious detail is that the Hamburg Quarry is hemmed in on three sides by documented radioactive waste sites. Then there’s the fact that company that operated the quarry is a known polluter. In addition, the Missouri Conservation Commission map of the area designates it as a restricted area.  For more than 70 years, nobody has lived within miles of the place, but there are plans in the works to develop a subdivision on nearby property owned by the University of Missouri.

There is a good reason why more than 17,000 acres of prime real estate within 30 miles of St. Louis has remained undeveloped and mostly uninhabited: It’s against the law to live here.

Under DOE guidelines, recreational use of the area falls within accepted exposure limits, but  full-time habitation is prohibited.  Potential drinking water contamination has also long been a contested issue due to the proximity of St. Charles County’s well fields.  Monitoring wells dot the landscape, and there continues to be periodic government testing of the groundwater.

Core samples of the limestone at Hamburg Quarry taken decades ago by the DOE did not raise regulatory eyebrows, but that doesn’t necessarily give it a clean bill of health. Available online data about the Hamburg Quarry is limited. What’s at the bottom of the quarry lake is anybody’s guess. If the thousands of rusty barrels that Kerpash says he observed there were later removed, there is no record of where they were taken.

When Kerpash spoke at an EPA meeting held in February,  he was interviewed by members of the media afterward. But months later, he feels abandoned.  His message was largely ignored.

Kerpash wants answers.  But his allegation only raises questions for regulatory authorities that never have seemed too keen on resurrecting the past. Turning a blind eye to the region’s longstanding radioactive waste crisis is nothing new.  Mass denial has enveloped the issue from the beginning, spurred by official waffling and the  ambivalent  attitudes of government, business, and the news media — which accepts government press releases as more reliable than eye-witness accounts.

In this case, however, there is no official version. Kerpash stands alone. Despite the lack of government confirmation of his account,  he has not wavered.

“I know what I seen,” says Kerpash.  “It’s the truth.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caveat Emptor

Tee Time: St. Charles real estate baron Greg Whittaker and the University of Missouri have struck a deal that could result in a pricey, golf-course subdivision next door to Weldon Spring, the region’s nuclear waste capital — and nobody sees that as a problem

 

Mizzou wants to sell land it owns in St. Charles County to a subdivision developer.  Foes of the plan fear it will blight the scenic beauty of the KATY Trail. But neither side is mentioning the neighboring radioactive waste dump at Weldon Spring — or the possibility that other unknown environmental dangers may lurk nearby. 

“There’s a lot of people who don’t even know Hamburg Quarry exists,” says Kenneth Kerpash, who once hauled rock from the limestone pit to barges moored on the Missouri River, where it was used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the navigational channel.

Though the now-abandoned quarry in St. Charles County has largely escaped public attention since closing decades ago, Kerpash hasn’t forgotten the thousands of rusty barrels he says he observed there in 1972.   At that time, he worked for the West Lake Quarry and Materials Co., which leased the quarry from the University of Missouri.

Mizzou sold the quarry and more than 7,000 acres of surrounding land to the Missouri Conservation Commission in 1978, and later built the Missouri Research Park on an adjacent tract.  Facing budget problems, the school now wants to sell almost 200 acres of its remaining land at the location to a developer, who already leases a golf course on the property, and has plans to build hundreds of single-family homes and more than 70 multi-family units there.

NT Home Builders,  owned by real estate mogul Greg Whittaker, is credited with building thousands of homes in St. Charles County. Its New Town development in particular has been lauded for its innovative design.  A call requesting a comment   from NT Home Builders was not returned by press time.

NT and the university have assured the public that the proposed development would adhere to the company’s high standards and won’t detract from the property’s scenic beauty or harm the environment.  Opponents  fear it will.  Foes include existing residents and supporters of the popular KATY Trail State Park   that borders the proposed high-end subdivision.

The contentious issue has spurred critics to send hundreds of emails to their elected officials in recent months, demanding the plan be scrapped. Adversaries have packed the gallery at St. Charles County Council meetings, and also posted informational notices along the KATY Trail.

Their hopes were buoyed in April,  when the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission voted against permitting a zoning change that would allow the project to move forward.  Nevertheless, on May 21,  the council voted unanimously to delay its final decision to allow the developer more time to amend its already scaled back proposal.

The council’s deference to the developer dovetails with the university’s preferential treatment, which includes offering to sell the public land without a formal bidding process and failing to disclose the price tag. Lack of transparency has led to rumors of political corruption, and stirred recriminations and acrimony from all quarters.

None of the conflicting interests, however, seems to see the most obvious problem with the pending sale: If built, the proposed development would be within walking distance of the former Mallinckrodt uranium processing plant site in Weldon Spring — where the Department of Energy maintains a mountain of radioactive waste.

 

Retired Teamster Kenneth Kerpash says he saw thousands of rusty, leaking barrels stored at the Hamburg Quarry in 1972.

The idea of building new homes near a site known to have been contaminated with radioactivity in the past is unconscionable to 65-year-old Kerpash, a retired Teamster truck driver from Troy, Mo. In his opinion, the university and the developer are consorting for short-term gain at the expense of the health of future residents. Kerpash believes the parties to the deal are influenced by profit and the bottom line. “Money talks and bullshit walks,” he says.

 

Council Joe Cronin (1st Dist) urges caution.

St. Charles County Councilman Joe Cronin (1st Dist.) is less strident in his assessment. He says the federal government has told the council  that the clean up of the Weldon Spring site has made the area safe. The feds also provide periodic updates, he says. But Cronin adds that serious health concerns are now being raised by some former students of the nearby Francis Howell High School. For this reason, the councilman urges caution.  

“I will not vote on approving the proposed subdivision until we have all the facts, which we do not have as of yet,” says Cronin. “The university has owned the land of the proposed development for over 70 years.  Waiting a bit more to determine the safety of the area would not be that much inconvenience to them.”

Under DOE guidelines, large swaths of the adjacent Weldon Spring Conservation Area have been deemed suitable for recreation, but unsuited for full-time human habitation because of the dangers posed by chronic exposure to radioactive contamination. Uranium and thorium present at the location are known human carcinogens and also have been linked to other chronic illnesses.

This DOE map shows the proximity of the radioactively contaminated Southeast Drainage system to the proposed residential subdivision. The University of Missouri is poised to sell the land for an unspecified amount.

In 2005, the DOE published its land use restrictions for the Southeast Drainage area — a  200-foot-wide, 37-acre tract that traverses the land between the proposed residential development and the abandoned Hamburg Quarry. At that time, DOE ruled that long-term institutional controls be imposed due to unsafe levels of radiation that still persist even after the completion of the clean up of that area. The affected tract is now owned by the Missouri Conservation Commission.

According to the DOE: “… [R]esidual soil and sediment contamination remains at some locations within the drainage at levels exceeding those that would support unlimited use and unrestricted exposure. Therefore, land use restrictions are needed in the drainage to prevent residential use or other uses inconsistent with recreational use.”

The advisory was published in a document entitled Explanation of Significant Differences, Weldon Spring Site in February 2005 by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Legacy Management.

The message is clear: People are not supposed live within the designated  boundaries of the 37-acre Southeast Drainage area. Under the DOE’s edict, this advisory applies in perpetuity.  But apparently the University of Missouri feels that selling its nearby property does not violate its legal or ethical obligations to either the buyer or the public.

University of Missouri President Mun Y. Choi

“The purchaser has been given an opportunity to conduct any environmental studies they deem are necessary,” says a spokesperson for University President Mun Y. Choi. The spokesperson adds that the radioactive waste issue is common knowledge to the public.

“…Soil and sediment contamination remains at some locations within the drainage at levels exceeding those that would support unlimited use and unrestricted exposure.” — DOE

 

The property Mizzou wants to sell is part of the original tract of land that the federal government seized at the advent of World War II, and it shares the same sordid environmental history.

In their official records of decision, the DOE and EPA have advised that the primary means of enforcing its restrictions is through “institutional controls,” specifically local zoning ordinances. The St. Charles County Planning and Zoning Commission has already recommended not granting the developer a variance. Though the university’s property may fall outside the perimeter of the DOE’s restricted use area, honoring the spirit of the federal guideline would seem warranted to assure public health.  But only one councilman clearly stated his opposition to the plan at the recent county council meeting.

At the May 21 council meeting, Councilman Mike Elam (Dist. 3) praised the developer and the merits of its plan  but, nevertheless, rejected the proposal for one reason: its location.

Councilman Mike Elam: “I’m a no vote.”

“I really hate where they want to build this,” Elam told the audience. “The idea is really good.  We wish that when people come to the county and they want to build something, they would be as accommodating as this developer has been,” Elam said. “I give them all praise for that. [But] I don’t care if you want to put in 450 homes or 250 homes or 50 homes — I still don’t like where the development is going in. I’m a no vote.” In his statement, Elam didn’t state why he was uncomfortable with the location.

The location also bothers Kerpash. From the retired trucker’s perspective, it’s inane to build new housing next to a site known to have been contaminated with radioactive waste. “It don’t take a real smart person to figure that out,” he says. “They just got done cleaning up the most hazardous place in Missouri,” he says, referring to the Weldon Spring site. “Now they want to build a subdivision there? It’s unbelievable.”

Kerpash admits he doesn’t know what was contained in the rusty barrels he observed at the Hamburg Quarry back in 1972. But when his recollection is added to other evidence, it is enough to give pause.

One red flag that he points out is that his former employer — the West Lake Quarry and Materials Co. — also operated and owned the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo., where radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project was dumped illegally in 1973. In early March,  the EPA belatedly announced its proposed clean up plans for the West Lake site, and the final remedy is pending.

Both sites are in the Missouri River watershed, which makes the lay of the land a factor to consider as well.

 

The DOE’s nuclear waste disposal cell on Route 94 — the site of the former uranium processing plant — sits on high ground,  1.5 miles uphill from Hamburg Quarry.  On the official map of the Weldon Spring Conservation Area,  the quarry is anonymously designated as a “restricted area,” directly next to the KATY Trail. In the 1990s, the DOE spent millions of dollars cleaning up radioactive contamination in the Southeast Drainage area in between the Hamburg Quarry and the proposed residential development. But unsafe pockets of radioactive contamination remain, according to the DOE.

Vestiges of the area’s dark history pop up at other nearby location, too. As part of its 16-year clean up, the DOE also remediated the nearby Weldon Spring Quarry, which is a short bicycle ride in the opposite direction via the KATY.  There’s also a pipeline that carried treated radioactive waste water from the uranium processing plant clean-up site that skirts the Hamburg Quarry on its way to  the Missouri River. The DOE has deemed all these locations suitable for recreation but not full-time human occupancy.  Nobody is ever supposed to live here again.

No Man’s Land:  Dwelling near this part of the KATY Trail is prohibited by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Surrounded by forested public lands and the river, the now-abandoned Hamburg Quarry appears isolated. Additional conservation land on both sides of the river add to the wilderness atmosphere. The location, however, is only a short walk from Mizzou’s Research Park, which links with the KATY by way of the Busch Greenway. On weekends, the path is crowded with groups of joggers, who run by the Missouri Bluffs Golf Club, the site of the proposed residential development.

Mallinckrodt operated its uranium plant  between 1957 and 1966 under contract with  the DOE’s predecessor, the Atomic Energy  Commission. During this period, the plant and its grounds became polluted with radioactive waste.  The contaminated materials were stored on site and also dumped at the Weldon Spring Quarry, four miles south of the plant. Between 1988 and 2002, the DOE oversaw an extensive clean up of both  sites that cost almost $1 billion.

Bluffs tower over the Missouri River and the KATY Trail.

The verdant hills and limestone bluffs that border the Missouri River create an illusion that this area is pristine. But long before the uranium waste despoiled the land, it was poisoned by other byproducts of war.

With World War II on the horizon, the town of Hamburg, Mo. and two other villages were razed by the U.S. Army in 1940 to make way for the Weldon Spring Ordinance Works. During the war,  the Atlas Powder Co. produced explosives at the site for the  Army.  Toxic waste from the TNT and DNT production polluted the area.

Mizzou acquired the tainted property after World War II from the federal government for $1.  A current Google satellite image of the area shows the unmarked Hamburg Quarry as a spot of blue surrounded by green.

Kerpash suspects that the barrels he saw there in 1972 may still be at the bottom of the quarry lake. If the barrels contained chemical or radioactive materials, the porous limestone topography would allow the toxins to migrate into the groundwater and flow into the Missouri River.

The abandoned Hamburg Quarry is within a stone’s throw of the KATY Trail.

 

Nowadays, cyclists on the KATY Trail whiz by the old Hamburg Quarry without noticing it. The University of Missouri never rebuilt the town that bore the same name after it acquired the property from the Army after the war.  Given the toxic history of this place, that was a good call.

Based on what he knows,  Kerpash doesn’t think people should move back anytime soon.

On the Missouri Conservation Commission’s map, the old Hamburg Quarry is identified only as a “restricted area.”