Where Do the Children Play?

 How Bridgeton ended up spending $350,000 to build a new playground at the city’s radioactively-contaminated ball fields.

 

Bridgeton Mayor Terry Briggs and Missouri State Sen. Brian Williams share in the ribbon-cutting  on January 22, 2021 for the  new $350,000 playground located at the radioactively-contaminated Bridgeton Municipal Athletic Complex.

Bundled against the cold and appropriately masked, representatives of the St. Louis Community Foundation and Bridgeton Parks Department joined Bridgeton Mayor Terry Briggs and Missouri Sen. Brian Williams January 22 for the opening of the new $350,000 playground at the Bridgeton Municipal Athletic Complex.

In his remarks at the dedication ceremony, Williams praised the city’s generous expenditure.  “This playground opens up even more opportunities for families to enjoy community and get fresh air,” Williams said.  “This is a community with its eye on the future, where families can live and play safely because this city invests in its people.”

Unfortunately, the senator omitted  inconvenient details such as the radioactively contaminated soil at the site.

The city of Bridgeton paid for the playground with a grant from the Bridgeton Landfill  Community Project Fund, which was set up in 2018 to dole out the multi-million-dollar settlement agreed to by the state of Missouri and Republic Services for the trash company’s environmental violations at the nearby West Lake Superfund site, which is also contaminated with nuclear waste dating back to the Manhattan Project.

As a part of that unprecedented deal, the office of then-Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley —  acting on behalf of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources —  handed over $12.5 million to the St. Louis Community Foundation, a private charity. Under the terms of the agreement, the private foundation has sole responsibility for distributing public funds to eligible, non-profit community organizations within four miles of the landfill.

The state senator’s decision to focus his remarks on the future is understandable. But his optimistic vision turned a blind eye on BMAC’s dark past, omitting any reference to hazardous materials at the site.

The complicated history related to the city’s ownership of the property dates back more than a half century, when Bridgeton purchased the land from an investment group headed by the owner of B&K Construction, the same company that illegally dumped tons of radioactively-contaminated soil at West Lake Landfill. 

A decade ago community activists began raising concerns over the potential risks posed by children playing ball at BMAC, citing its toxic link to the nearby landfill. This created tensions between some residents and Bridgeton city officials, who claimed there was no cause for alarm.

Ultimately, the EPA acted as the arbiter of the dispute and sided with city officials, reassuring the public that there was no cause for alarm.

 In 2014, EPA Region VII administrator Karl Brooks held a press conference at Bridgeton City Hall with then-Mayor Conrad Bowers to advise the public that their fears were unwarranted. Brooks based his conclusion on test results that had yet to be released. He blamed the press for causing a panic, and said that the agency’s calculations were based on science. 

But EPA documents later released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal Brooks’ comments were deceptive. The internal agency emails indicate test results cited by Brooks to bolster public confidence were themselves questioned by an EPA official days before Brooks’ pronounced the ball fields safe.

Cecilia Tapia, director of Environmental Sciences and Technology for EPA Region 7, cited differing action levels for radioactive isotopes and advised her colleagues that they should consider swapping one standard over another. Internal EPA emails released under the Freedom of Information Act show that

In her email message, Tapia cited the EPA’s supplemental feasibility study’s “action levels,” but added this caveat: “It may be more appropriate to use the SLAPS numbers.” 

Using one set of numbers instead of the other could have effected the EPA’s decision on BMAC.

SLAPS is the acronym for the 21.7 acre St. Louis Airport Site, a radioactively-contaminated property originally under the control of the U.S. Department of Energy.  In 1997, that clean up was handed over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has authority over it and other sites in the St. Louis area through the DOE’s Formerly Utilized Site Remediation Program (FUSRAP).

DOE’s permissible levels are generally stricter than the EPA’s corresponding standards.

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EPA official Cecilia Tapia

Tapia’s comment is subject to interpretation, but any way it’s sliced the numbers cited in the related email chain among EPA contractors and agency officials show one undeniable fact: The EPA had verified through its own testing that there were radiation levels of concern at BMAC, but then acted to downplay the significance of its own findings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Operation Tooth

When the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information touted its $10,000 grant from the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the public didn’t know the foundation was a CIA front.

The announcement came at the second-annual meeting of the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Safety at the Heman Park Community Center in University City, Mo. on May 8, 1960. More than 500 attendees heard the good news. Their organization had received a $10,000 grant from the J.M. Kaplan Fund to pursue its laudable work.  It was cause for celebration. But they were unaware of one string attached to the generous gift, a nettlesome detail that may have dampened their enthusiasm that long ago spring evening: the Kaplan Fund was a CIA front.

Then as now there were ramped up concerns over an ongoing public health crisis. In 1960, the problem was the wind-driven dispersal of nuclear fallout. St. Louisans were  worried about the proliferation of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and the potential health effects that atmospheric testing was having on their children. To address the issue, they enlisted leaders of the scientific community to study the effects of radiation. There was no reason for them to suspect that their local organization’s goals had been subverted. That possibility wasn’t on anybody’s radar back then.

It’s a question that’s remained unasked until now; a footnote to history that’s been buried in the First Secret City for 60 years.

The citizens’ committee, a coalition of parents, educators, medical professionals and scientists, had formed in 1959 to measure Strontium-90 levels by collecting the baby teeth of elementary school children in the St. Louis area and elsewhere.  The radioactive isotope, known to be present in nuclear fallout, concentrated in human bones and teeth, particularly growing children who consumed milk. Kids were encouraged by parents, teachers and dentists to give their teeth to science instead of the tooth fairy. In return, they were rewarded with a membership card and button to the Operation Tooth Club.  The program was called The Baby Tooth Survey. The director of the survey was Dr. Louise Reiss, and its scientific advisory board included Washington University biologist Barry Commoner.

The keynote speaker at the 1960 meeting of the committee was internationally renowned  anthropologist Margaret Mead, according to accounts published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Globe-Democrat. The same news accounts also reported the generous contribution from the J.M. Kaplan Fund of New York, which later would be revealed in congressional hearings to be a covert conduit for funneling CIA cash.

Margaret Mead

U.S. Rep. Wright Patman, a Texas Democrat, outed the private foundation’s ties to the CIA  at a hearing of his House Small Business Sub-committee on Aug. 31, 1964. In addition to the congressional probe, the Kaplan Fund was also under investigation by  the Internal Revenue Service, which confirmed the foundation’s ties to the CIA, according to a news story in the New York TimesJacob M. Kaplan, former head of Welch’s Grape Juice company and founder of the non-profit charity, had already garnered IRS attention for using the fund as a tax dodge. Patman’s hearings determined that the Kaplan Fund had been used as a CIA front  from 1959 to 1964.

U.S. Rep. Wright Patman (Texas-D)

It is uncertain whether the money donated to the St. Louis group was part of the CIA’s clandestine operations, but the agency’s extensive use of private foundations, including the Kaplan Fund, gained further exposure in subsequent investigative reports that appeared in the late 1960s in the Texas Observer, Nation, and Ramparts magazines.

Mead’s presence at the St. Louis meeting, where the the Kaplan Fund’s generosity was announced, is intriguing because of her previous involvement in espionage dating back to World War II, when she and then-husband Gregory Bateson,  also an anthropologist, produced propaganda in the South Pacific for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA.

Harold Abramson

In the early 1950s, Bateson tripped on LSD furnished to him by Dr. Harold Abramson, who was part of the agency’s top-secret MK-Ultra project, a program that experimented on the use of hallucinogenic drugs and other means to influence and control human behavior. After scoring more of the CIA’s acid, he turned on his friend Alan Ginsberg, the beat poet. Funding for Abramson’s LSD research was funneled through two other CIA cutouts: the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research and the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation.

In  late November 1953, Abramson — an allergist — acted as the unlicensed psychiatrist  of Frank Olson, shortly before the Army biological warfare scientist fell to his death from a 13th floor window of the Statler Hotel in New York City. Olson had received counseling from Abramson for anxiety and depression after being wired up on acid by the CIA.  While under the influence of the drug, Olson voiced ethical concerns about his germ warfare research to colleagues, which was considered a national security breach by the agency.  Abramson and Olson had previously worked on classified aerosol research at Camp Detrick, the Army’s chemical warfare research facility in Frederick, Maryland. Olson’s unsolved death is the subject of the 2017 Netflix series Wormwood by Errol Morris.

This false cover story, which appeared in the Post-Dispatch on June 23, 1953, hid real purpose of the Army’s aerosol testing in St. Louis.

Coincidentally, 1953 is also when the Army began its secret aerosol testing in St. Louis. Parsons Corporation ran that covert military operation out of an office in the 5500 block of Pershing Ave. in St. Louis. The tests involved the spraying of poor, inner-city neighborhoods without residents knowledge.  Workers who participated in the study were also kept in the dark. When the testing became known about decades later, the Army said it used zinc cadmium sulfate, which it claimed wasn’t harmful to human health. In the 1990s, former Parsons employees said they believed their cancers were caused by being exposed to the chemicals used in the tests. The EPA announced last year that Parsons Corporation was awarded the main contract for the clean-up of radioactive contamination at the West Lake landfill site in St. Louis County. The contamination is from uranium processing conducted by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis for the Manhattan Project.

The Baby Tooth survey, which began six years after the aerosol testing,  found a correlation between atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and Stontium-90 levels  in children’s teeth in the St. Louis area. But its scientific findings were in some ways eclipsed by the survey’s public relations successes.  Publicity garnered by the Baby Tooth Survey is credited with spurring the passage of the 1963 Nuclear Test Band Treaty between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

Frank Olson never made it home for Thanksgiving.

An earlier covert collaboration by the Atomic Energy Commission, Air Force and Rand Corporation to  measure Strontium-90 in humans received harsh criticism, after it was revealed that researchers obtained scientific data by snatching bodies. Beginning in 1953, Project Sunshine collected bone sample from cadavers, including those of stillborn babies.

Gathering scientific data by collecting the baby teeth of living children was deemed more acceptable and received unquestioning public cooperation.