Directive No. 10

Private intelligence contractors have been gathering scientific data and monitoring the environment in the St. Louis area for years — and not telling anybody.

 

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 During President George W. Bush’s administration, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce announced an inquiry into the National Bio-surveillance Integration System, an intelligence gathering operation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security administered by the Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC).

The House committee was then apparently interested in whether the bidding process was rigged.

In 2013, SAIC spun off a large portion of its classified government work by forming another company, Leidos. Both SAIC and Leidos have received  multi-million-dollar contracts to do clean up work  for the  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Formerly Utilized Site Remediation Program (FUSRAP) in St. Louis, including the continuing cleanup of Coldwater Creek in North St. Louis County.

In addition to its environmental engineering component, Leidos is the largest private cyber espionage outfit in the nation with estimated government contracts worth $60 billion. The company employs 80 percent of the private-sector work force engaged in contract work for U.S. spy and surveillance agencies, including Homeland Security, the CIA and NSA.

Leidos also has a contract with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources through its  federal facilities management division.

The earlier creation of the National Bio-surveillance Integration by Homeland Security through its contract with SAIC has received little subsequent attention. The program was authorized by President George W. Bush under Presidential Directive 10. Its stated mission was “to provide early detection and situational awareness of biological events of potential national consequence by acquiring, integrating, analyzing, and disseminating existing human, animal, plant, and environmental bio-surveillance system data into a common operating picture,” according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The Department of Homeland Security further describes the classified program as follows: “The National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) integrates, analyzes, and distributes key information about health and disease events to help ensure the nation’s responses are well-informed, save lives, and minimize economic impact.” 

Spurred by the outcries of concerned residents about potential health problems associated with chronic exposure to radioactive waste, the St. Louis County Health Department in conjunction with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have taken an active interest in the radioactive waste issue in the St. Louis region.  Whether Homeland’s Bio-Surveillance operation is monitoring conditions in St. Louis independently or with the cooperation of these other government agencies remains unknown.

Other community activists have long advocated taking away the control of the West Lake Landfill Superfund site in Bridgeton, Mo.  from the EPA and putting it under the control of the Corps of Engineers FUSRAP program, which has authority over the other St. Louis area radioactive sites.  But despite bi-partisan support of the St. Louis area congressional delegation, a bill slotted to shift control died in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last year.

The West Lake Landfill Superfund site is owned by Republic Services Inc., the second-largest waste disposal company in the U.S. The company’s chief spokesman is Russ Knocke, a former top spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

The presence of a top-secret operation inside an AT&T building near West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton adds another murky hue to an already cloudy picture. The facility is presumed to be controlled by the National Security Agency but may house some other unknown government covert operation.

Every Picture Tells a Story

Leidos oversees the testing of FUSRAP sites in St. Louis for the Army Corps. But its main gig is spying for the U.S. intelligence agencies, with zillions in contracts from the DOD, CIA, NSA and Homeland Security. 

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Ain’t nobody’s business but their own: Leidos hall of mirrors on South Grand in St. Louis.

The FUSRAP worker testing soil near Coldwater Creek in Florissant is employed by Leidos, a defense contractor that receives billions of dollars in federal contracts from intelligence agencies.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch front-page story on Sunday May 16, 2016 dismissed community concerns about radioactive contamination in Coldwater Creek and West Lake Landfill in North St. Louis County.

It took months to prepare the story.  Sources were selected carefully from pro-nuke   “experts.”  There were fancy graphics and a sidebar, which helped fill an additional two  pages inside. The digital version included a link to a sarcastic video that degraded those who took the issue seriously. The gist of the propaganda piece was that there is nothing to worry about. Its banner headline above the fold screamed, “Misplaced Fear?”

The rhetorical question was followed by a photograph of a worker in an orange safety vest and hardhat kneeling along the banks of Coldwater Creek.  The  cutline identifies him as health physics technician Antonio Martinez, but it doesn’t identify his employer.  To figure out who employs Martinez it’s necessary to zoom in and take a closer look at the picture. Martinez’s hardhat is inscribed cryptically with one word: “Leidos.” The name was taken from the middle of “kaleidoscope,” and according to a press release it “reflects the company’s effort to unite solutions from different angles.”  What those angles are is not exactly clear, however.

Judging by his attire and location, Martinez presumably works for the company’s environmental engineering division, which has a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that oversees the clean up of FUSRAP sites in St. Louis.

But Leidos has a darker side and lots of gray areas, too. Because there is so little light shone on the company’s clandestine activities, there is no way of knowing exactly what the shadowy firm does. A vast amount of its government contract work is classified top secret.  This much is known:

Leidos is the federal government’s largest cyber-intelligence contractor, bigger than Booz Allen Hamilton, the spooky security firm that employed exiled whistleblower Edward Snowden.  In short,  the company spies on people for the U.S. government, including American citizens.

Every picture tells a story: Leidos contract worker Antonio Martinez wearing his Leidos hardhat. (Photo by David Carson of the Post-Dispatch)

Leidos was created in 2013 when Science Applications International Corp. spun off a large portion of its classified government work. Both SAIC and Leidos have received  multi-million-dollar contracts to do clean up work  for the  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Formerly Utilized Site Remediation Program (FUSRAP) in St. Louis, including the continuing cleanup of Coldwater Creek in North St. Louis County.

Leidos’ St. Louis offices are located on South Grand Boulevard in a renovated automobile repair garage. The building’s newly installed mirrored windows reflect the secretive nature of its government business, which is estimated to be valued at $60 billion. The company employs 80 percent of the private-sector work force engaged in contract work for U.S. spy and surveillance agencies, including the Department of Defense,  Homeland Security, CIA and NSA.

Leidos also has a contract worth more than $300,000  with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources through its  federal facilities management division. So the company is performing work for both the state and federal government with little or no public oversight.

Instead of “Misplaced Fears?,”perhaps a more appropriate headline for the Post-Dispatch’s hit job should have been “Misled and Smeared.”

Damn Lies

The EPA fudged its 2014 test results of the Bridgeton Athletic Complex, assuring the public that the ballfields were safe, while withholding data that warranted further investigation. 

Internal EPA emails show the agency was aware that radiation levels at the Bridgeton Athletic Complex were above background levels, but failed to clearly alert the public of its findings in a timely manner.

The series of internal agency emails obtained by The First Secret City reveal that the EPA knew that multiple radio-isotopes found within inches of the surface at BMAC exceeded 5 pico curies per gram, one of the varying benchmarks set by government regulators to determine so-called permissible levels of exposure.

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Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers and EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks at the 2014 BMAC press conference (courtesy of STL Radioactive Waste Legacy)

In an email dated June 23, 2014, 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.

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

The EPA official’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.

Three days after Tapia suggested revising the applicable standards, then-EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks assured the public there was no cause for concern. In its June 26 press release, the EPA announced without equivocation that it was safe to play ball at BMAC.

“EPA’s analysis of data collected from more than 58,000 surface points across BMAC suggests no levels of gamma radiation that would pose public health concerns for users of this facility,” Brooks said. “This was a thorough scientific survey, coupled with meticulous review and quality control checks of the data.”

Brooks assurances came despite knowledge that levels of Lead 210, Potassium 40, Thorium 234 and Uranium 238 detected at BMAC exceeded naturally occurring background levels of those isotopes in the environment. The administrator’s questionable assurances were based on an arcane agency formula that mandates remedial action only when radioactive contamination is found to be twice the normally occurring background levels. Moreover, EPA remediation standards are not as strict for  recreational areas.

Screen Shot 2017-06-06 at 4.13.50 PM.pngIn this case, the EPA gave its stamp of approval to allow children to play baseball in an area that was determined by its own testing to be radioactively contaminated.

Department of Energy 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. The EPA testing at BMAC found Thorium 234 levels of 5.14 pico curies per gram. But EPA standards aren’t as stringent as DOE’s. The EPA’s  action level for Thorium is 7.9 pico curies per gram.

Before the EPA began any testing at BMAC, Brooks held a press conference at the Bridgeton City Hall on May 9, 2014 to announce that the ballfields were safe and dismiss the independent test results carried out by Just Moms STL, a community organization.

Dawn Chapman of Just Moms STL believes that the EPA deceived the public concerning the levels of radiation at BMAC. The organization she founded has been fighting for years  to remove the radioactive waste from the nearby West Lake Superfund Site in Bridgeton.  Chapman questions why the agency didn’t dig deeper after finding radioactive contamination near the surface at BMAC.

“That is what those bastards found in 2 inches of soil,” says Chapman. “These numbers show that it is there above background,” says Chapman. “The deception is that at no time did EPA admit to finding any waste on that field. There is a difference between it being there and it being there at clean up levels.”

 

Hot Wheels

When cyclists spin their wheels this weekend to commemorate the illegal dumping of  radioactive waste at West Lake Landfill, they’ll be riding over a very hot roadbed. 

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The Latty Avenue roadbed in Hazelwood, Mo. is constructed of highly radioactive nuclear weapons waste, according  to an overlooked Department of Energy document uncovered this week by the Environmental Archives.

Just hot is it under Latty?

In 1987, Aerospace Corp.,  a DOE contractor, reported the levels of radiation in one hot spot under Latty Avenue were literally off the charts.

“Activities in the “hot spot” sample were so high that quantitative determinations using initial analytical techniques were not possible, and further analyses (sic) will be required,” according to the then-DOE contractor.

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The online database released the revelation along with a cache of other records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The release of the document coincidentally corresponds with a planned ride by  bicyclists this Saturday to draw attention to St. Louis’ longstanding radioactive waste problem.

Tons of radioactively-contaminated materials at the Latty Avenue site were transported and illegally dumped at the West Lake Landfill in 1973 over a three-month period.

More than four decades later, the waste is still there, which has led in recent years to a fight by community members to get the EPA to relinguish control of the site to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps has cleaned up the former storage area on  Latty Avenue and other sites in the St. Louis area as a part of the Formerly Utilized Site Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP).

But the haul route contamination, for the most part, has not been addressed  because it allegedly falls below the current clean-up standards set by the Corps. Radioactive contamination that lies under the pavement is now deemed as safe.

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In 1987, it was a different story, however, according to the DOE report made public by the Environmental Archive. At that time, the Aerospace Corp., a DOE contractor, expressed concerns over the high levels of Thorium 230 used to construct the Latty  Avenue roadbed.

The report concludes that the radioactive materials used to build the road in the 1960s or 1970s most likely came from processing waste generated by the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis under contracts with the top secret  Manhattan Project and later the Atomic Energy Commission. Analysis revealed that the high levels of Thorium 230 were evidence that the radioactive contamination was a byproduct of Congolese pitchblende, which is known to be the hottest uranium ore on the planet.

The pitchblende refined by Mallinckrodt was used to build the first atomic bombs.

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Lucky Larry

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Co-workers once called Larry Burgan “Lucky Larry,” but that was before anybody knew about the radioactive dust over all their heads.

This story first appeared in FOCUS/midwest online, May 2009.

 

There were nights in the autumn of 2005 when Larry Burgan says he slept with a loaded AK-47 assault rifle next to his bed. He suspected his phone was tapped; he feared that someone might torch his house. The reason for his wariness: A 12-pound bundle of documents released to him by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, and the explosive contents therein.

The documents, which Burgan obtained under the state’s freedom of information law, outlined the extent of radioactive contamination at Burgan’s former workplace, Spectrulite Consortium Inc., in Madison, Ill. 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.

Not only did Burgan’s cache of government records confirm that workers were exposed, it also raised new and troubling questions about the risks posed to residents of an adjacent neighborhood in Venice, Ill., over the past 50 years.

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

“I was covered with scabs — large ones and small ones,” Burgan later wrote in his personal journal. “They would crack and bleed. . . . It was a nightmare.”

Burgan’s nightmare was far from over. His union, United Steelworkers Local 4804, was forced to go out on strike when the company demanded wage and benefit cuts in the new contract.

“Just like that my job was over,” he recalls. “I got sick and they got rid of me.” Unpaid bills piled up. The union stepped in and covered his mortgage payments during the 11-month strike. But despite the help, Burgan ultimately had to declare bankruptcy and go on disability.

Burgan’s nadir came one afternoon as he hobbled to the bathroom with the help of his wife. Passing by a mirror, he stopped to look at his reflection. “I didn’t recognize myself,” he later wrote.

After months of excruciating pain, his condition began to gradually improve. As he recuperated, Burgan pondered the cause of his illness. One of his coworkers suggested that chronic exposure to the radiation at work may have been responsible.

Once he was able to walk again, Burgan drove to a friend’s house who owns a computer. It didn’t take long for him to find a possible link between his health problems and his occupation. His online research led Burgan to an Army Corps Web site devoted to the cleanup of the Spectrulite plant. His friend printed out several illustrations related to the Corps remediation work there. One of the images was an overhead view of the plant. The spot directly over Burgan’s old work space was represented in glowing red, indicating the highest level of contamination in the factory.

Burgan later wrote down his reaction to this discovery in his journal: “My mouth opened in disbelief. My eyes watered up. One single tear fell and landed on the picture, staining it.”

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A photograph from 1993 depicts Burgan as a young man. He is smiling for the camera, cigar in hand, seated in a chair, with his feet propped up on the 50-ton extrusion press that he helped operate.

The day the snapshot was taken he was hamming it up. Burgan doesn’t smoke. The cigar was a prop. He had asked a coworker to take the picture so he could show his wife what a cushy job he had. The then-35-year-old steelworker viewed his job at Spectrulite as relatively easy. Burgan’s union wages and benefits afforded him and his family a middle-class life, and the opportunity to live the American dream. There was plenty of overtime available, too. Fellow employees even called him “Lucky Larry” because Burgan had a knack for finding money at work.

But Burgan was unknowingly paying a price that can’t be calculated in dollars and cents. The photograph shows that his work station was near Beam Z, the most radioactive hotspot in the foundry, 13.6 times above the safe guideline limits. Burgan and hundreds of his fellow steelworkers were not told they were working in a radioactively contaminated work place until 2000 even though their employer and the federal government were both aware of the dangers in 1989 — when he started working at the plant.

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.

But Burgan suspects that some of the elevated levels of Thorium-232 detected overhead may have been of more recent origin. In 1992, Spectrulite leased out one of its presses to Martin Marietta, Burgan says. Employees of that firm were brought in to oversee the operation, which occurred for eight days over a two-month period. When Burgan asked what type of metal was being processed, he was only told that it was a “special alloy.” It didn’t dawn on him until much later that the method that Martin Marietta used was similar to the way Dow processed uranium in the same press decades earlier.

“It all started making sense after all the documents were in front of me,” says Burgan.

Armed with the government records, Burgan began his efforts to gain compensation for himself and his fellow workers. His campaign has included countless calls to state and federal regulators, members of the Illinois congressional delegation and the media. Burgan has testified before the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Workers Health twice, and he also persuaded five of his former co-workers to submit affidavits to substantiate their potential exposure. As a result, former Spectrulite workers who worked at the plant as recently as 1999 are now eligible for inclusion in the Energy Employees Illness Compensation Program. The program provides $150,000 to workers or their surviving family members. To qualify, workers must show that they contracted one or more of the 24 types of cancer that are officially recognized as being associated with radiation exposure.

Proving the hazard was a laborious task. The potential health risks posed by chronic exposure, says Burgan, were repeatedly downplayed by both his employer and the federal regulators. At a company safety meeting in February 2000, for instance, Burgan says a manager told workers that the planned radiation cleanup at the plant was “just a way of the government trying to waste money.” On another occasion, Burgan says he was told by a company foreman that the radiation would only be harmful to those who were allergic to it. Around the same time, the project manager for Corps of Engineers told the Post-Dispatch, “Someone would have to eat 250 pounds of the contaminated material to create a health risk.”

Despite the Corps official’s dismissive comment, the agency ultimately concluded that the safe level of exposure for cleanup workers at the site would be two to four hours per year. Burgan estimates his exposure over 12 years at 25,000 hours.

In February 2000, the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety contested the Corps’ cleanup plan as insufficient. In its comments, the state agency stated: “The Corps has not demonstrated that the proposed scope of removal is protective of public health . . . [and] has inadequately assessed the dose to the first critical group (workers) and has entirely ignored the second critical group (residents).”

Burgan’s sights are now set on helping the former residents and those who still live near the plant. For the past few months, he has been meeting weekly with former Spectrulite workers and residents at the Venice City Hall. An organizing committee of concerned citizens is now moving forward with plans to request an in-depth health study of the community by the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry. Among the primary concerns of the committee are health risks to children at a nearby elementary school. Former Dow Spectrulite plant in background

Calvin Ratliff, a former Spectrulite worker who lived near the facility from 1950 to 1993, has conducted an informal survey of a two-block stretch of Meredocia Avenue near the plant. By his count, there were 44 cases of cancer or lung disease among longtime residents, many of whom are now deceased. A larger sampling of longtime neighbors tallied 68 cases of cancer or lung disease in the neighborhood.

Having worked there himself, Ratliff is aware of the different parts of the plant operations and the potential for emissions to escape into the outside environment. His concerns are close to home.

“I lost my father at 54 from a brain tumor and my sister has thyroid cancer,” he says. “I never thought anymore about it until the [Spectrulite] workers brought their claims.” Ratliff adds that he and his sister both have sarcoidosis, a debilitating, chronic disease that commonly causes inflammation of the lungs and other organs, and in some cases can be deadly.

The former resident and plant worker says he has uncovered evidence that a private environmental cleanup company removed 90,000 cubic yards of aluminum slag and contaminated soil from the vacant lot behind the plant in the fall of 1992. The contaminants included Thorium-230 and Thorium-232, as well as PCBs. More than a thousand railcars of waste were excavated and removed from the site, according to the information in Ratliff’s possession. Neither he nor Burgan are sure of who contracted the company to remove the waste. The other unanswered question is whether the cleanup removed all the contaminated soil.

The plant at Weaver and College streets operates today as Magnesium Elektron of North America, a non-union company and a subsidiary of Luxfur Group of Great Britain. Larry Burgan pushes for answersAfter going bankrupt in 2003, Spectrulite’s owners sold the company, but continue to hold a stake in the operation and the property itself. The plant no longer processes radioactive materials, but it continues to process toxic heavy metals that are used to make lightweight alloys for military use.

Both Burgan and his wife survive on a monthly Social Security disability income of slightly over the poverty level. He attributes other serious illnesses, infant mortality and birth defects in his family to secondary exposure to radiation from the radioactive dust that he brought home on his work clothes. The possibility of this haunts his every waking moment.

“My wife is ill from transference, bringing my dusty clothes home everyday,” he says. “All my grandchildren passed away. I’m living on $31 a month over the poverty line, without me or my wife able to work. I have to stand in the food lines at Salvation Army. I’ve been doing this for years. It’s not because of choice or because I’m lazy. It’s because I was put here by people who poisoned me.” — C.D. Stelzer (cdstelzer@gmail.com)

C.D. Stelzer is a veteran investigative journalist based in St. Louis and senior writer forFOCUS/Midwest.

Coldwater is Hot

When C.D. Stelzer called the Department of Energy’s FUSRAP office back in 1997, a secretary for a private company answered the phone, two corporate managers acted as mouthpieces for the government,  and the DOE official in charge had gone elk hunting.

first published in the Riverfront Times, Dec. 3, 1997

IT’s shift change on Friday afternoon at the Boeing plant north of Lambert Field and workers are fleeing in droves, streaming bumper-to-bumper down McDonnell Boulevard, oblivious to the narrow, 21.7-acre piece of real estate next to the thoroughfare. Until recently, this barren stretch of earth offered little to see besides an abundance of weeds surrounded by a rusty cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. In late September, however, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) began rearranging the landscape on the property. From the shoulder of the road, where it crosses Coldwater Creek, a yellow bulldozer and backhoe can now be seen parked near a plywood wall extending across the top of the steep embankment leading down to the creek bed.

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, 100_1341residue 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.

COLDWATER CREEK, which is next to the 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.

But the entire project now stands in bureaucratic limbo. Less than a month after the DOE started working at the airport site, Congress transferred authority for the cleanup to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The change came about as a part of the latest Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, signed into law by the president in October. Under the legislation, the corps will be handed the remainder of the $5 million already allocated to the DOE for this fiscal year to shore up the small section of Coldwater Creek. The money is in addition to the $140 million appropriation for 1998 that continues funding a nationwide cleanup of low-level radioactive-waste sites. The act also stipulates that the corps must conduct a three-month assessment of the Formerly Utilized Sites Remediation Action Program (FUSRAP), the federal aegis under which the airport site falls.

For the time being, the cleanup of Coldwater Creek is expected to continue uninterrupted, according to David Leake, project manager for the corps. “Congress has made it fairly clear that they do not want the transfer to result in any delay,” says Leake. This pragmatic strategy, however, locks the corps into adopting some of the DOE’s prior policies and practices, many of which have fallen into question in the past.

R. Roger Pryor, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, says the corps isn’t carrying the same baggage as the DOE. “I feel the corps doesn’t have the past bias that nuclear waste is somehow good for you,” says Pryor. “However, changing horses in midstream is difficult.”

Even though the airport site is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Priorities List (NPL), the DOE, through a regulatory loophole, was allowed to proceed with the Coldwater Creek excavation without formulating any long-range cleanup plan for the entire site. Furthermore, the DOE’s interim plan admits the area now being dug up may have to undergo remediation again sometime in the future. In other words, the current work is at best a stopgap measure. The project may also leave some radioactive contaminants behind because the excavation doesn’t go deep enough. In addition, the DOE started working on the site before a hydrogeological study, which it commissioned, had been completed. A previous hydrogeological study, published last year, cautioned that the groundwater system underneath the site was not clearly understood. The panel of experts concurred that implementation of any excavation work would necessitate further site characterization.

Specifically, the panel, which comprised government and industry scientists, warned of the existence of large volumes of radioactive contamination in the middle of the 21.7-acre site. The location of those contaminants is uphill from the current excavation work. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to figure out
that water rolls downhill. By beginning the cleanup at the low end of the site, the DOE hoped to create a buffer that would stop or at least slow the migration of the radioactive pollutants into the creek. But by starting at this point, the department admittedly risks re-contaminating the area it has chosen to clean up. Sheet erosion from rainfall will continue to allow contaminants to move toward the creek. Groundwater will head in the same general direction. Indeed, the subterranean currents may circumvent the DOE’s efforts altogether because, according to the experts, the hydrogeological structure beneath the site pushes groundwater both north and west under McDonnell Boulevard.

“I’m delighted that they are beginning to clean up the airport site,” says Kay Drey, an environmental activist from University City. “But they’re not doing it safely.” Drey, who fought for the cleanup for years, resigned from the project’s oversight committee on Sept. 18 (see accompanying story). In her resignation letter to St. Louis County Executive George “Buzz” Westfall, she expressed disapproval of the DOE’s interim plan, citing what she considers to be inadequate precautions. Before her resignation, she had submitted a detailed eight-page critique of the DOE’s plan. To date, she has received no answers to her questions.

FROM THE MCDONNELL Boulevard bridge, the turbid waters of Coldwater Creek are visible, flowing past chunks of concrete debris and swirling around a white plastic lawn chair marooned midstream. It is a typical suburban scene, a once-pristine waterway relegated to carrying sewage. Coldwater Creek carries other pollutants, too: Jet fuel from nearby Lambert Field has found its way into the watershed, as have salt, oil and automotive antifreeze, according to a DOE assessment. Another pollutant in the surface water is trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen. No one is certain of the long-term effects of such mixed waste on the environment or human health. It is also unknown how the chemical stew affects the migration of radioactive contaminants in surface and groundwater.

In essence, the airport site is a very large experiment with few scientific controls attached.

On the basis of data provided to it by cleanup-site contractors, last year’s hydrogeological panel decided contamination levels at the site would not pose an imminent risk for the next 100 years, an arbitrary figure imposed by the DOE’s guidelines. Yet some radioactive isotopes already discovered in ground and surface water at the site will last for hundreds of thousands of years. Although it downplayed the risks over the next century, the panel nevertheless concluded it would be inappropriate to use the site for long-term storage and repeatedly stated that many questions about the hydrology of the area remain a mystery.

Seepage of radioactivity into groundwater is by no means unique to St. Louis. Last week, the DOE formally admitted that the aquifer underlying the 560-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state has been contaminated. The radioactive waste, which is moving toward the Columbia River, is the result of 40 years of plutonium production at the site. The DOE, which long denied that groundwater contamination existed at Hanford, now claims the Columbia will not be threatened for the proverbial 100 years. However, the independent scientific analysis that forced the DOE to confess to the groundwater contamination calls the DOE’s estimates on risks to the river “unreliable.”

Tom Aley, a hydrologist who sat on the panel that studied the St. Louis airport site, is sure of one thing: The waste should have never been dumped here in the first place. Similar to Hanford, the waste here is situated on top of an aquifer. “It is a very poor site for disposal of that type,” says Aley, who owns Ozark Underground Laboratory Inc. Aley lists population density, groundwater contamination and the proximity of the site to Coldwater Creek as reasons not to store radioactive waste at the airport site.

His tempered approval of the cleanup is based in part on the lack of groundwater use in the area. However, Aley concedes there is much yet to be learned. “We don’t really have a good understanding of the vertical contamination,” he says. “The waste was deposited in a very haphazard manner, which was typical of that era. That has made cleanup very difficult. Another thing is, you can never totally clean up a site. A lot of these cleanups are real bootstrap operations. You have to pull one boot up, and then you have to pull the other up.”

The emperor may have buckled his boots, but he is without clothes. In short, no plan exists as to how to proceed with the remainder of the cleanup. Indeed, according to details of the DOE’s interim action, the current $8.3 million creek cleanup may ultimately have to be redone. The DOE’s engineering evaluation/cost analysis clearly states: “Although final clean-up criteria have not been established for this site, it is anticipated that the majority of the area cleaned up by this action will not require additional effort. However, final clean-up criteria, once selected, could require additional efforts in areas excavated in this removal action.”

Although the DOE acknowledges contamination at the site extends at least 18 feet deep, its interim plan requires digging only “eight to 10 feet below the existing land surface,” according to a Federal Register notice published in September. The DOE also acknowledges that “soil contaminated with radionuclides is present below (the) water table.” If contaminated groundwater is encountered during the dig, the DOE’s interim plan calls for it to be pumped onto high ground, which means it will re-enter the aquifer or run back downhill, toward the creek.

To battle this inevitable gravitational pull, the DOE has built a berm to separate the excavation work from the rest of the site. The interim action also calls for a channel to be constructed to reroute stormwater away from the roadside ditch that drains into the creek. In 1985, the DOE constructed a gabion wall — rocks secured by a wire basket — to hold the bank from sliding into the creek. It is a porous structure that by design allows water to percolate through. Whereas the effectiveness of these measures is subject to debate, there is no argument that radioactive sediments can still move downward into the aquifer and flow northwest under McDonnell Boulevard, thereby entering the creek unimpeded.

The hydrogeological study from last year warned about this possibility. “Groundwater monitoring has shown the migration of radionuclides in the direction of groundwater flow across McDonnell Boulevard and under the formerly used ball fields property to the north,” according to the study. “This factor raises concern over potential shallow discharge of radionuclides to Coldwater Creek to the west and north and potential vertical migration to the lower aquifer system.”

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.

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.”

Studies such as these lead Drey, the environmentalist, to question the logic of allowing further radioactive contamination to flow into Coldwater Creek. “Dilution is not the solution to pollution in reality or legally,” says Drey. “When you are dealing with materials that will continue to give off radioactive particles forever into the future, literally billions of years, you have to be very careful with this stuff.”

THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME Drey has opposed a DOE project. In 1993, she battled the department’s plans to clean up radioactive waste at nearby Weldon Spring in St. Charles County (“Rushing Water,” RFT,Jan. 6, 1993). Her vigilance then temporarily delayed that project, after she exposed the fact that the DOE was going ahead before receiving critical EPA test results.

Stephen H. McCracken, who headed the Weldon Spring cleanup, took over as St. Louis airport-site manager for the DOE earlier this year. Although the circumstances and nature of the radioactive waste may be different at the airport site, McCracken’s job switch hasn’t seemed to have affected his ability to circumvent government guidelines. If anything, the DOE official’s evasive end-runs appear to have improved over time.

Pryor, of the Coalition for the Environment, recalls that the decision was railroaded past the citizens oversight committee on which he sits. “We had hardly seen this darn thing,” says Pryor of the recommendation to proceed with work along the creek. “When we asked McCracken in September, he admitted it was just a guess,” says Pryor, referring to the point at which the DOE decided to begin excavating. The measure squeaked past the committee on a 4-3 vote. “We thought it was silly to go forward without the geological study,” says Pryor.

On Sept. 18, the day Drey resigned, McCracken signed a memorandum, which was immediately filed away. The memo cites an emergency clause that allowed him to waive the DOE’s standard 15-day public-review period for such actions. Sept. 18 also just happened to be the day DOE issued its “Flood-plain Statement of Findings” in the Federal Register. The purpose of the posting was to notify individuals and other government agencies of the pending action at the airport site so they could scrutinize the plan in advance. The notice clearly states: “DOE will endeavor to allow 15 days of public review after publication of the statement of findings before implementation of the proposed action.”

Four days later, on Sept. 22, work began at the St. Louis airport site.

Every conceivable government agency — local, state and federal — was left out of the loop. Even the DOE official who has oversight into such matters said he was unaware the emergency clause had been invoked. “I suppose you’d have to ask Steve McCracken about that,” drawled James L. Elmore, a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance officer for the DOE in Oak Ridge, Tenn. “I don’t have anything to do with that. You’d really have to ask him exactly what his total thought process was.” Despite his ignorance, Elmore’s name appears on the bottom line of the Sept. 18 Federal Register notice.

The RFT could not initially reach McCracken to explore his “thought process,” because, according to the secretary at the DOE site office, he was elk hunting in Colorado. After returning from his expedition, the DOE manager still did not return repeated calls placed to his office for a week. In his Sept. 18 waiver memo, however, McCracken wrote he had expedited the cleanup out of concern that autumn rainfall would make excavating near the creek more difficult. Come hell or high water, McCracken is expected to continue working at the site, at least during the transition period.

The airport site is on the Superfund’s NPL list, according to Dan Wall at the EPA regional headquarters in Kansas City. Because of its priority status, the agency is obliged to oversee the cleanup, he says. But it appears the contractors are more in control of the project than anybody else.

Calls placed to the DOE’s site office in St. Louis are answered by the cheerful voice of Edna, a secretary who works for Bechtel National Inc., one of the DOE’s prime cleanup contractors. She takes messages for McCracken and his assistant. In this case, she took messages for nearly two weeks, and for nearly two weeks the calls went unreturned. Finally, representatives for the DOE’s two prime contractors called back.

A secretary for a private company answers the phone at a government office, two corporate managers act as the mouthpieces for a government project, and the government official who is supposed to be in charge is elk hunting. This gives the appearance that the tail is wagging the dog. That may soon change under the new leadership of the corps. “The corps and the DOE operate somewhat differently,” says Leake. “The DOE will put very few people on a particular program and rely heavily on large national contractors to do a lot of the things that the Corps of Engineers try to do internally.”

The change in management styles will affect all of FUSRAP, which originated in 1974 under the AEC, the predecessor of the DOE. AEC established FUSRAP to deal with radioactive waste produced as a byproduct of nuclear-weapons production. Of the 46 FUSRAP sites across the country, 25 have been cleaned up, according to the DOE. Four remaining radioactive hotbeds are in the St. Louis area, with the airport site the largest.

In St. Louis and elsewhere, the DOE has relied on the expertise of Bechtel and Science Applications International Corp. to carry out its mission.

Wayne Johnson, the deputy project manager for Bechtel in St. Louis, is certain the cleanup next to Coldwater Creek is being carried out safely. “These measures have been monitored by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which has had representatives on the site routinely to look at our operations to make sure that we are not affecting the creek. In addition to that, St. Louis County, which has advised us on our plans for the work, has been out to the site,” says Johnson. “So we feel confident, and we are more than halfway done. We have not had any problems or affected the creek in any way.”

Ric Cavanagh of the St. Louis County Health Department, who chairs the citizens oversight commission, agrees with Johnson’s assessment. “I’m not a lawyer, but it is my understanding that they (the DOE) did make use of a provision in the rules to move forward. The majority of the oversight committee voted in favor of proceeding with the work,” says Cavanaugh. “We are purely advisory. We couldn’t have stopped it if we wanted to. The groundwater levels were very low at the time, and this was a very good time to get things going. (St. Louis County’s) goal was to get excavation begun and to get work begun at that site. So we were pleased to have it go from that standpoint.”

The oversight committee currently has 11 members — five from the city of St. Louis and six from St. Louis County. One seat remains vacant at this time. The board replaces an advisory task force that disbanded last year.

AT ONE TIME, workers toiled night and day to dump the radioactive waste at the airport site. The open pile rose to 20 feet above ground level, according to one DOE document. Altogether the accumulated waste at the site and elsewhere nearby is estimated to have once ranged from 283,700 to 474,000 cubic yards, according to the DOE. In additional to open dumping, Mallinckrodt workers were required to hand-pack waste in 30- or 55-gallon drums. The drums were then stacked on top of each other at the airport site. The barrels then began to leak.

In the process of storing the waste, haul routes and adjacent properties became contaminated. Then in 1966, the AEC sold most of the residues to Continental Mining and Milling Co, which promptly transported the waste to 9200 Latty Ave. in Hazelwood and then went bankrupt. The movement resulted in the contamination of more properties. Cotter Corp., a subsidiary of Commonwealth Edison, subsequently acquired the materials, with an eye toward reclaiming some of the minerals. The bulk of it ended up in Canon City, Colo., but not before one of Cotter’s subcontractors dumped thousands of tons of the waste in the West Lake landfill off Old St. Charles Rock Road in North St. Louis County.

More than 50 years after it started, the uranium-processing operation conducted at Mallinckrodt in St. Louis has forced almost $800 million in reparations on U.S. taxpayers — the cost of cleaning up the radioactive vestiges of World War II and the arms race that followed. To the victors go the spoils. It is a small part of the environmental damage wrought by the federal government and the nuclear-weapons industry over the last half-century — damage estimated to cost $200 billion to correct. What can never be measured are the lives cut short because of radiation exposure. Men have been tried for war crimes that did far less.

Death in Venice

Former Spectrulite workers Calvin Ratliff and Larry Burgan canvassing the neighborhood in Venice, Illinois in the summer of 2009.

Residents are concerned about mortality levels at the site of a 20-year-old radioactive cleanup

Diane Ratliff, a native of Venice, Ill., remembers when the dump trucks first started lumbering up and down Meredosia Avenue in the early 1990s. She then surmised the drivers must have made a wrong turn. “Where the hell were they going?” she asked herself.

Nobody informed her or any of the residents of the neighborhood that a radioactive clean-up was taking place down the block.

That was 20 years ago, and Ratliff, a special education teacher for the East St. Louis School District, is still searching for answers as to whether exposure to radioactive waste may have affected the health of her family and neighbors. She is among a group of citizens who are now pressing the federal government for an epidemiological study of the area to determine the impact that the radioactive site may have had on public health.

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. [read earlier story by clicking here]

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. ”

Larry Burgan, a community activist and former foundry employee, has doubts about that conclusion. “It makes it sound like they were doing the residents a favor,” says Burgan. “But they also could have been doing it quick to get it out of sight [and] out of mind.”

Earlier this summer, Burgan and Ratliff’s brother, Calvin Ratliff, canvassed the neighborhood, asking among other things whether residents had ever been informed of the safety risks posed by the radioactive waste or its removal. None of the residents with whom they spoke indicated that they had ever been contacted.

Instead, contractors appeared to have launched the first phase of the clean-up without warning.

At 8 a.m., March 5, 1990, heavy equipment operators began excavating more than 15,000 cubic feet of radioactively contaminated soil along Rogan Avenue, a neighborhood street that borders the 40-acre site. The work continued for the next two days. Contamination in this area was found from six inches to five feet below the surface, according to the final report.

To ensure compliance with state safety regulations, Conalco and Dow installed eight air-monitoring stations to measure airborne concentrations of contaminants during the clean-up, but a portable generator that powered one monitor was stolen early in the clean-up and never replaced. Despite the loss, the work continued and the final report dismissed the significance of the incomplete data.

The assessment, prepared by Roy F. Weston Inc. of Albuquerque, N.M., does stipulate, however, that one of remaining air monitors registered high concentrations of radioactivity on numerous occasions and exceeded permissible levels at least three times. But the risk to residents was deemed safe because all the radioactive contaminants were “assumed” to be Thorium 228 and not its more potent sister, Thorium 232. Moreover, concentrations of radioactive airborne contaminants were averaged out over several months to lower the estimated dosage to within established limits set by IDNS.

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.

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.

Venice waste siteThe Ratliff family has lived in the brick bungalow at Meredosia Avenue and College Street next to the foundry since 1950. Louis D. Ratliff, Diane Ratliff’s late father, built the house. He died in 1974 from brain cancer. An informal survey of a two-block stretch of Meredosia Avenue conducted earlier this year yielded anecdotal evidence of 44 cases of cancer or lung disease among longtime residents, many of whom are also now deceased.

“Before sunset there was always a cloud emanating from the plant,” says Ratliff, who attended elementary school across the street from her family home. The special education teacher now worries about spots that she says have developed on her lungs. Ratliff also worries about her siblings, whom she says have been diagnosed with sarcoidosis; a debilitating, chronic disease that commonly causes inflammation of the lungs and other organs, and in some cases can be deadly.

The clean-up of the site that was initiated 20 years ago did nothing to allay her fears. It only left unanswered questions.

“They were supposed to have examined the yards for contaminants,” says Ratliff. “But that didn’t happen.” — C.D. Stelzer

first published in FOCUS/midwest, September 2009