Evil Never Dies

Gerhard J. Petzall, a longtime law partner of former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, was a director of  Spectrulite Consortium Inc., which owned and operated an Eastside plant contaminated with radioactive waste.  After the problem came to light, the company forced its union work force to strike, filed for bankruptcy, and then reorganized under a different name, selling half the business to a foreign conglomerate. 

I collared then-St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay at the Earth Day celebration in Forest Park back in 2013 and asked him for a spot interview. He  told me then that he didn’t have time to go on camera for even a few minutes to talk about St. Louis’ longstanding radioactive waste problem.  He was too busy that sunny Sunday afternoon promoting some other well-intentioned environmental cause. It might have been recycling. As a result, the mayor does not appear in our documentary, The First Secret City.

But Richard Callow, the mayor’s longtime political consultant, does make a cameo appearance in the film. Aside from representing the mayor, Callow has also been a local spokesman for Republic Services, the giant waste disposal company that owns the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill Superfund site in North St. Louis County. In that role, Callow has acted to tamp down public concerns about the severity of the environmental and health problems related to the troubled landfill.

Callow, however,  is not the only link between the mayor and the radioactive waste that has plagued the region since it first began piling up as a byproduct of Mallinkcrodt Chemical’s work on the Manhattan Project.

As it turns out,  Gerhard J. Petzall — the mayor’s former law partner — has past ties to the now-defunct Spectrulite Consortium Inc., a company that owned a plant  in Madison, Illinois contaminated with radioactive waste from the Cold War.  Missouri incorporation records  show that Gerhard J. Petzall, a senior partner in the politically-connected law firm of Guilfoil Petzall & Shoemake, sat on the board of directors of Spectrulite for years and continued  act as an attorney for the company until 2009.

By that time, Slay was in his second term as St. Louis mayor. Slay was a partner in Guilfoil Petzall & Shoemake for 20 years prior to becoming mayor.

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The problems at Spectrulite began in 1957 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, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversaw a partial radioactive cleanup at the Spectrulite 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  in part 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 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. After going bankrupt in 2003,  Spectrulite’s owners sold the company, but continue to hold a stake in the operation and the property itself.

Oddly enough, Spectrulite  remained an active corporation in Missouri — with Petzall’s name appearing in its annual reports long after the business had filed for bankruptcy in federal court in East St. Louis, Ill.  The records show that Petzall continued to be listed as a director of the corporation until 2003, and his name still appeared as a counsel for the by-then non-existent company until 2009.  Spectrulite never operated its manufacturing plant in Missouri. The plant was located across the river in Illinois. But the bankrupt, Illinois-based company, which had been sold to a foreign concern, remained an active corporation in Missouri for six years after its apparent demise; proof that there is life after death at least in the legal world.

Over the Dump

St. Louisans talked back to the Department of Energy about nuclear waste last Thursday. But were the feds really listening?

by Richard Byrne Jr.

The Riverfront Times, Dec. 12, 1990

The Department of Energy came to praise nuclear waste and to bury it.

Well, OK. It’s already buried there. Close to 2.5 million cubic yards of low-level radioactive waste, scattered at three main sites in North St. Louis City and County.

It’s no news that the waste is here, and it was hardly a shock that 200 angry St. Louisans showed up Thursday at a ballroom in the Clayton Holiday Inn to tell the feds they didn’t want the stuff. What’s eye-opening is the leisurely pace at which the DOE wants to clean it up.

The DOE greeted suggestions that the United States stop producing nuclear waste and start cleaning it up with polite nods. After all, as DOE Deputy Assistant Director of Environmental Restoration John Baublitz stressed, the purpose of the hearing was to gather testimony on national strategies for cleaning up waste.

The atmosphere of the hearing was geared to minimize possible conflict. There was no give-and-take between the feds and those who testified. No arguments. Few, if any, tirades.

To further everyone’s “knowledge” of nuclear issues, a booth outside the ballroom stressed the benefits of nuclear material. There were pictures of astronauts. There were two cartons of strawberries — one zapped, one not zapped. (Which do you think looked better?) There were pictures of industrial and medical uses of radiation.

And then there was the “Radiation Quiz that also had a place on the booth.

One question was” Who receives more radiation exposure in a day? Underneath there were pictures of a nuclear worker and a skier.

Another question read: Which would you rather have drive past your home? This time there were a nuclear materials truck and a fuel truck.

There was even a “true or false” question: Radioactive materials have the best safety record of all hazardous materials shipped in the last 40 years.

If you haven’t guessed already, the answers are the skier, the nuke truck and “true.”

The questions, of course, are skewed. No one skis everyday, and radiation from the sun doesn’t seep into the water table. It isn’t often that petroleum trucks whiz by our homes. And 40 years isn’t that long a track record for the shipment of low-level nuclear waste.

Local activist Kay Drey called the quiz an outrage.

“They want to belittle low-level waste,” Drey says. “Low level waste is a term created by a genius on Madison Avenue. Some low-level waste can only be handled by remote control. To compare it to garbage is absurd. Volume is not the same as hazard.”

But there are people in the St. Louis area who live near and breathe the radioactive stuff. A generation of children in Berkeley played softball on a contaminated site. People like Gilda Evans, who brought her child — stricken with leukemia — to the microphone to testify with her.

“I live in cancer alley,” says Evans, who lives a few blocks from two sites. “How long are any of us going to be here with that stuff?”

Mel Carnahan was emphatic in stressing that hazard in our locality.

“No other metropolitan area in the nation has to contend with a radioactive-waste problem as potentially threatening as the one facing St. Louis,” the lieutenant governor said.

“2.5 million cubic yards of radioactive waste are stored by the United States Department of Energy (USDOE) in the St. Louis area. This is unacceptable in such a high population density.”

You might recognize some of the people who testified: Carnahan, County Executive-elect Buzz Westfall, Ald. Mary Ross (D-5), County Councilman John Shear (D-1). But there were a lot of people you wouldn’t recognize — mothers, students, teachers, businessmen.

Almost all of them had the same thing to say:

Don’t make any more waste. Get the waste that’s here in St. Louis cleaned up.
We’ve had nuclear waste in St. Louis since there was nuclear waste to have.

Back in the early 1940s, when the brilliant minds that came up with America’s atomic weapons program — the Manhattan Project — wanted to process the uranium and thorium needed for the bomb, they came to Mallinckrodt Chemical Works right here in St. Louis. In fact, the first nuclear waste for the Atomic Age was generated in the plant at Broadway and Destrahan.

In 1946, the War Department took over 21.7 acres of land near Lambert Airport through condemnation proceedings, and directed Mallinckrodt to store the hazardous byproducts of processed uranium and thorium there. Twenty years later, some of the waste was transported to a site on Latty Avenue in Hazelwood. Then in 1973, the airport site was deeded (through a quit claim deed) back to the city, after undergoing remediation that included a foot of clean dirt being poured on top of the wastes. The city was to use it as a police-training center.

Five years later, the Department of Energy sent out a news release saying that 26 sites — including the airport site and the Mallinckrodt site — required some form of remedial action.

Both were placed under the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) in 1983 to be cleaned up.

Eight years later, it’s still sitting there. And it’s growing.

“In 1977, there was 50,000 cubic yards on contamination at Mallinckrodt,” says Drey, the most knowledgeable and passionate opponent of turning St. Louis into a dumping ground for radioactive waste. “In 1990, the latest estimates say 288,000 cubic yards of contamination, and that’s not including the buildings.”

The fight to get the sites cleaned up has lurched forward and back over the last eight years. The city’s Board of Aldermen voted unanimously in 1988 to ask the DOE to find a different place for the wastes. The Environmental Protection Agency placed the sites on Superfund, with the power to charge the owners of the land for cleanup costs. The Board of Aldermen then narrowly voted in January with the strong support of Mayor Schoemehl to donate 82 acres of land near Lambert to the DOE in exchange for indemnification against the costs of cleaning up the airport site. This would in effect, give the DOE carte blanche to “remediate on-site.” — in other words, to turn the place into a permanent storage site for the wastes with a practically eternal half-life.

Legislation introduced last year by Rep. Jack Buechner to get the wastes moved out of an urban area died in committee, and the EPA and DOE have entered into a Federal Facility Agreement that may or may not result in an on-site remediation of the wastes at Mallinckrodt, Latty Avenue and the airport site. A decision is not expected on that until 1994 at the earliest.

If a decision is handed down on the disposal of the radioactive waste at these sites in 1994, it will mean that 16 years will have elapsed since the feds first acknowledged the problem.

The 13 years that have elapsed so far have made a number of folks hopping mad, and they didn’t waste the opportunity to tell the DOE last Thursday night.

The hearing was not on St. Louis’ waste specifically, but on a DOE proposal to clean up contaminated sites in a five-year period. The Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (or PEIS) was up for one of its two public-comment sessions, but St. Louisans were more interested in specific and immediate solutions. And as three representatives of the federal agency sat at a folding table, members of the crowd stepped up to the microphone and let the DOE in on some of the solutions they had in mind.

“The federal government is responsible for bringing this waste to St. Louis,” said Ald. Mary Ross. “They’re the only party technically and financially capable of cleaning them up.”

Ross also mentioned the strong votes against the permanent storage of radioactive wastes in the November referendums: 85 percent of the city’s voters expressed their wish that the radioactive wastes scattered throughout the northern part of the metropolitan area be taken elsewhere.

“The ballot spoke strongly,” Ross insisted. “The DOE is a powerful organization. You can encourage our congressmen not only to remove these wastes, but to appropriate the funds to do it.”

Bill Ramsey of the American Friends Service Committee stressed how the citizens had been kept in the dark about the nuclear policy of the United States.

“The U.S. government never consulted its citizens,” Ramsey said. “We need public discussion and public debate.” Later in his statement, Ramsey urged the DOE to “take the money we’re saving on weapons and use that money to clean up these communities.

Drey spoke of the nation’s energy policy and the clean-up process as “the emperor’s new clothes.”

“We still don’t know how to neutralize these wastes,” Drey said, urging the government to celebrate the first half-century of the Nuclear Age — due to arrive in 1992 — with a moratorium on the production of nuclear arms and waste.

Though there is a strong “not in my backyard” strain to the anti-waste sentiment that the DOE heard last Thursday, Drey prefers to think of it as a “not anybody’s backyard” movement.

“It’s not impossible to get it cleaned up,” Drey says, citing the government’s rapid cleanup of low-level waste near Salt Lake City. “We cannot leave it where it is.”

Sister Cities?

St. Louis Shares its nuclear waste — but not a lawsuit — with a Colorado town

by Richard Byrne Jr.
The Riverfront Times, July 24, 1991

Canon City, Colo., and St. Louis have a lot in common. A lot of radioactive waste, that is.
For the most part, it’s the same waste. Much of Canon City’s waste came from materials piled up in St. Louis during the 1940s and 1950s.

Like St. Louis’ nuclear waste, Canon City’s waste was moved to its current resting place a true estimate of the dangers to the public.

Like St. Louis’ nuclear waste, it’s creating fear — and perhaps illness — in those unfortunate enough to live near the Cotter Mill processing plant in Canon City.
Unlike St. Louis’ reaction to the waste, the folks in Canon City recently filed a class action suit.

It’s a suit that makes some startling allegations:

*Radioactive waste was carelessly shipped and spilled on the journey from St. Louis to Canon City. One carload of radioactive material was, the suit claims, “lost.”
*Traces of the waste from the uranium-processing plant near Canon City have been found in Arkansas River.

*The company that runs the plant — Cotter Corporation — has a long history of failing to meet state guidelines for the processing and storage of radioactive materials.
Cotter also had a hand in St. Louis’ radioactive contamination as well, when unbeknownst to regulators, it abandoned 8,700 tons of radioactive materials too weak to be reprocessed in the West Lake Landfill in St. Louis County at a depth of only three feet.

Can we learn something from the folks in Canon City?
In the past few years, St. Louisans have become acquainted with their nuclear waste. It’s about time, too. For years, St. Louis’ role in the dawning of the nuclear age and the risks associated with it were either underestimated, glossed over or, worse yet, kept secret.

But even now, as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) circulates its draft cleanup plans for the downtown Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, and as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issues a report calling the St. Louis Airport site (SLAPS) and Latty Avenue sites a “potential public health concern,” St. Louisans aren’t moving to gain significant input into the cleanup plans.

The residents of Canon City have taken their battle to court and sued the processors (Cotter Corporation and its parent company Commonwealth Edison) who brought the St. Louis 
Airport Cakes” to their town and the two railroad companies (Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and Santa Fe Pacific) who shipped it there.
the plaintiffs recently filed their fourth amended complaint in federal district court in Colorado.

“What we’re trying to do here is to get these companies to step forward and take care of their responsibilities,” says Lynn Boughton, a Canon City resident and one of the leading parties in the lawsuit.

The suit, which seeks a half-billion dollars in damages, charges the companies with , among other things, “negligence,” “willful and wanton conduct,” and “outrageous conduct.” The suit cites health risks to area residents, a precipitous drop in property values and the inaction of the defendants, even to this day, to take measures to improve the situation.

“No cleanup’s been undertaken yet,” Boughton says angrily. “Even after our suit’s brought all this to light. The only thing that’s happened is that (Cotter) has fenced the area.”

Cotter Corporation did not respond to RFT calls, but the lawsuit says that in a deposition conducted in February of this year, Cotter President (and Commonwealth Vice President) George Rifakes denied that there are carcinogenic materials at Cotter Mill.

The history of Canon City’s waste is inextricably tangled with St. Louis’ nuclear history — a history as long as the nuclear age itself.
In fact, the radioactive material that ended up in Canon city also resides at all four of St. Louis’ waste sites. The was was originally generated by the processing of uranium ores at the downtown Mallinckrodt plant from 1946 to 1956, and was stored at SLAPS for another 10 years.

In 1966 the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) the precursor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), sold the residues to Continental Mining and Milling Corporation for $126,000.

Continental moved the materials to their site at 9200 Latty Ave. in Hazelwood. It was during this move that the haul routes along which the waste was moved were contaminated as well.

“The trucks that moved it weren’t covered or wetted,” says DOE spokeperson David Adler. “This move is what caused the haul-route contamination.

The stuff that Continental moved to Latty Avenue was residue from some of the highest-grade uranium available in the early 1940s — imported to the United States from the Belgian Congo.

“These materials were pretty hot stuff,” says local activist Kay Drey. It’s all the stuff that we still have out there. “

Continental went bankrupt a few years later, and that’s where Cotter stepped in, buying the residues, or raffinates, in order to dry them and ship them to its plant in Colorado to extract the remaining uranium. Cotter shipped these residues by rail to Canon City between 1970 and 1973.

According to the lawsuit, Cotter’s shipping [of the waste] was a disaster. Two of the railroad sites used to unload the raffinates are contaminated with hazardous radioactive waste. The lawsuit claims that is documentation of spillage of materials along the railroad tracks and that one “entire carload of uranium is unaccounted for.”
The suit also claims that public access to these sites was never restricted and that placards warning of radioactive material were never placed on the site.

If you think that’s bad, however, it’s nothing compared to what the lawsuit claims happened at Cotter Mill itself. The lawsuit claims that Cotter didn’t have a license to process the raffinates they shipped to Colorado and that two-thirds of the material was processed before Cotter notified the state. The suit also claims that some of the raffinates brought to Colorado were never processed and sit on the grounds, without cover and exposed to the elements. (Much of the St. Louis waste is covered with a tarpaulin, which has occasionally blown off.

The raffinates that were processed, the suit claims, have seeped into the groundwater, making their way to the nearby Arkansas River.
`Boughton, a chemist at Cotter until 1979, says that the company didn’t even tell its employees about the danger.

“No one told us what the isotopic content of this material was,” Boughton says. “We had processed a lot of the material when it came back to us through a lab that was following the material.”

What the material was full of, the suit claims, is thorium-230 and protactinium-231. Both are highly dangerous wastes, with measurable concentrations also present in the St. Louis’ piles. Boughton was later diagnosed as having lymphoma cancer — a cancer associated with thorium-230.

The lawsuit also lists a long series of citations of Cotter Mill — by the AEC and the state of Colorado — for non-compliance with license regulations, citiations dating back to 1959.

St. Louisans can feel bad for the residents of Canon City. they can even regret that it’s waste form the St. Louis area that has wreaked such havoc on their lives and property. But what relevance does Canon City case have for St. Louisans?

First, of course, is Cotter’s illegal dumping of 8,700 tons of radioactive waste at West Lake Landfill, near Earth City. A History of the St. Louis Airport Uranium Residues, prepared by Washington, D.C.’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), claims that Cotter dumped the waste “without the knowledge or approval…”

The IEER report also claims that the NRC has urged Cotter to “apply promptly for a license authorizing remediation of the radioactive waste in the West Lake Landfill.” The reports also says that Cotter has not yet taken any remeidal action.

But lawyers and activists insist that it’s not just the waste here in St. Louis that should turn local residents eyes to the Colorado lawsuit.

Louise Roselle, a Cincinnati lawyers who is aiding in the Colorado lawsuit, claims that the Colorado suit “is part of a growing amount of litigation in this country by residents around hazardous facilities.”

Kay Drey says that the Colorado suit is also interesting because of the research that’s being done on the materials that are contaminating Canon City.
“That’s basically the same stuff we have here,” Drey says. It’s just more splattered here — at a couple different sites.”

It’s the splattering effect in St. Louis that makes these sites more difficult to characterize and to remediate. The DOE is in the middle of the process of remediating a number of St. Louis sites — particularly SLAPS, Latty Avenue, and Mallinckrodt. But a record of decision —the DOE and Environmental Protection Agency’s official decision on what to do with St. Louis’ waste — is not due until 1994.

Drey says that St. Louisans need to keep the pressure on and take an interest in their nuclear waste.

“We need to let our leaders know that we want this stuff out of here,” Drey says. “What’s interesting about this lawsuit is that (Canon City) is looking into what it casn do with its waste.”

The Dow-Madison Site

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

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.

2004: A Nuke Odyssey

The Department of Energy finally promises to clean up the St. Louis areas’s long-neglected radioactive waste in the next 8 years, but leaves many questions unanswered

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Dec. 11, 1996

It took more than 50 years, but last week the federal government finally pledged to clean up the St. Louis area’s long-neglected radioactive waste sites by 2004.Undersecretary of Energy Thomas P. Grumbly made the historic announcement on Thursday at the Clayton Community Center. The 850,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste — located at scores of sites around the area — are a byproduct of the nuclear weapons manufacturing dating back to World War II. Those attending Grumbly’s speech included public officials and members of a citizens’ task force who submitted recommendations to the Department of Energy (DOE) in September.

“There will never be a bunker in the St. Louis area — at least on my watch.” — DOE undersecretary Thomas P. Grumbly, December 1996.

Grumbly drew applause when he announced “there will never be a bunker in the St. Louis area — at least on my watch.” The applause echoed the results of a 1990 non-binding referendum in which city and county voters overwhelming disapproved of any plan to permanently store the nuclear waste here.

One result of that public outcry has been bi-partisan political support for disposing of the waste outside the area. Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, and Democratic St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and County Executive Buzz Westfall all attended last week’s meeting to show support for the DOE’s commitment to ship the waste as soon as possible. Some 28,000 cubic yards of contaminated materials from 21 sites have already been sent to a low-level radioactive waste dump in Utah. Moreover, Congress allocated an additional $23 million to continue the clean up in 1997.

But the fate of the remaining nuclear waste is still very much a matter of speculation. “There are some serious issues that remain,” said Talent, after the meeting. “It’s promising, but I don’t want to pretend that it’s all worked out, that it’s to everybody’s satisfaction.”

The congressman’s reservations may be understated. One sticking point in completing the project appears to be the 22-acre airport site — the largest in the area. In his speech, Grumbly emphasized that the DOE remains unconvinced of the need to clean up the airport site to the unrestricted-use level recommended by the local task force, the Sierra Club and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“He (Grumbly) just doesn’t feel that a site at the end of a runway needs to be cleaned up … the same way you would a residential site,” says Talent. “It’s a legitimate point, but I don’t think that the DOE has looked adequately at the effect on the ground water. The (waste) is sitting on an aquifer.”

Leaving any of the radioactive material at the site would risk further contamination of underground and surface water. But earlier this year, a report by a DOE-appointed panel of geologists declared that the water would miraculously not migrate off the site, and, therefore, it would be safe to leave the waste in place. Two of the six panel members – including one from the DNR — took exception to the findings, however. On Thursday, Grumbly suggested that another hydro-geological study be conducted in the next three months to determine what level of safety would be required.

“We all feel like it needs to be cleaned up so it won’t continue impacting Coldwater Creek,” says environmentalist Kay Drey, a member of the citizens’ task force. The creek is on the long list of remediation sites, which also includes: haul routes, a former athletic field in Berkeley, a landfill in Bridgeton, and parts of the Mallinckrodt chemical plant on North Broadway, where uranium was first purified in 1942.

The DOE, according to Grumbly, would like the entire mess tidied up within eight years, an optimistic goal given the bureaucratic impediments. Aside from the DOE’s lead role, the DNR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are mandated by Superfund law must to oversee and approve the project. Grumbly, nevertheless, expects a formal Record of Decision (ROD) for the clean up by the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30. That gives the DOE a little more than nine months to work out a myriad of details.

One of those details is prefaced by a dollar sign and has a lot of zeros behind it. “We have no money to do this,” says Drey. The environmentalist points out that the $23 million dollars earmarked for the clean up this year represents a significant increase in past funding for the project, but is still only a fraction of what will be needed to complete the job. The uncertainty over future funding is not expected to abate so long as the Clinton administration and the Republican-led Congress try to out hack each other in deficit reduction. Or as Grumbly puts it, “We’re in a very competitive budget environment.” The effect of the imminent departure of Energy Sec. Hazel O’Leary is also unknown.

As recently as July, the DOE estimated that removal and off-site storage of the waste would cost $778 million. A revised estimate cited last week ranges from $250 to $600 million. The wide difference in the bottom line hinges on, among other things, the choice of technology and the level of clean up specified in the yet to be completed ROD. The contract to carry out the clean up is held by Bechtel National, Inc., a subsidiary of the giant engineering corporation. Potential local sub-contractors that are queuing up include: Sverdrup Evironmental,the National Center of Environmental Information and Technology, Clean Earth Technologies and R.M. Wester and Associates.

Despite the expertise and available alternative technologies, Grumbly gave little indication Thursday that the DOE is seriously considering anything more than digging the irradiated dirt up and hauling it away. If the DOE chooses to clean up the airport site to less stringent levels than recommended locally, it will save money. But the legal and ethical question then becomes whether the scaled-back remedy is protective or human health and the environment.

For many Westerners, who will likely be on the receiving end, there is nothing ethical about any of this. The probable final destination for St. Louis’ radioactive waste seems to be either Utah or Washington state. The Envirocare low-level radioactive waste depository in Clive, Utah has already received some St. Louis shipments. In 1993, before any of the St. Louis waste arrived, state inspectors found Envirocare in violation of a dozen safety regulations.

But the questionable Utah facility now has competition. Last year, the Washington state Department of Health granted a low-level radioactive dump license to the Dawn Mining Co. in Ford, Wash. The majority of Dawn Mining is owned by Denver’s Newmont Mining Co., the largest mineral extractor in North America. Rather than pay for filling a 28-acre, 70-foot-deep, uranium-tailings pond on the Dawn property, Newmont wants to charge the government $5 a cubic foot to accept low level radioactive waste. Although the DOE hasn’t agreed to the proposal yet, representatives of Dawn Mining have tried to solicit the support of the St. Louis citizens’ task force as far back as November 1995.

The Spokane Indian tribe and Dawn Watch, an environmental group, are opposed to shipping the St. Louis waste to their community. “Our position is the site is still an unacceptable location for a commercial waste dump,” says Esther Holmes, a member of Dawn Watch. “(We) have been advocating that the site be cleaned up using clean fill at the company’s expense.” The tailings pond is located near a tributary of the Columbia River and threatens a nearby Indian fish hatchery.

Downstream View

A Look back at how the DOE helped contaminate the Mississippi watershed and then funded a $25-million study to examine the effects.

By C.D. Stelzer

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Jan. 27, 1993

 

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NEW ORLEANS, La. — A change in perspective can sometimes cure myopia.

Take the case of the Weldon Spring quarry, where the Department of Energy (DOE) has already begun its pell-mell release of treated radioactive water into the Missouri River (“Rushing Water,”RFT Jan. 6).

About 700 miles downstream from the nuclear drain site, William C. Van Buskirk, the dean of Tulane University’s school of engineering, sees things a little differently than the DOE’s gung-ho officials.

When informed of the situation at Weldon Spring last week, Van Buskirk took an immediate interest. “It’s a fascinating test case,” he says. The quarry offers the research advantage of being small and self contained, according to Van Buskirk.

There is good reason for the dean’s academic curiosity to be aroused over the waste. Van Buskirk is about to receive the first $5 million installment in a five-year, $25 million grant to study extensively the effects of mixed chemical and radioactive wastes on aquatic environments in the Mississippi River basin. Mixed chemical and radioactive wastes, of course, are the problem at Weldon Spring quarry, upstream on the Missouri River, before it meets the Mississippi.

“This is exactly the kind of research we need done before the DOE dumps anymore radioactive waste into the Missouri River,”says Kay Drey, a St. Louis environmentalist who has opposed releasing the water. Drey wants concerned citizens to ask their elected officials to call for a delay in future discharges of the Weldon Spring water until further studies are done.

A related petition drive to achieve the same end is being coordinated by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in University City. The petition states: “The lack of field experience in removing this particular combination of radioactive and hazardous wastes, and the lack of equipment capable of detecting and accurately measuring the residual pollutants make this project an experiment, not an engineering achievement.”

“Ironically, the Tulane grant was issued by the DOE — the same agency responsible for releasing the treated radioactive water earlier this month into the Missouri River nine miles upstream from two St. Louis area water intakes.”

“I mean, you don’t dump first and study second,” says Drey.
But dumping first and studying second is exactly what has happened.
Ironically, the Tulane grant was issued by the DOE — the same agency responsible for releasing the treated radioactive water earlier this month into the Missouri River nine miles upstream from two St. Louis area water intakes.

A spokesman for the DOE regional headquarters in Oak Ridge, Tenn. tells the RFT that there is a good chance the Tulane grant was issued by a part of the DOE that was unaware of the imminent release of the contaminated water from Weldon Spring. In other words, the DOE’s bureaucratic left hand didn’t know what its partner was doing.

Jerry Van Fossen, the DOE’s deputy project manager at the Weldon Spring site, is unfamiliar with the Tulane grant, but says that the agency normally cooperates with such work. “In this particular case, where you have a university or two universities that have a grant with the DOE, we would be required to coordinate with whoever holds that grant with the agency,” says Van Fossen.

The belated interdisciplinary study will engage between 50 to 100 researchers at Tulane and Xavier universities, Van Buskirk says. The studies may employ not only experts in chemistry and medicine, but also legal scholars and philosophers, who could ponder the effects of public policy and the impact of the media, Van Buskirk says.

Scientists taking part in the research plan to examine the development of new technologies to clean water and soil. Other research will look at how pollutants move through rivers and soil and investigate the effects of pollution on specific aquatic ecosystems. Researchers also intend to study the ways people are exposed to water-borne contaminants and how that exposure effects their health.

“They’ve got a real mess on their hands,” Van Buskirk says,referring to the DOE. “They don’t have the technology to do the cleanup and they don’t have the manpower.” There is a great deal of fear in communities about radioactive and chemical contaminants, according to Van Buskirk, and the university can play a role in allaying public concern by offering scientific data. “Maybe we would be more believable than the EPA or DOE,” he says. U.S. Sen. Bennett J. Johnston, D-La., was instrumental in Tulane receiving the grant, Van Buskirk says.

With this kind of senatorial backing tied to the DOE pursestrings, hope for a truly independent study has to be somewhat tempered. “Sen. Bennett Johnston is one of the most devoted promoters of nuclear power in the Senate,” says Drey. In addition, Drey says the Louisiana senator is a strong supporter of DOE policies. If the DOE chose to allow Tulane to study the Weldon Spring site, “I have to think that they are going to get the results that they want to get — which is there is no problem.

“(But) even raising the question helps. … We have to hope there will be a real scientist who is not paying attention to where his money comes from. Maybe that’s naive, but we have to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

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.”

_________________________________

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.

A War of Words

Environmentalist Kay Drey continues to advocate for the removal of waste from the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill

first published at stlreporter.wordpress.com, Jan. 23, 2015

“It just makes me sick,” say Kay Drey. The 81-year-old dean of the St. Louis environmental movement is sitting at her dining room table, which is scattered with various paperwork, including two dogeared reports issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency in the 1980s.

As the sun streams through a window of her University City home on this mild January morning, she bemoans the state of affairs related to the stalled clean up of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, a nearby St. Louis County suburban municipality.

The NRC reports to which she refers both candidly recommend the removal of the radioactively-contaminated materials from the landfill, which is located in the Missouri River flood plain upstream from water intakes for the city of St. Louis.

The waste, a byproduct of decades of uranium processing carried out by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works on behalf of the government’s nuclear weapons program, was illegally dumped at West Lake 40 years ago. Drey has been fighting various regulatory agencies to get it removed for almost as long.

On this day, Drey’s voice is failing. It can’t compete with Moxie, the family’s small dog, who yaps at a visitor’s feet. After the canine commotion subsides and breakfast dishes are cleared, Drey explains what is bothering her.

“They’re not talking about digging it up,” she says.

Removing the radioactively-contaminated materials from the St. Louis area to a federally-licensed nuclear waste depository in the sparsely-populated West has long been her goal.

In 2008, Drey and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment challenged the EPA’s record of decision on West Lake, which would have mandated a relatively cheap fix — capping the landfill with dirt and leaving the nuclear materials in place. Republic Services, the liable landfill owner, favors this remedy, which would allow the contamination to continue migrating into the ground water. The final decision is still up in the air along with noxious landfill fumes that have been the bane of nearby residents for the last four years.

Since 2010, public outrage over the issue has grown due to an underground fire at the adjacent Bridgeton landfill, which is part of the same EPA Superfund site. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is overseeing efforts to contain the fire, which is moving in the direction of the radioactive waste. To bolster DNR’s authority, the Missouri Attorney General’s office has filed suit against Republic for various infractions. Splitting responsibility for dealing with the problem between the state and federal agencies has led to further bureaucratic snafus. One of the impasses involves a state-mandated barrier wall to stop the fire from advancing.

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Drey and other activists advocate turning the clean up over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that has remediated other St. Louis radioactive sites under the Formerly Utilized Site Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), which targets sites contaminated with nuclear weapons waste from World War II. Gaining congressional approval for such a change has not happened, however, despite efforts by the activists to spur the St. Louis congressional delegation to sponsor the requisite federal legislation.

Meanwhile, Republic, the responsible party, keeps pushing the original capping proposal. The company’s public relations efforts have included backing a rural-based front group, the Coalition to Keep Us Safe which is against shipping radioactive material through the state. The Coalition to Keep Us Safe, via their twitter feed, routinely uses the words “capping” and “encapsulation” to mean the same thing. The terms are used interchangeably by the group, but “encapsulation” is not part of the 2008 Record of Decision issued by the EPA. The confusion of terms is not clear to a casual observer or to many members of the Coalition as seen in the tweets they post.

As the debate wears on, Drey sees support for removal of the waste waning. But she’s standing her ground. There is no compromise on this subject when viewed from her eyes. Those who consider capping as an option are abandoning the goal. In her opinion, it is indefensible to leave deadly radioactive waste to drain inevitably into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers forever.

Drey also sees how language is being used to obfuscate the issue. Supporters of capping the landfill often use the word “encapsulation” to describe the plan to leave the waste in the floodplain, leaking into the aquifer.

To make her point, Drey gets up from the dining room table and retrieves a worn dictionary from a bookshelf. She runs her index finger down the page to the entry and recites the definition: “Encapsulate: to encase in or as if in a capsule.”

“Does a capsule have just a top?” she asks.

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.