Caveat Emptor

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Council Joe Cronin (1st Dist) urges caution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

University of Missouri President Mun Y. Choi

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Bluffs tower over the Missouri River and the KATY Trail.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tune In

 

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The First Secret City goes prime time beginning June 6th

We are pleased to announce that The First Secret City will be broadcast in June each Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. on the Higher Education Channel (HEC) in St. Louis. Our film is being aired on Frames, a program dedicated to offering films by St. Louis filmmakers.

HEC is available on cable channels 108.26 or 118.26 through Charter TV in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County. For those with AT&T U-Verse please tune in channel 99. If you use a converter box please tune in to channel 989.

We thank HEC and Frames host Jim Althoff for providing this opportunity to share our film on the radioactive waste issue with a wider audience.

Before the creation of the secret cities of Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford, the Manhattan Project hired the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis to refine the first uranium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. For the next two decades, Mallinckrodt continued its classified work for the Atomic Energy Commission during the Cold War. The resulting radioactive waste contaminated numerous locations in the St. Louis area some of which have not been cleaned up 70 years after the end of World War II. Told through the eyes of an overexposed worker, the story expands through a series of interviews that careen down a toxic pathway leading to a fiery terminus at a smoldering, radioactively-contaminated landfill. The First Secret City is a feature-length documentary that reveals a forgotten history and its continuing impact on the community in the 21st Century, uncovering past wrongdoing and documenting the renewed struggles to confront the issue.

“One Good Reason to Avoid Landfills”

In a sarcastic email exchange, a Missouri Department of Natural Resources expert gives his candid assessment of the situation at West Lake Landfill, circa 2013. In a word, it’s “HORRIBLE.”

 

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For years, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has remained quiet regarding the situation at the West Lake Landfill. The state regulatory agency claims it can’t comment publicly because of pending litigation filed on its behalf by the Missouri attorney general against Republic Services, owner of the smoldering, radioactive landfill.

As a result, DNR’s reticence has helped spur mistrust among residents, who remain enraged over the stalled clean up of the EPA Superfund site in North St. Louis County, where an underground fire has been smoldering for more than four years.

The DNR email cited in this story — which was released by the state agency under the Missouri Sunshine Law, takes a small step towards breaks the state agency’s silence.

Unfortunately, it’s bad news.

In a word, the state official who penned the correspondence considers the stench wafting from West Lake Landfill as “HORRIBLE.” At the same time, he appears relieved that he isn’t responsible for dealing with the problem.

“The gas seeping out is HORRIBLE,” said Chris Cady, a DNR project manager for the agency’s Brownfields Clean Up Program. When Cady sent the message on March 28, 2013 to a family member, he also mentioned another danger: “If that wasn’t enough, a remote section of the landfill has thousands of tons of radioactive tailings from uranium enrichment by the Malinkcrodt (sic) Chemical St. Louis plant during the cold war which was moved and re-disposed there in 1973.”

Of course, there is nothing “remote” about the location of the radioactive waste at the landfill. The contamination is present prominently in two location, one of which borders the front of the landfill along St. Charles Rock Road. Moreover, since Cady wrote the email three years ago, the underground fire has moved even closer to the radioactive materials.

Cady, a PhD, also took exception to a warning raised in 2013 by an unnamed academic expert who also holds a doctoral degree. “Now some university professor (darn those PhDs) says the landfill gas could explode in a dirty bomb scenario and contaminate everyone with rad waste. Which is bogus, but simply adds fuel to the fire,” Cady wrote.

The recipient of Cady’s email responded by saying “the dirty bombe (sic) scenario is funny, or would be if it wasn’t so sad.”

Cady titled the subject of his email: “One good reason to avoid landfills,” and described the situation as a “mess.” He judged the problem to be “a bad one, [a] real public health threat and an emergency.” At the same time, Cady seemed to dismiss the risks posed by the radioactive materials, and said that the subsurface smoldering event at West Lake was not that “uncommon” despite their presence.

Based on his cavalier tone and condescending attitude, it’s a safe bet that the agency he represents is not intent on doing anything beyond kibitzing in private, and letting the fire run its course. In the meantime, about the only action the DNR can be counted on to do is  doles out more contracts to privateers.

Rocky Top

Home values in Spanish Village may have declined due to its proximity to the stinking West Lake Landfill. But besieged subdivision dwellers also live on top of a limestone deposit worth a fortune.

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In 1986, the West Lake Quarry and Material Company sought to expand its quarry operations to an adjacent hillside next to Spanish Village subdivision, thereby gaining access to valuable limestone deposits. The city of Bridgeton nixed the proposal.

The ranch-style homes in the Spanish Village subdivision are reminiscent of the not-so-distant past, an idyllic reflection of the 20th Century in our collective rear-view mirror.  Driving by the neatly  trimmed lawns there is no clue that the Bridgeton city park at the end of a cul de sac was once owned by the West Lake Quarry or that it is potentially contaminated with radioactive waste. There’s no hint of the valuable natural resources that lie beneath the surface, either.

Some older residents may remember the park deal that was hashed out in the 1970s by the city council and the then-landfill owners. Records of the sale are buried in the Bridgeton Council minutes. The memory also may lingers the minds of a few present and former locally elected officials.

But they’re not talking.

Talking is something that comes naturally to trial lawyers, however, and, in the summer of 2014, personal injury attorney Daniel P. Finney held court under the eaves of the park pavillion.  A midday thunderstorm rumbled over the hill, but the lawyer didn’t pause. The ensuing rain, offered him a captive audience under the shelter.

As the rain poured down, the lawyer made his best case for signing up with his law firm. He was forthright in his pleadings and offered no promises. He understood the difficulty of proving that radioactive and chemical contaminants from the nearby West Lake landfill had effected the subdivision residents’ health.

Last week, 34 residents, who signed with Finney, reached an out-of-court settlement with a subsidiary of Republic Services, the current owner of the West Lake Landfill Superfund site, where radioactive waste was dumped in 1973. The lawsuit compensates homeowners for their exposure to noxious odors due to an underground fire at the landfill. Terms of the agreement were not made public, but the settlement likely denies the plaintiffs any future redress of grievances.

Those who didn’t take part in the lawsuit remain in limbo. One of the obvious negotiating issues for the Spanish Village property owners is their individual home values, which is based on comparable residential real estate in St. Louis County. The toxic odors wafting from the landfill have decreased home values in the subdivision.

But there is an added value to their property that isn’t being considered. The missing factor in the property evaluation is that the houses are built on top of a precious natural resource — limestone.

The landfill itself, after all, is located at the site of a former quarry, which sits on the edge of the Missouri River flood plain.  Past owners of the landfill founded their business on the presence of the abundant limestone deposits, which are an essential commodity of the construction trade.  In a nutshell, they dug huge holes in the ground to mine and sell the rock deposits and then made more money by charging waste haulers to fill the excavations with all manner of trash, including toxic nuclear and chemical pollutants. The resulting contamination is now leaking into the groundwater.

The EPA has announced it will make its final decision on the clean up plan for West Lake by the end of the year. Under the EPA’s guidelines, there are three proposed alternatives: capping the waste and leaving it in place; excavating and removing it; or a compromise solution that involves a partial excavation. All three alternatives will require massive amounts of  limestone rock materials in one form or another. Transporting the rock from other quarries would be a time consuming and expensive operation.

But there is another option. The nearest limestone deposits to West Lake Landfill are on the adjacent hillside — the location of the Spanish Village subdivision.

The public, including some residents of the subdivision, may not be aware of the limestone deposits, but it is not a secret to state and federal agencies. The U.S. Geological Survey is aware of the limestone deposits because they surveyed the area decades ago. USGS’s counterpart, the Missouri Geological Survey, mapped the area to ascertain the location of mineral deposits in the area. So they know about the location and value of the deposits, too. Moreover, the Missouri Geological Survey is an arm of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for monitoring the underground fire that is burning at the Superfund site.

There is evidence that that the landfill owners in the past have also been aware of the value of the nearby limestone. That’s because they asked the city of Bridgeton to rezone part of the adjacent hill so it could be quarried more than 30 years ago.

In 1986, West Lake Quarry and Materials Co. asked permission from the city of Bridgeton to expand its quarry operations south of Boenker Lane on 23-acres of a 180-acre tract of land it owned — which abuts Spanish Village. The monetary value of the limestone deposits at the site were estimated in 1986 to be worth $64 million. The Bridgeton Planning and Zoning Commission denied the request.

The  value of the limestone deposits in 2016 would obviously be far greater because of its proximity to the Superfund site. It’s a matter of supply and demand. In short, whoever is contracted to remediate the contaminated landfill by the government is going to need large quantities of limestone rock, gravel and cement.

The radioactive waste at West Lake Landfill was first generated as a part of the Manhattan Engineering District’s secret project to build an atomic bomb. The uranium was processed in St. Louis under a classified contract between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and  the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works.

The Manhattan Project was born in secrecy and secrecy remains a constant variable in the 70-year-old saga. There is every reason for this dire situation to be handled with expediency. But history tells us that timely action has never been part of this catastrophe’s chronology.

Openness would offset the doubts and fears that besiege the residents of Bridgeton and the entire region. Instead, negotiations concerning this eminent public health threat are far too often still conducted behind closed doors. Deals are struck, moneyed interests placated.

The trash company liable for this mess bears a name and a logo that evokes patriotism. Its shiny blue trucks lumber through our neighborhoods.  Other responsible parties include Chicago’s electric utility company and the Department of Energy, the successor to the Atomic Energy Commission, which was spawned by the Manhattan Project. This trio’s  combined lobbying power extends from City Hall to the White House.

To believe that they will do the right thing of their own volition is like the proverbial frog  trusting the scorpion to act against its predatory instincts. As the compromises are hashed out and alliances shift, lawyers will continue to talk,  politicians will keep making deals, and the free marketeers will line up once again to feed at the trough.

None of these machinations confront the dangers posed by the nuclear waste that is hitching a ride with fire, wind and rain. Nature is undeterred by human folly. Frankly, it doesn’t give a damn.

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Equally obscured by the carefully landscaped yards is the interest that the Missouri Geological Survey had in the area back in the late 1980s, when the agency partially redrew its maps to better understand the composition of natural resources that lie beneath the surface. Understanding the area’s geology of the nearby hills and  adjacent Missouri River flood plain is driven as much by commerce as science.

That’s because the underground karst topography is composed  deposits of limestone, a valuable commodity used for various construction purposes, including levees, roads and home construction.

Residents of Spanish Village nowadays are more concerned about the stench of toxic chemicals whaffing from the nearby West Lake Superfund site, which

 

ecades ago the Missouri Geological Survey took an interest in the area for reasons other than

 

New Effort Planned To Get Quarry OK’d

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) (Published as St. Louis Post-Dispatch) – February 26, 1990Browse Issues

The Bridgeton City Council has rezoned about 173 acres near the Spanish Village subdivision so that the land owner, West Lake Cos., can build a factory. But that’s not what West Lake wants.

The company has applied for rezoning that would allow quarrying. The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission is expected to make a recommendation on that matter at a meeting scheduled for 7:30 tonight at Bridgeton City Hall, 11955 Natural Bridge Road.

The company wants to quarry the limestone that lies just under the dirt on the ridge. Company officials say that a 20-year supply, with a value estimated at $64 million, is sitting there. The company has been trying for four years to get at it.

The council rezoned the land at a meeting Wednesday. This was the latest move in a series of rezonings, driven by court rulings since 1986.

West Lake Cos. is owned by the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the Shrine of St. Jude and the Propagation of Faith.

The company owned and operated West Lake Landfill nearby until l988, when Laidlaw Waste Systems bought it. But West Lake Cos. retained ownership of the remainder of the land.

In late 1985, West Lake Cos. determined that it was running out of rock at its quarry north of Boenker Lane and applied to Bridgeton to dig a new quarry south of Boenker. The landfill is operating in the depleted quarry hole.

The land where West Lake wanted the new quarry was zoned for single-family houses. Rezoning was required.

But the landfill and quarry and the potential quarry are situated behind Spanish Village subdivision. Residents there adamantly opposed a new quarry. They said that blasting at the old quarry had shaken their houses and caused them distress.

West Lake officials said that if they didn’t open the new quarry, they would have to lay off most of their workers at the company’s plants nearby.

At one point, the City Council got a petition signed by 125 Spanish Village residents in protest against the proposal for a new quarry and a petition signed by 114 West Lake employees in favor of it.

The City Council declined to change the zoning. West Lake sued. A judge ordered Bridgeton to find a more reasonable zoning than residential for the property. Bridgeton rezoned it to B-5, planned commercial, and M-3, planned manufacturing. Offices could be built in both zoning classifications.

But West Lake pressed the matter in court.

Bridgeton had an M-2 manufacturing classification that would have allowed quarrying with a special-use permit. The city removed the quarrying provision from the M-2 classification. And M-2 is what the council rezoned the area to on Wednesday.

But West Lake has applied to the city for M-1, manufacturing zoning, the only zoning classification that allows quarrying, with a special-use permit. The Planning and Zoning Commission held a hearing on the rezoning at a meeting Feb. 12 and may make a recommendation at tonight’s meeting.

If the council agrees to rezone the area for M-1, then the commission may take up the matter of the special-use permit.

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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The Uranium Cookbook

The EPA’s recent tests of West Lake nuke waste are not unprecendted. Sixty-five years ago the AEC published a recipe by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works  on “roasting”  pitchblende. 

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“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” is President Harry S Truman’s  most noted quip. But Truman is remembered more for actions than words.

He ordered the atomic bomb attacks on Japan that ended World War II. Much of the uranium used in those bombs came from African pitchblende ore and was processed by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis. The classified work continued during the Cold War nuclear arms race that followed. As a result, radioactive waste was haphazardly strewn at sites across the region for 20 years.

Embers of that fateful era are still burning today in North St. Louis County, where leftovers from the Manhattan Project remain a topic of heated discussions.

“Heat” is exactly what the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio applied in its laboratory experiments earlier this year. The purpose of research was to determine whether uranium waste from the makings of the first atomic bombs — dumped decades ago at the West Lake Landfill — threatens to release harmful radon gas if exposed to increased temperatures.

Spurred by public concern, the EPA commissioned the study to see what would occur if the underground fire raging at the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill met the radioactively-contaminated materials (RIM) buried at the West Lake Superfund site. The question has been smoldering since December 2010, when landfill owner Republic Services reported the hellish conditions.

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The good news, according to the EPA, is that the tests confirmed that baking RIM does not increase radon gas emissions and in some instances decreases them. Community activists have hotly contested those findings, questioning whether the simulated laboratory conditions are comparable to the real fire in the hole.

The latest assurances appear to be another attempt to stem the firestorm of public distrust that surrounds the topic.  Meanwhile, the subterranean smoldering event, as the EPA prefers to call it, continues to burn closer to the RIM.

As the sparks from this drama inevitably create more smoke than light, it should be kept in mind that the flouted tests are not the first to measure the effects of heat on pitchblende. That distinction goes to the Atomic Energy Commission, which published a Mallinckrodt report on the subject in December 1950.

The title of the 65-year-old tract, “The Roasting of Pitchblende Ore,” seems more applicable to a macabre cookbook than a scientific treatise. It also conjures up a combination of Arthurian alchemy and biblical fire and brimstone.

Brimstone is the ancient word for sulfur.

Up to ten percent of the content of the pitchblende ore was comprised of sulfur, according to the Mallinckrodt study. In the 20th Century, the Mallinckrodt scientists were not concerned about the health impact of the sulfur or radioactive materials for that matter. Instead, they theorized that removing the sulfur by cooking the pitchblende would save the company money and increase profits.

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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 Weldon Spring Saga

from the Riverfront Times by C.D. Stelzer, 1993

At Weldon Spring, in rural St. Charles County, Mo.,  a quarry and nearby uranium plant were contaminated with chemical and nuclear materials.  As a result, radioactive water is now seeping through limestone into the groundwater. If the quarry water is not removed, there is a chance the seepage will soon reach nearby well fields that supply most St. Charles County s with water.

The contaminants include TNT and DNT, World War II-vintage esxplosives dumped at the site by the Atlas Powder Co. After the war, tons of mixed radioavtive wastes were thrown in the quarry by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works. The waste continued to be hauled to the quarry until 1968.

So in 1986, the DOE began an ambitious 12-year cleanup at the two sites. The estimated cost to the EPA Superfund has doubled since 1989, and now stands at between $650 and $850 million. About $4 million of that money has gone to build the water treatment plant at the quarry.

The discharge is the first of 20 million gallons to be released into the river over the next five years. After drainage, solid radioactive wastes will still have to be removed. The second batch of quarry water is supposed to be treated in late January [1994].

Compton, Mallinckrodt and the Wash U Connection

Arthur Holly Compton had won the 1927 Nobel Prize for his work on X-Rays, which he did while the head of the physics department at Washington University. Later, at the University of Chicago, he became involved in overseeing work being done there on the Manhattan Project. As a part of that role, Compton came to St. Louis in April 1942 and asked chemical tycoon Edward J. Mallinckrodt, to help purify large quantities of uranium needed for the project. Three months later, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works was cranking out a ton of purified uranium daily. By December 1942, a team of scientists at the University of Chicago, led by Enrico Fermi, had generated and controlled the first nuclear chain reaction.

During his post-war tenure as chancellor at Washington University, Compton attracted Manhattan Project scientists such as Arthur C. Wahl and Joseph W. Kennedy, two of the discoverers of plutonium. Kennedy died at age 40 of cancer, only two years after he and his partners had sold the rights to the plutonium separation process to the AEC for $400,000.