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.

Smoke Screen

Parsons Corporation, the lead design consultant on the EPA’s West Lake Superfund cleanup, previously conducted secret tests for the Army in St. Louis. 

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Parsons Corporation operated a secret aerosol testing program for the Army in 1953 at 5500 Pershing Ave. in St. Louis.

Parsons Corporation, the company tapped by the EPA to design the first phase of the long delayed West Lake Landfill Superfund cleanup, conducted secret aerosol testing in St. Louis for the U.S.  Army in the 1950s, according to research conducted by sociologist Lisa Martino-Taylor.

Parsons ran the covert military operation out of an office in the 5500 block of Pershing Ave.  in 1953, according to former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter William Allen, who also investigated the case.  The tests involved the spraying  of poor, inner-city neighborhoods without residents knowledge.  Workers who participated in the study were also kept in the dark.

Martino-Taylor first released her findings concerning the secret Army testing in December 2011 in a dissertation, while a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri. Her study received international media attention. She followed up her research in 2018 by publishing a book on the subject, Behind the Fog: How the U.S. Cold War Radiological Weapons Program Exposed Innocent Americans.

Speaking on Canadian national radio in 2012, Martino-Taylor revealed how the classified work was concealed from the public.  “There were layers of secrecy to this project,”  said Martino-Taylor. They had studies embedded within other studies. Much of this is still classified today.”

Smoke Screen: June 23, 1953 St. Louis Post-Dispatch press account created a false cover story for the secret tests conducted by Parsons for the Army.

The studies were originally initiated as a part of the work of the Manhattan Engineering District, the secret program to build the atomic bomb. Coincidentally, the radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill was a byproduct of uranium processing carried out for the Manhattan Project by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis.

Referring to the 1953 aerosol testing here, Martino-Taylor, explained in the Canadian radio interview how her research uncovered a pattern of interconnected secret experiments.  “Out of context it looked like an isolated incident,”  she told CBC talk show host Carol Oss.  “But when I started looking at the larger context about larger military contracts at the time, there was a lot of evidence that it was part of a national program that in fact included: injection, ingestion and inhalation studies on radiological materials done by a highly coordinated group of scientists-turned-military-officers that were working on the Manhattan Atomic Bomb Project. They were doing these studies around the country and they were looking for an area to target for an inhalation study. St. Louis was their closest match for Stalingrad and Moscow.”

Parsons and the Army falsely described the experiments in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as feasibility studies related to testing “a kind of smoke screen” to protect the St. Louis urban population from potential aerial attacks by foreign enemies.

Parsons also purchased help wanted ads in the Post-Dispatch seeking workers to conduct the testing. Decades later, the same newspaper revealed that three of the unsuspecting workers had later contracted bladder cancer and were seeking answers as to whether their illnesses were related to the secret program in which they unknowingly participated.

Post-Dispatch science reporter William Allen reported in July 1994, that the former Parsons employees in St. Louis were questioning whether their exposure to zinc cadmium sulfate during the testing was the cause of their cancer.

Don’t ask, don’t tell: Help wanted on a need-to-know basis.

A second round of classified testing in 1963 was conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service.

The EPA quietly announced Parsons as the preferred contractor for the West Lake cleanup  at a recent meeting of the technical committee of the Community Advisory Group (CAG).  A public meeting to discuss the clean up plans will be hosted by the  community group Just Moms STL and EPA Region 7 on Thursday July 25 at 6:30 p.m at the John Calvin Presbyterian Church,  12567 Natural Bridge Road in Bridgeton.

Parsons, which was founded in Pasadena, Calif. in 1944 by Ralph M. Parsons, was also involved in design studies related to future expansion plans of Lambert International Airport in St. Louis in the 1970s.

The selection of Parsons by the parties responsible for paying for the cost of the West Lake cleanup  follows the EPA’s final record of decision, which was announced in the fall of 2018. The EPA’s plan falls short of widespread public support for the full removal of the radioactive materials at the site.

The Department of Energy, Republic Services and Cotter Corporation are jointly liable for the clean up of the site under the Superfund Law. The EPA assumed authority over the site in 1990. Radioactive waste dating back to the Manhattan Project and Cold War was illegally dumped at the location in 1973. The federal government has known about the illegal dumping since 1975.

The choice of Parsons, which continues to do extensive classified defense work for U.S. military and intelligence agencies,  does little to dispel the prevailing lack of public confidence in the federal government’s long-stalled efforts to clean up the West Lake site.

 

 

 

 

 

“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.

Double Trouble

The presence here of plutonium — the most toxic of radio isotopes — is attributed to two sources. Finding either one is like looking for a needle in a haystack.  

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The Department of Energy doesn’t know where the plutonium is.

In March 2001, the DOE reported that the nuclear facility in Weldon Spring handled recycled uranium for years.  DOE investigators reported that 70,000 metric tons of recycled uranium passed through the plant between 1957 and 1966, when the Mallinckrodt Chemical ran the operation for the Atomic Energy Commission. The investigation calculated that 2.4 grams of plutonium would have present in this amount.

Recycled uranium is hotter because it has been irradiated in a nuclear reactor. At the time, it was estimated that exposure to one-millionth of an ounce of plutonium could cause cancer.

But the recycled uranium may not be the only source of potential plutonium contamination in the St. Louis region.

That’s because the Belgian Congo pitchblende that Mallinckrodt processed to make the first atomic bombs contains small amounts of plutonium, according to the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry.

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Waste byproducts from the pitchblende processing is known to have contaminated a several sites in the St. Louis area, including Coldwater Creek and West Lake Landfill.

 

 

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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