Under the Cloud

Author Richard Miller spent years uncovering the harm caused to Americans by nuclear fallout from atmospheric testing

first published in the Riverfront Times in the 1990s. 

BY C.D. STELZER

The image cast by the overhead projector showed a grainy snapshot of a boy with a crew cut crouched next to a tail-wagging dog. In the faded background, a pick-up truck could be seen parked next to a modest frame house. The time was 1955; the place Paris, Mo.

The bucolic setting could not have been more deceptive. When the spring rains fell that year, they permanently changed the lives of many residents of the small town in the northeast corner of the state, as they did countless other lives across the continent. But unlike the havoc reeked by floods or other natural disasters, the damage to humanity could not be immediately measured. At the time, few people knew anything about the effects of exposure to radioactive fallout. Nuclear weapons research, propelled by the arms race and the ensuing hysteria over national security, proceeded unimpeded. Between 1951 and 1963 more than one hundred above-ground atomic bombs blasts were detonated by the federal government at its Nev ada Test Site.

Richard L. Miller — the youngster in the photograph — has spent much of his adult life learning of the consequences of that nuclear atmospheric testing during the Cold War.

Last Saturday, the 50-year-old author displayed the black-and-white image from his childhood along with photographs of nuclear explosions at a conference of the National Association of Radiation Survivors, which convened at the Henry VIII Hotel on North Lindbergh Boulevard. Miller, who wrote Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing, feels both vindicated and disturbed by the findings of a recently released National Cancer Institute (NCI) study on the dangers of nuclear fallout.

“First and foremost, … it’s an admission by the government that they dose d the entire United States with fallout,” Miller told the audience. The NCI study made public in August took almost a decade-and-a-half to complete. It concludes that 10,000 to 75,000 people, who were exposed to high levels of fallout of as children, may contract thyroid cancer as a result.

The wind, rain and weather dispersed the isotope randomly across large sections of the U.S. and Canada, after the detonation of experimental atomic bombs blasts. Most of the children were exposed to the fallout, Iodine-131, by drinking contaminated milk.

Despite the belated confession by the federal government, Miller criticized the NCI report for excluding relevant data, which if taken into account would increase the potential health problems caused by the fallout. “There are two hundred other isotopes,” he says, “isotopes that can cause cancer in other parts of the body, including bone cancer and leukemia.” None of the those elements were factored into the study, however.

Miller found another oversight. “They did not include all the maps.” Miller caught the omission by comparing NCI data available on Internet with copies of 1959 Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and National Weather Service documents he had tucked away in his closet. Interestingly, the fal lout from the14 nuclear blasts excluded from the NCI study, all show fallout crossing into Canada, according to Miller.

“The NCI’s maps, to be charitable, are not very good. They don’t give the same amount of information that the originals do,” says Mi ller. “They spent 15 years working on this thing. … You would think that they would have the very best computer technology available to enhance the quality of the images.”

When Miller recently asked the Missouri Department of Health whether it had correlated data on fallout with any other forms of cancer other than the type that attack the thyroid gland, the agency said it had not. Regarding thyroid cancer, the health department claimed that based on available data there appeared to be no increase in the Missouri counties, Miller says.

Miller doesn’t agree with either finding. In his opinion, the state like its federal counterpart is continuing to exclude data that indicates cancer rates are tied to fallout exposure. In this case, the state faile d to even consider scientific findings that have been on the books for more than a decade. “The third national cancer survey published in 1983 shows spikes of thyroid cancer in a number of hot counties (in Missouri),” says Miller. “It also shows spikes o f leukemia in a number of the hot counties, as well as, bone cancer.”

Missouri has the dubious distinction of having more than two dozen counties among the 200 nationwide that were the most heavily contaminated by nuclear fallout, according to the NCI s tudy. The majority of the effected counties are in the northeast quadrant of the state, where Miller was born and raised.

“In 1968, my father, who was a tax collector for Monroe Co. (Mo.), which is one of the hot zones, noticed there was a high level of cancer in one particular part of the county,” says Miller. After joining the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the early 1970s, Miller himself had an opportunity to further investigate his father’s observations. He too foun d what appeared to be extraordinary numbers of cancer cases in Monroe County, and he subsequently informed epidemiologists at the University of Missouri. “This was 1975 and I haven’t heard from them since,” says Miller. A year later Miller’s father died of lung cancer.

Miller’s OSHA career next took him to Texas, where he began investigating a cluster of rare brain cancers at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Houston. When he attempted expand his investigation to a nearby Dow chemical facility, the Reagan administration called a halt to it and began shredding documents. The OSHA office where he worked was ultimately closed. It was during this period that a public health official suggested to him that the pocket of brain cancer cases in Houston may h ave been the result of nuclear fallout. When he looked into it, Miller did indeed discover a correlation between fallout patterns and brain cancer clusters in both Texas and Kentucky. His extensive research finally led him to write the book on the subje ct.

Currently, Miller operates a private environmental consulting firm in Houston that investigates toxic chemical contamination. He is also the author of a novel that is set in the nuclear fallout era.

The reasoning that led to mass radiation exposure is stranger than fiction, however. “They did it because they could,” says Miller of the government’s nuclear testing program. “I think they’re mistaken impression was that it was for the greater good. At the time, they thought that if we set off these bombs, if we caused hazards across the country, we may in some way be protecting the U.S. from possible attack by the Soviets. … (But) The Soviets didn’t even have an aircraft that could make it to the U.S. and back at that time,” says Miller.

“I be lieve the feds originally caused this problem, the AEC, specifically,” he adds. “It dosed Missouri with radioactive fallout. Now it’s up to the federal government to help Missouri out in terms of education programs and possibly compensation for medical c are for particular types of illnesses that are known to be associated with fallout. I believe the first order of business is to introduce a resolution that would ask for this additional funding. I would think that the representatives from the good state of Missouri would be the ones to do that.”

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Hot Property

 

 Profiteering and Political Cronyism Presaged the Dumping of Radioactive Waste at West Lake LandfillColonial

In 1969, the city of Bridgeton paid more than $200,000 for a 26-acre tract of land now known as the Bridgeton Athletic Complex (BMAC). The beneficiary of the land deal was an investment group headed by the late Kenneth Davis, co-owner of B&K Construction, the company responsible for later dumping tons of radioactively contaminated dirt at nearby West Lake Landfill.

Foes on the Bridgeton Council then estimated that investors made nearly a 100-percent profit on the deal, according to Bridgeton City Council minutes uncovered by STL Reporter.

Opponents also raised questions as to whether politics played a role in the lucrative transaction. Their suspicions centered on the cozy relationship between then-St. Ann Mayor Clarence Tiemeyer, one of the other investors in the land deal, and his frequent business partner Kenneth Davis, the co-owner of B&K.   Tiemeyer was then considered the most powerful municipal leader in North St. Louis County.

The Bridgeton land deal transpired during the scandal-ridden mayoral administration of Earl Davis (no known relation to Kenneth Davis). Mayor Davis was indicted in 1969 by the St. Louis County prosecutor for bribing a land developer in a separate scheme. He was acquitted of that charge.

The BMAC ball fields became a point of controversy again last year, when a group of community activists charged that soil samples indicated the presence of Lead 210, a radioactive isotope at the site.

After the activists announced their findings in May 2014,  then-Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers and EPA officials dismissed the evidence as unscientific and assured the public that the athletic fields were safe for use. Subsequent testing by the EPA confirmed the presence of radiation above background levels at the site but not exceeding the agency’s standard of remediation.

Activists countered by disputing the EPA’s methods and protocols.

Despite the recent attention, the history of the property has been largely ignored.

B&K Construction of St. Ann, Mo. dumped the radioactively contaminated materials at the landfill in North St. Louis County in 1973 while working under contract for the Cotter Corp. of Colorado.

Robert and Kenneth Davis, two brothers, formed B&K in 1954. During the long tenure of St. Ann Mayor Clarence Tiemeyer, the company maintained a profitable relationship with the city, receiving a raft of contracts for street repairs. In return, Kenneth Davis helped raise money for the mayor and his political allies.

Tieymeyer and Davis had other close ties, too, including sitting on the board of directors of Cherry Hills Country Club and Colonial Bank. The same bank would later be revealed to be the depository of Bridgeton Park Department funds even though it paid below average interest rates on the money.

A report issued by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1970 indicated that B&K employed off-duty police officers to guard the facility, which raises questions as to the possible complicity of local law enforcement in the illegal dumping. The Atomic Energy Commission and succeeding responsible government authorities have failed to investigate the history of this case.

Tiemeyer was a political ally of the late Rep. Robert Young, who maintained an office in the same strip mall as B&K’s headquarters on Cypress Road. Young, a Democrat and a member of the politically powerful steamfitters union, now known as the pipefitters,  served in the state legislature before becoming a U.S. congressman. In the early 1970s, press accounts revealed that Irene Young, the congressman’s wife, received payments from the city of St. Ann for acting as an insurance agent for the city.

During this period, Young’s labor union — Local 562 — held sway over politics in North St. Louis County, while its leadership was known to have ties to organized crime.

Locked Out in Metropolis

Honeywell workers learn the high cost of good-paying jobs

The troubles started a few years back, says the big man in the lawn chair,   an umbrella shielding him from the summer sun. His eyes squint as he explains the circumstances that led to his sitting on this barren stretch of highway on the outskirts
of Metropolis, Illinois. As he stares into the distance, in the direction of his union
hall, his words express a Southerner’s fatalism echoed by the drawl of his voice.

He calls his plight a cliché, for it is an old and familiar story in these parts.
Knowing such tales rarely end well, he speaks with resignation beyond his years.
His is a story of haves and have nots, which has been played out in Southern
Illinois for as long as anyone can remember. Metropolis may lay claim to
being the home of the Man of Steel, but the struggles of mere mortals have defined
this place.

Vestiges of those struggles can be seen in the hardscrabble towns that dot the
Shawnee Hills, a topography that connects Appalachia to the Ozark Plateau both
geographically and culturally. For motorists whizzing along Interstates 57
and 24 it is impossible to catch a fleeting glimpse of the dual sense of sadness and
survival that steep these hills and hollows.

But those sentiments can be heard in the tenor of the big man’s voice as surely as
the thunderheads can be seen gathering on the horizon on this scorching August
afternoon.

He says the troubles began when Honeywell International Inc. disbanded his
union’s safety committee. In its place, his employer implemented a program named
“behavioral safety,” a euphemism for a system that blames individual workers for
on-the-job accidents. As a result, plant workers refrained from reporting accidents
out of fear that they would lose their jobs.

The big man furrows his brow, as he describes how the program essentially
helped mask the continuing safety risks inside the plant. Workers’ morale declined
and labor disputes inside the plant accelerated.

The big man compares the work he does – uranium processing – to coal
mining an occupation with a long history in the Southern Illinois. Both are dirty and
fraught with potential safety hazards and chronic health risks. Since coal mining
petered out hereabouts, the nuclear energy

Honeywell plant helps supply processed uranium to the gaseous diffusion plant in
nearby Paducah, which further refines nuclear fuel. The facilities, which are both
radioactively contaminated, are products of the Cold War, built more than 50 years
ago as a part of the nuclear arms race against the former Soviet Union. They
now help supply enriched uranium to the nuclear power industry.

The labor problems peaked earlier this summer, after contract negotiations
between Steelworkers Local 7-669 and Honeywell broke down over the
company’s plan to reduce retiree health benefits and cut the pensions of newly
hired workers.

 On June 28, Honeywell
locked out its 220 union employees. The
company replaced its union workers with
non-union employees supplied by Shaw
Environmental and Infrastructure of Baton
Rouge, Louisiana. Shaw, a billion-dollar
corporation, holds numerous government
contracts with the Department of Energy
and the Department of Defense.

The lockout has had a ripple effect
across the entire nuclear energy industry,
causing the price of uranium companies’
stock to skyrocket. Closer to home, the
lockout is on the brink of sending the
already recession-wracked local economy
into a tailspin. With tempers flaring on
both sides, a once-cohesive community is on the verge of coming apart at the seams. The lockout has pitted management against labor and neighbor against
neighbor. The risks of potential nuclear mishap have raised tensions in the town of 6,500.

It has happened before.

In the early hours of Dec. 22, 2003, the plant inadvertently released seven pounds of uranium hexafluoride (UF-6). The accident prompted the immediate
evacuation of nearby residents. News reports issued at the time said no one was
hurt, but four or five residents were sent to the hospital for observation.

As recently as April, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a meeting at
the Massac County Courthouse to discuss the findings of a two-year safety study.
The study was prompted by past radiological and safety hazards inside the
plant. Despite the NRC’s review, the agency has issued repeated exemptions to
Honeywell so it can continue to operate despite the contamination. According to a
recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Honeywell is being
investigated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department for allegedly dumping radioactive sludge at its Metropolis
facility.

Hard times never really left Little Egypt, the name some old- timers still call the
pyramid-shaped area between the two great rivers.

Behind each levee there are countless human tragedies, tales of woe passed
down generations, remembrances of floods and droughts and man-made calamities like the lockout now in progress.

At the steel workers union hall, a member of the local’s negotiating
committee opens the meeting with an invocation. He prays for the sick, and for
all who are now unemployed, asking in Jesus’ name for strength. Across the road,
in front of the plant, the union has erected a memorial. Forty-two crosses symbolize
workers who have died of cancer; 27 smaller crosses represent those who have
so far survived the disease.

Later, in the parking lot, the man who gave the prayer, a 30-year employee at the
plant, says he hopes for a resolution to the labor problems so the men and women of
his union can return to work. He acknowledges that the plant has pockets of
radiation that are dangerous, but expresses no ill will toward the company. His
concern now is for those operating the plant; they’re untrained and, in his view,
unqualified to do the work.

Sitting on the tailgate of a visitor’s car, he nods in the direction of the uranium
plant, and says: “Somebody’s going to get killed.”