For the Birds

In 2005, the city of St. Louis paid the owner of the Bridgeton Landfill a bundle to gain control of activities at the West Lake Landfill Superfund Site on behalf of the city-owned airport. Today, the city’s role remains largely invisible even though it may ultimately determine the future of the cleanup — if it hasn’t already.  

Karen Nickel of Just Moms STL introducing St. Ann alderwoman and County Council candidate Amy Poelker at a 2016 candidate forum sponsored by the organization.

Since 2013, Just Moms STL, a community organization, has held monthly meetings to raise public awareness of the EPA’s  West Lake Landfill Superfund Site in Bridgeton, Mo., a St. Louis suburb where nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project was illegally dumped in 1973.

At the opening of each meeting, organizers take a moment to recognize area elected officials or their representatives who are in attendance. They run the gamut of local to federal office holders: municipal councilmen, St. Louis County Council members, state legislators, representatives from the office of the St. Louis County executive, aides from all four members of the St. Louis congressional delegation.

It’s an impressive show of bi-partisan political support for citizens who are confronting this long-neglected environmental disaster.

But one seat in the room is always empty.

Noticeably missing from these gatherings — for the past four years — are representatives of the city of St. Louis or its mayor. Their absence comes despite the city’s having struck a deal with the landfill owner in 2005 that essentially allows the city to dictate operations at the former landfill forever.

The city acquired this influence in the old-fashioned way: It paid cash.

Under the 2005 agreement, which was brokered during the administration of then-Mayor Francis Slay, the city paid $400,000 to Allied Waste, the disposal company that then owned the troubled property. In return, St. Louis gained the legal authority to end operations there. The landfill was required to stop accepting trash and refrain from any further excavation.  Moreover, the site owner is mandated to conform in perpetuity to the restrictive terms set forth by the city of St. Louis inside the Superfund site. The covenant between the property owner and the city is neither superseded nor negated by the EPA’s separate land use restrictions.

In short: The city controls the site.

 

Under the agreement, not a speck of dirt may be dug up, turned over, rearranged, or excavated without the city’s approval. The city through its St. Louis Airport Authority,— has resisted any amendment of the agreement, citing federal safety regulations.

Though negotiations to alter the ruling have dragged on for years, the impasse has been downplayed or ignored by the news media and the public at large.

The fine print in the 2005 accord stipulates that future owners of the property must abide by the same set of restrictions. This means that the restrictive covenants put in place 12 years ago now apply to Republic Services, the waste disposal company that acquired the site as part of a merger in 2008.

Republic bought into the toxic mess at the West Lake Superfund Site when it acquired Arizona-based Allied Waste, which in turn had purchased the site from Laidlaw Waste Systems in 1996. The following year, Allied Waste merged Laidlaw Waste Systems of Missouri to create a Delaware registered subsidiary —  Bridgeton Landfill LLC.  That’s the company that the city of St. Louis cut the deal with in 2005.

If all of this sounds confusing, it’s because it is.

But one detail is clear:  Though the corporate ownership shifted, one executive’s name has been tied to the toxic landfill for 20 years: Donald Slager — the current CEO of Republic Services.

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 9.11.02 AMAs a company officer of Allied Waste, Slager signed the 1997 merger agreement that registered Bridgeton Landfill in Delaware, a state known for its strict corporate secrecy laws.

Sealing the little-known 2005 property pact with Bridgeton Landfill — known as a “negative easement” — allowed  the airport authority to comply with a Federal Aviation Administration  safety regulation related to flight risks posed by birds at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Bird strikes by commercial aircraft are fairly common and reopening the West Lake landfill could attract flocks of hungry birds. But in this case, disagreement exists as to whether the presence of birds at West Lake outweighs the hazard posed by allowing radioactive waste to continue polluting the environment.

FAA rules are focused on hazards in the sky, not on earth. So to address the winged threat, the FAA mandates that airports accommodating passenger jet service be located at least 10,000 feet from active landfills. The West Lake Superfund Site, of which the Bridgeton Landfill is a part, lies 9,100 feet from the nearest Lambert runway.

“Under the FAA regulations,  the airport is responsible for ensuring proper wildlife management practices are in place for whatever mitigation is ultimately selected for the landfill,” says FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory.  “The goal is to minimize any possibility for potential bird strikes.”

Granted that leverage, the city of St. Louis has found a way to kill two birds with one stone. It bought the negative easement ostensibly to conform with the federal regs but in so doing it acquired considerable influence over the choice of method that will ultimately be used to clean up the site.

In this case, a relatively obscure clause within a federal regulation is being used by the city to block plans to either contain the radioactive materials at West Lake or — the preferred choice of many community members — remove them. As a result, the air safety regulation presents a fixed impediment to the EPA’s efforts to address the long-term goal of protecting human health and the environment at the site.

The airport authority advocates capping the waste in place — the cheapest option. By no small coincidence, this remedy is also supported by Republic Services, the landfill’s owner.

In its 2008 record of decision, the EPA also favored leaving the waste in place and capping it, but the agency is now reconsidering the plan after encountering public opposition. In the interim, the agency acknowledged that seepage from the unlined landfill is contaminating groundwater at the site — which is located in a floodplain, 1 mile from the Missouri River.

The estimated cost of capping the landfill with dirt and gravel is $40 million. Removing the waste could cost 10 times as much. Though capping may save money, it merely buries the problem, and only ensures further contamination of the aquifer. Nor does it do anything to snuff out the underground fire that’s smoldering at the site.

The dilemma that no government source seems to want to talk about is whether the EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment should take a backseat to a FAA reg that may or may not help ensure safety of air travelers. The EPA, St. Louis Airport Authority, and office of Lyda Krewson, the new St. Louis mayor, were all asked to comment and declined.

Enforcement of the FAA regulation on preventing bird strikes involves yet another federal agency, the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Wildlife Services. Agents from that agency were spotted inspecting the site earlier this spring. A spokesman for the agency declined comment.

A USDA vehicle was seen at the West Lake site on April 13. (photo by Robbin Ellison Dailey.)

Previous public statements by the airport director have indicated that the airport’s deal with the property owner has cut down the number of bird strikes at Lambert and that for this reason the 2005 agreement should not be amended or nullified.

In a five-page letter written by airport director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge to then–EPA West Lake Landfill Superfund Site project manager Dan Gravatt in September 2010, she acknowledged the seriousness of the presence of uncontrolled radioactive waste at the site but said that any action taken must not compromise the city’s obligation to protect public safety.

“The USDA Wildlife Service has advised the City that uncovered radiologically-impacted municipal waste at the West Lake Landfill will serve as a food attractant for a variety of bird species and increase the risk of bird/aircraft strikes at the airport,” Hamm-  Niebruegge wrote.

The airport director cited 600-plus incidences of bird strikes recorded at Lambert since the 1990s. After implementation of the 2005 agreement, she said, there was a marked reduction in such occurrences. The city again opposed digging at the landfill in 2014, when the EPA considered building a barrier to halt the advance of the underground fire burning in the direction of the radioactive waste. In this case, Hamm-Niebruegge and Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for Mayor Slay, co-signed a letter nixing any digging at the site for the same reasons cited four years earlier.

 

The ornithological suspects in the kamikaze flights have reportedly included vultures, geese, hawks, gulls, owls, and the lowly pigeon.

The safety of 13 million travelers flying in and out of Lambert each year each year was at stake, according to the airport director’s 2010 missive. It is unclear from the letter, however, whether any casualties have resulted from these mismatched encounters besides those suffered by our fine feathered friends.

“The plans shared with the Airport … indicate that any isolation barrier alternative will result in substantial amounts of putrescible wastes being excavated and managed at the landfill over a long indeterminate period of time. Due to the amount of putrescible waste being excavated and the lengthy period of the project, the Airport believes there is potential for a bird hazard to develop from activities associated with the construction of an isolation barrier,” Hamm-Niebruegge and Rainford wrote.

The barrier was never built, and the fire is still burning.

Some think the airport’s stance is for the birds.

Critics include former Missouri state Rep. Bill Otto, whose 70th District included Bridgeton and part of St. Charles County. Otto is a retired air traffic controller and a founding member of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. He worked for decades at Lambert when the airport was a hub for TWA and American Airlines. In his opinion, excavating the landfill to remove the radioactive and chemical contaminants does not pose a realistic safety hazard, and the fear of bird strikes is unwarranted.

Former Missouri state Rep. Bill Otto.

“It’s simply not true. It is not a factor,” Otto says. He bases his belief on more than 20 years of professional experience. In his long tenure at Lambert, Otto says, the airport never experienced problems with birds resulting from landfill operations. At that time, the dump was open for business and accepting all manner of household refuse and garbage, as well as toxic waste. He adds that the airport then handled 75 percent greater air traffic volume.

Even if birds suddenly became an issue during the cleanup, Otto believes air traffic controllers could simply change traffic patterns to avoid the risks. Moreover, the cleanup plan itself could include measures to help keep birds from posing a hazard. “There are all kinds of ways to deal with it on a long-term or short-term basis,” Otto says.

Otto suspects that the real reason for the bird flap is two-legged interference on the ground. “Republic Services [the landfill owner] is pushing the airport, using the potential for bird activities as a reason it shouldn’t be excavated,” he says. “Honestly, I think it’s a political maneuver on their part.” Otto sees cleaning up the landfill as the top priority: “The needs of the community are greater than the traffic flow at the airport.”

Russ Knocke, the chief spokesman for Republic Services, did not return a call requesting a response to Otto’s comments.

The EPA’s own National Remedy Review Board concurs with Otto’s assessment. In its 2013 review of the West Lake Superfund Site, the NRRB stated that most of the contaminated sections of the landfill are located farther than 10,000 feet from any Lambert runway.

Moreover, the NRRB asserted that bird-related problems could be handled with little difficulty. “It should be feasible to use netting or devices (e.g. moveable tent or building) for the short amount of time that would be needed to excavate or treat the RIM [radiologically impacted materials],” said the the NRRB.

Most important, the NRRB review stated that the environmental law that governs EPA Superfund sites is not restricted by the airport’s move to conform to FAA regulations. The review board, however, may only offer its opinion; it has no enforcement powers. In other words, the negative easement held by the St. Louis Airport Authority has not been overturned and remains legally binding.

Many Bridgeton residents have difficulty accepting the airport authority’s position at face value. Their doubts are based on shared history and collective memory. The distrust stems from the imposition of past FAA and EPA fiats by the city of St. Louis and its airport authority. At first glance, these events seem unrelated, but they’re part of the same long-term plan that has had a devastating overall impact on Bridgeton.

Grasping how these machinations fit together requires some understanding of the political jurisdictions that divide the St. Louis area. Bridgeton is one of more than 90 incorporated municipalities in St. Louis County.  These suburban fiefdoms surround the city of St. Louis, which is itself independent from St. Louis County thanks to boundaries drawn in the late 19th century. The idea of unifying the region is the subject of perennial civic debate that has never progressed beyond the talking stage. Because of this peculiar jurisdictional arrangement, the city of St. Louis has been stymied from exerting influence over the independent incorporated municipalities in St. Louis County.

Bridgeton is the exception to that rule: The city of St. Louis owns the airport — which is located inside the Bridgeton city limits.

The deal hashed out in 2005 between the city of St. Louis and the landfill owner was originally spurred by airport expansion plans initiated in the 1990s, most notably a proposal to build a controversial billion-dollar runway. The now-completed runway project required more than 2,000 homes in Bridgeton’s Carrollton subdivision to be razed so the airport could adhere to EPA sound-abatement guidelines.

Though many Carrollton residents opposed the forced buy-out, bulldozing moved forward in a matter of years. More than 5,000 Bridgeton citizens were dislocated, and the city of St. Louis is now the absentee landlord of the abandoned property, which resembles a ghost town. The homes are gone, but vestiges of habitation still haunt the place. Ornamental trees and shrubbery dot the landscape. Grassy lawns outline where homes once stood. Light standards and utility poles provide an eerie symmetry. A living room sofa sits in the middle of one former thoroughfare.

An empty  street in the abandoned Carrollton subdivision.   (photo by Alison Carrick)                                            

Across town from Carrollton, another Bridgeton subdivision now finds itself in limbo. Residents of Spanish Village endure the stench from the underground fire at the nearby West Lake Superfund Site, their lives in a holding pattern while the EPA’s bureaucracy and the city of St. Louis wrangle over the terms of the clean up.

Robbin Ellison Dailey is one of the Spanish Village residents whose lives have been affected by the West Lake mess. Her husband Mike, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was recently hospitalized because of the condition. The couple, who’ve been exposed to the air pollution from the dump for years, have filed a lawsuit against the current owner of the landfill. Late last year, independent testing confirmed the presence of radiological particles in their home, and since then other homes in the subdivision have tested positive. But the EPA’s sampling of Spanish Village residences did not detect increased levels of radioactive materials. The agency says there is no reason for concern.

Not surprisingly, Dailey doesn’t trust the EPA’s findings any more than she believes the airport’s reasons for opposing excavation at the landfill.

“I think it’s the lamest excuse I have ever heard,” says Dailey. “It’s like they’re [willing] to put safety of aircraft over the safety of individuals and communities that are having to live with this problem in their midst.” There is no need to sacrifice the safety of either, in her opinion. She says that airport controllers could guide planes around the landfill, using a different flight path. “They don’t have to come in over the landfill. This bird situation is absolutely ridiculous.”

Dailey’s view seems reasonable, but decisions regarding the landfill never have been dictated by common sense or the common welfare. Instead, the priorities of powerful special interests appear to be what’s guiding policy decisions.

According to the EPA’s 2011 supplemental feasibility study: “The city’s control over the site “shall end only if and when the City of St. Louis chooses in its sole and absolute discretion to abandon its negative easement.” Persuading the airport authority to relinquish the power it holds over the site is unlikely; it has shown no sign that its position has changed. In its 2011 report, the EPA noted that the airport authority had indicated that any “excavation remedy would create risks that they could not even calculate.”

Although the airport authority has paid lip service to addressing environmental hazards at the site, the landfill’s litany of pollution problems is apparently still off its radar. Besides the underground fire, the final cleanup plan must take into account the radioactive and chemical contaminants that are known to be leaking into the aquifer in the floodplain, just a mile from the Missouri River, which provides drinking water to a large portion of the region’s population.

When asked to give the city’s position on the West Lake issue, a spokesman for newly elected St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson declined to comment. The reticence itself sends a message: It’s business as usual at City Hall.

The original version of this story incorrectly cited Laidlaw Waste Systems as the company that signed the negative easement with the St. Louis Airport Authority in 2005. That is incorrect. Allied Waste, the then-owner of the Bridgeton Landfill, agreed to the arrangement. 

Airport Site Description, 1997

Airport Overview
from 1997 Riverfront Times reporting by C.D. Stelzer

It’s hard to tell, at a glance, that the work in progress here is part of an overall federal project estimated to cost nearly $800 million. Ordinary building materials — bales of straw, rocks and plastic sheeting — create a setting common to construction sites. But this is no ordinary erosion-control action. Soil at this location, known in regulatory circles as SLAPS (St. Louis airport site), harbors deadly byproducts of the nuclear-weapons industry, which developed during World War II and mushroomed in the Cold War. From 1946 until the mid-1960s, the U.S. Army — and, later, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) — dumped hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of radioactive waste, residue from uranium processing at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis.

As a consequence, the acreage, which is now owned by the St. Louis Airport Authority, has been contaminated with increased levels of uranium-238, radium-226 and thorium-230, according to the DOE. This is no new discovery, of course. Official foot-dragging has been going on for decades. More than 20 years ago the DOE discovered that contaminants had migrated into ditches next to McDonnell Boulevard, where they have settled only inches from the surface. There are still no signs to warn passersby or curious onlookers of this danger.

Failure to inform the public and act in a timely manner has been the hallmark of this case. At the same time, public-health officials have consistently downplayed or ignored the potential health consequences of radiation exposure. After allowing the waste to spread for more than 50 years, the federal government is now belatedly rushing to deal with the problem in a fashion comparable to its past negligence. In the process, rules have been sidestepped and decisions made without a full understanding of their implications. The powers-that-be first attempted to keep the problem a secret, after World War II, for “national-security reasons.” By the late 1970s, however, the festering pollution had become a heated public issue.

The waste itself has proven even more difficult to contain than the controversy over it.

Coldwater is Hot

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

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

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

It’s hard to tell, at a glance, that the work in progress here is part of an overall federal project estimated to cost nearly $800 million. Ordinary building materials — bales of straw, rocks and plastic sheeting — create a setting common to construction sites. But this is no ordinary erosion-control action. Soil at this location, known in regulatory circles as SLAPS (St. Louis airport site), harbors deadly byproducts of the nuclear-weapons industry, which developed during World War II and mushroomed in the Cold War. From 1946 until the mid-1960s, the U.S. Army — and, later, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) — dumped hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of radioactive waste, 100_1341residue from uranium processing at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis.

As a consequence, the acreage, which is now owned by the St. Louis Airport Authority, has been contaminated with increased levels of uranium-238, radium-226 and thorium-230, according to the DOE. This is no new discovery, of course. Official foot-dragging has been going on for decades. More than 20 years ago the DOE discovered that contaminants had migrated into ditches next to McDonnell Boulevard, where they have settled only inches from the surface. There are still no signs to warn passersby or curious onlookers of this danger.

Failure to inform the public and act in a timely manner has been the hallmark of this case. At the same time, public-health officials have consistently downplayed or ignored the potential health consequences of radiation exposure. After allowing the waste to spread for more than 50 years, the federal government is now belatedly rushing to deal with the problem in a fashion comparable to its past negligence. In the process, rules have been sidestepped and decisions made without a full understanding of their implications. The powers-that-be first attempted to keep the problem a secret, after World War II, for “national-security reasons.” By the late 1970s, however, the festering pollution had become a heated public issue.

The waste itself has proven even more difficult to contain than the controversy over it.

COLDWATER CREEK, which is next to the site, flows through a large section of North St. Louis County and has acted as a convenient vehicle to transport the toxic materials. So far, radioactive contaminants are known to have hitched a ride downstream more than seven miles, according to the DOE. And the migration is continuing. Tests conducted in late 1994 show stormwater runoff at the location still exceeding acceptable radiation levels set by the agency. Drinking-water intakes for the city of St. Louis are located several miles downstream from the site, on the Mississippi River at Chain of Rocks. The radioactive migration by way of groundwater has also been confirmed but is less well understood.

For years, the DOE claimed the waste presented no danger. But the scientific community, which has been moving much more slowly than the waste, has finally concluded that no safe level of radiation exposure exists. By the time this decision was made several years ago, it was also widely accepted that one direct effect of long-term exposure to low-level radiation is cancer.

The $8.3 million cleanup along Coldwater Creek is the first stage of the long-anticipated project. The initial phase involves removing at least 6,000 cubic yards of the contaminated soil to a licensed repository for low-level radioactive waste, located in Utah. The amount is only a small fraction of the contaminated materials that may ultimately be excavated and shipped from the site. The approximate completion date: 2004.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three thousand people live within a one-mile radius of the airport site, according to DOE estimates. From the airport, Coldwater Creek flows northeast for 15 miles, touching the communities of Berkeley, Hazelwood, Florissant and Black Jack before discharging into the Missouri River. The city of St. Louis drinking-water intakes at Chain of Rocks, which supply water to hundreds of thousands of people, are five miles downstream from where the Missouri joins the Mississippi.

By any standard it is a densely populated watershed. DOE guidelines for thorium and radium concentrations mandate they not exceed 5 picocuries per gram averaged over the first 15 centimeters of soil and 15 picocuries per gram in subsequent soil layers of the same thickness. Analysis conducted for DOE in 1985 indicates that soil next to Coldwater Creek is contaminated with as much as 14,000 picocuries of thorium-230 per gram. The naturally occurring background level for the same radioactive isotope amounts to 0.2 picocuries per gram.

The corresponding guideline for acceptable DOE levels of uranium-238, which is also found at the airport site, is 50 picocuries per gram. In 1981, DOE initiated a two-year groundwater-monitoring program at the site and discovered uranium-238 at concentrations up to 2,230 picocuries per gram. Other evidence shows radioactive waste is spread across the site at levels thousands of times greater than considered acceptable.

A curie is the amount of radiation emitted from one gram of radium, equal to 37 billion decays per second. A picocurie equals a trillionth of a curie. Curies are used to measure the amount of material present; they don’t indicate the amount of radiation given off or its biological hazards.

Such DOE standards ignore potential health consequences, according to a 1991 congressional study. “The present regulatory-driven approach … places far more emphasis on characterizing the contamination than on investigating health impacts and may prove ill-suited to identifying public health concerns, evaluating contamination scenarios according to their potential for adverse health effects, or establishing health-based clean-up priorities,” the Office of Technology Assessment report states.

JOHN W. GOFMAN, a professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, has long contended that there is no safe level of radiation exposure. “I concluded it’s impossible for such a level to exist given the evidence on how radiation works,” says Gofman. The term “low-level radiation” is a political term used by the nuclear industry to lull the public into accepting exposure risks, he says. Similar phrases also downplay the consequences. “The terms `tolerance level,’ `allowable level,’ `permissible dose’ — those are all phenomenal words that are supposed to tell Joe Six-Pack, `Nothing to worry about — there ain’t no harm.’ That’s why these terms came into existence,” he asserts.

The 79-year-old Gofman is in a unique position to advise on such matters because he is a physician and holds a doctorate in nuclear physical chemistry. His research at Berkeley during World War II attracted the attention of J. Robert Oppenheimer, lead scientist in the Manhattan Project. After working on the atomic bomb at Oppenheimer’s request, Gofman completed his medical studies. But in 1969, Gofman fell from grace with the atomic establishment when he challenged the “acceptable” levels of radiation exposure then allowed.

After being ostracized by the atomic establishment for years, Gofman’s scientific opinions have been widely accepted of late. In 1990, for instance, after years of debate by U.S. scientists, a report by the fifth conference on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR V) concluded that radiation effects are proportional to dose in all cases. More recently, says Gofman, “The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation said that the weight of evidence comes down on the side of no safe level. And the British National Radiological Protection Board in 1995 published a document in which they have now said that there can be no safe dose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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