Hiding in Plain Sight

Thousands of KATY Trail users pass by the abandoned Hamburg Quarry without being aware of it.  A former quarryman believes what they don’t know about the site and its checkered history should concern them. 

The abandoned Hamburg Quarry next to the KATY Trail State Park in St. Charles County.

Cyclists whizzing by the abandoned Hamburg Quarry on the KATY Trail in St. Charles County rarely slow down to take a gander at its sheer limestone walls or the placid waters below.  Most aren’t even aware the historic excavation site is within a stone’s throw of the popular bicycle path.

That’s largely because the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the KATY’s caretaker, doesn’t advertise the site. The  Missouri Conservation Commission — the current owner — also doesn’t promote the scenic spot. The University of Missouri, which once counted the property as an asset, isn’t inclined to acknowledge its past connections to the location, either. The Department of Energy and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose jurisdictions touch on the quarry,  seem to have forgotten about the place, too.

It is as if the history of the abandoned quarry  sank to the bottom of the submerged pit along with the state and federal government’s institutional memory.

But quarryman Kenneth Kerpash hasn’t forgotten the place. Hamburg Quarry is where he remembers  seeing  thousands of rusty, leaky barrels stored back in 1972.  He also recalls being told in so many words to look the other way. The scene is permanently chiseled in his mind’s eye.

The 65-year-old retired Teamster truck driver from Troy, Mo.  has carried the weight of that memory ever since.  For a long time, he didn’t talk about it, worried his knowledge might jeopardize his job. He stopped working for the quarry operator in 1984, and his unease ebbed.

But in In February, the trucker’s concerns reemerged.  After decades of indecision, the EPA finally announced its proposed remedy for the the radioactively-contaminated  West Lake Quarry and Landfill in North St. Louis County. Since taking over the site in 1990, the agency has neglected to clean up nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project that was illegally dumped in 1973.

For Kerpash, the West Lake and Hamburg sites are linked for one simple reason:  both were operated by the same company — West Lake Quarry and Materials Co. — his former employer. He drove a heavy truck for the company at both quarries from 1971 to 1984.

Kerpash  doesn’t claim to know what the barrels at Hamburg Quarry contained. But based on what he does know about the nearby Superfund site that bears his former employer’s name — he suspects the worst. Though the two sites share a common history, there is one stark difference. While knowledge of the troubled West Lake Superfund site has garnered media attention in recent years, the Hamburg Quarry has largely been forgotten.

“There was probably 2,000-plus 55-gallon barrels,” he says, referring to the dump site he observed at Hamburg Quarry.  “The  bottoms was deteriorating and rotting. I asked one of the operators about it and he said, ‘We’re not loading over by them so don’t worry about it.'”

In hindsight, Kerpash believes his exposure to hazardous materials at Hamburg and West Lake Quarry may be the cause of his family’s chronic health problems. He has no way of knowing for sure, but he now suspects he may have brought the contamination home with him on his soiled work clothes.

“… My wife and my daughter … washed my clothes. You never give it a thought. But you never know what you carried in,” he says. “My wife [now] has stage four ovarian and paraovarian cancer. My daughter has had cancer twice. I’ve had tumors taken out of my back and large colon.

“If I can can help somebody’s life or kids [from] problems that my family’s had, I want to help them to get this cleaned up,” he says. “I think the EPA has been holding back, and I think they need to get up and get going,” says Kerpash. “It needs to be cleaned up not in ten or 15 years. It needs to be cleaned up now.”

Kerspash’s account raises the question whether radioactively-contaminated waste may also have been quietly disposed of at the West Lake Quarry and Materials Co.’s Hamburg Quarry operation — which the company leased from the University of Missouri.

Mallinckrodt Chemical Works’  former Weldon Spring uranium processing facility is 1.5 miles north of Hamburg Quarry.    From 1957 to 1966, Mallinckrodt processed uranium there under contract with the Atomic Energy Commission. Waste from the operation was stored on site or dumped at nearby Weldon Spring Quarry.  Mallinckrodt’s St. Louis plant also dumped radioactive debris from its St. Louis facility at the Weldon Spring Quarry.

Sharing similar geologic characteristics, it’s easy to get the Weldon Spring and Hamburg Quarries confused.  Both are within walking distance of each other via the state-owned KATY Trail. The difference is that Weldon Spring Quarry, which remains under the watchful eye of the Department of Energy, was drained and cleaned up in the 1990s, while Hamburg Quarry remains largely off the radar.  Hamburg Quarry is not identified by name on Google Maps and the Missouri Conservation Commission map for the area identifies it only as a “restricted area.”

The Hamburg Quarry is identified only as a “restricted area” by the Missouri Conservation Commission.

 

The Department of Energy ultimately funded a 16-year clean up of the Weldon Spring Quarry along with Mallinckrodt’s Weldon Spring uranium-processing plant, which was completed in 2002 at a cost that soared to nearly $1 billion.  The waste from both locations is now stored at the former plant site in an in a giant “containment cell,” which now is one of the highest elevations n St. Charles County.

A 1996 DOE map shows the locations of radioactive contamination near Hamburg Quarry next to the KATY Trail.

In 1996, the DOE published a cost-benefit analysis related to the removal of radioactively- contaminated soil that had migrated from the uranium plant’s perimeter, flowing downhill. The study includes a map that pinpoints hot spots on a creek that drains into the Missouri  River near Hamburg Quarry (see inset).

Another part of the DOE’s clean up involved treating the radioactively-contaminated effluents at the uranium plant and discharging the waste via a pipeline into the Missouri River. That pipeline’s terminus is located directly across the KATY Trail from the Hamburg Quarry.

Kerpash’s wariness seems reasonable when juxtaposed with his former employer’s dodgy history and the context of the situation. The most striking and obvious detail is that the Hamburg Quarry is hemmed in on three sides by documented radioactive waste sites. Then there’s the fact that company that operated the quarry is a known polluter. In addition, the Missouri Conservation Commission map of the area designates it as a restricted area.  For more than 70 years, nobody has lived within miles of the place, but there are plans in the works to develop a subdivision on nearby property owned by the University of Missouri.

There is a good reason why more than 17,000 acres of prime real estate within 30 miles of St. Louis has remained undeveloped and mostly uninhabited: It’s against the law to live here.

Under DOE guidelines, recreational use of the area falls within accepted exposure limits, but  full-time habitation is prohibited.  Potential drinking water contamination has also long been a contested issue due to the proximity of St. Charles County’s well fields.  Monitoring wells dot the landscape, and there continues to be periodic government testing of the groundwater.

Core samples of the limestone at Hamburg Quarry taken decades ago by the DOE did not raise regulatory eyebrows, but that doesn’t necessarily give it a clean bill of health. Available online data about the Hamburg Quarry is limited. What’s at the bottom of the quarry lake is anybody’s guess. If the thousands of rusty barrels that Kerpash says he observed there were later removed, there is no record of where they were taken.

When Kerpash spoke at an EPA meeting held in February,  he was interviewed by members of the media afterward. But months later, he feels abandoned.  His message was largely ignored.

Kerpash wants answers.  But his allegation only raises questions for regulatory authorities that never have seemed too keen on resurrecting the past. Turning a blind eye to the region’s longstanding radioactive waste crisis is nothing new.  Mass denial has enveloped the issue from the beginning, spurred by official waffling and the  ambivalent  attitudes of government, business, and the news media — which accepts government press releases as more reliable than eye-witness accounts.

In this case, however, there is no official version. Kerpash stands alone. Despite the lack of government confirmation of his account,  he has not wavered.

“I know what I seen,” says Kerpash.  “It’s the truth.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Damn Lies

The EPA fudged its 2014 test results of the Bridgeton Athletic Complex, assuring the public that the ballfields were safe, while withholding data that warranted further investigation. 

Internal EPA emails show the agency was aware that radiation levels at the Bridgeton Athletic Complex were above background levels, but failed to clearly alert the public of its findings in a timely manner.

The series of internal agency emails obtained by The First Secret City reveal that the EPA knew that multiple radio-isotopes found within inches of the surface at BMAC exceeded 5 pico curies per gram, one of the varying benchmarks set by government regulators to determine so-called permissible levels of exposure.

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Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers and EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks at the 2014 BMAC press conference (courtesy of STL Radioactive Waste Legacy)

In an email dated June 23, 2014, Cecilia Tapia, director of Environmental Sciences and Technology for EPA Region 7,  cited differing action levels for radioactive isotopes and advised her colleagues that they should consider swapping one standard over another.

In her email message, Tapia cited the EPA’s supplemental feasibility study’s “action levels,” but added this caveat: “It may be more appropriate to use the SLAPS numbers.” 

Using one set of numbers instead of the other could have effected the EPA’s decision on BMAC.

SLAPS is the acronym for the 21.7 acre St. Louis Airport Site, a radioactively-contaminated property originally under the control of the U.S. Department of Energy.  In 1997, that clean up was handed over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has authority over it and other sites in the St. Louis area through the DOE’s Formerly Utilized Site Remediation Program (FUSRAP).

DOE’s permissible levels are generally stricter than the EPA’s corresponding standards.

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EPA official Cecilia Tapia

The EPA official’s comment is subject to interpretation, but any way it’s sliced the numbers cited in the related email chain among EPA contractors and agency officials show one undeniable fact: The EPA had verified through its own testing that there were radiation levels of concern at BMAC, but then acted to downplay the significance of its own findings.

Three days after Tapia suggested revising the applicable standards, then-EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks assured the public there was no cause for concern. In its June 26 press release, the EPA announced without equivocation that it was safe to play ball at BMAC.

“EPA’s analysis of data collected from more than 58,000 surface points across BMAC suggests no levels of gamma radiation that would pose public health concerns for users of this facility,” Brooks said. “This was a thorough scientific survey, coupled with meticulous review and quality control checks of the data.”

Brooks assurances came despite knowledge that levels of Lead 210, Potassium 40, Thorium 234 and Uranium 238 detected at BMAC exceeded naturally occurring background levels of those isotopes in the environment. The administrator’s questionable assurances were based on an arcane agency formula that mandates remedial action only when radioactive contamination is found to be twice the normally occurring background levels. Moreover, EPA remediation standards are not as strict for  recreational areas.

Screen Shot 2017-06-06 at 4.13.50 PM.pngIn this case, the EPA gave its stamp of approval to allow children to play baseball in an area that was determined by its own testing to be radioactively contaminated.

Department of Energy 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. The EPA testing at BMAC found Thorium 234 levels of 5.14 pico curies per gram. But EPA standards aren’t as stringent as DOE’s. The EPA’s  action level for Thorium is 7.9 pico curies per gram.

Before the EPA began any testing at BMAC, Brooks held a press conference at the Bridgeton City Hall on May 9, 2014 to announce that the ballfields were safe and dismiss the independent test results carried out by Just Moms STL, a community organization.

Dawn Chapman of Just Moms STL believes that the EPA deceived the public concerning the levels of radiation at BMAC. The organization she founded has been fighting for years  to remove the radioactive waste from the nearby West Lake Superfund Site in Bridgeton.  Chapman questions why the agency didn’t dig deeper after finding radioactive contamination near the surface at BMAC.

“That is what those bastards found in 2 inches of soil,” says Chapman. “These numbers show that it is there above background,” says Chapman. “The deception is that at no time did EPA admit to finding any waste on that field. There is a difference between it being there and it being there at clean up levels.”

 

Disappearing Act

 Government radiation test results of  Coldwater Creek are missing and presumed destroyed, says the chief of the St. Louis County Health Department. Meanwhile, independent testing has forced regulators to take a second look at a contaminated site they failed to cleanup next to Coldwater Creek in the past.  

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Records compiled as a part of a multi-agency investigation of  potential radioactive contamination of Coldwater Creek during the 1980s  are presumed to have been destroyed  as a part of an “archival cleanup,” says Faisal Khan, the Director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health.

The revelation came in response to a Missouri Sunshine Law request filed in October 2016.  In his reply, Khan wrote: “Having searched our archives, we have not found any records are documents pertaining to any Cold Water [sic] Creek testing involving the then St. Louis County Department of Health. Any records are likely to have been destroyed in the course of scheduled archival cleanup.”

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The testing is mentioned in a 1986 letter from then-St. Louis City Health Commissioner William B. Hope to St. Louis Alderwoman Mary Ross (D-5th Ward). In his letter, the city health official sought to alleviate the elected official’s concerns. Hope stated that periodic testing of the city’s water supply failed to find any “significant detectable levels of radioactive elements.”  The letter does not explain what amounts of radiation would be considered “significant.”

The letter makes clear the testing was conducted secretly over an extended period of time. “For years, I have quietly had the intake water supply monitored at various intervals for any evidence of  radioactive contamination,” wrote Hope.  He added that he would continue to have the city’s water supply monitored for the “indefinite future.”

The city health commissioner attempted to further mollify the alderwoman by informing her that the city was conducting a joint monitoring program of Coldwater Creek with the St. Louis County Health Department.

“In addition, there is an ongoing monitoring of Coldwater  Creek seepage being jointly conducted by the St. Louis County Health Department and the City’s Health Division,” wrote Hope.

Word that the county’s records have disappeared follows in the wake of an independent laboratory analysis last year that indicates radioactive contaminants may possibly still be seeping into Coldwater Creek near the Hazelwood Interim Storage Site (HISS) in Hazelwood.

The EPA was informed by email of the independent findings in Feburary 2016. screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-9-26-01-pm

In the message, nuclear engineer Marco Kaltofen alerts the EPA — which has authority over Superfund sites —  to the location and exact levels of contamination, which far exceed the agency’s permissible amounts.

“The sample was collected in the rail spur area adjacent to Coldwater Creek at Latty Avenue in Hazelwood, Mo,” Kaltofen wrote. “As you can see from the attachment prepared by the laboratory, 230-Th [thorium] activity is 10,923 pCi/g. Total Uranium activity in this sample is 854 pCi/g, with an enrichment level for 235-U [uranium] of 4.1 %, which is about average for civilian grade nuclear fuel materials.  The total sample activity is 320 KBq/kg (320,500 Bq/kg). These numbers are very significantly elevated above all pertinent environmental standards.”

The email was also sent to officials at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Kaltofen is a member of a trio of experts that published a scientific paper in late 2015 on radioactive contamination in St. Louis County that is leftover from the Manhattan Project and Cold War eras. The other two authors of the report are Robert Alvarez and Lucas Hixson. Their research was funded by environmentalist Kay Drey and appeared in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity.

The sampling results submitted to the EPA by Kaltofen is part of a continuing independent investigation of St. Louis area contamination by the group.

The site in question, known as VP-40A,  had previously been tested by The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is mentioned in its 2005 Record of Decision. The contamination is located on railroad property that was deemed by the Corps to be “inaccessible,” and therefore exempted from the cleanup —  which has been shutdown and declared completed.

In late October, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which shares responsibility with the Corps, retested the location and said that the levels of contamination at the site match the historic record established by the Corps’ earlier testing.

The details of the testing have been been requested from MDNR by The First Secret City, and the Corps has also been asked why the site was exempted from the original cleanup of the area, which is referred to as the Hazelwood Interim Storage Site.

 

 

 

 

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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What Nobody is Saying

Notes obtained by StlReporter Say West Lake Nuke Waste is Present at Previously Undisclosed Locations.

Notes on the preliminary findings of  independent sampling conducted in 2013 and 2014 indicate that above background levels of radioactive contamination were discovered at multiple locations in St. Louis County, including the Bridgeton Fire Protection District.

Neither those involved in the testing or the regulatory agencies involved in monitoring the West Lake Superfund site have disclosed the locations of the contamination, leaving the public at large in the dark. Scan

Lucky Larry

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Co-workers once called Larry Burgan “Lucky Larry,” but that was before anybody knew about the radioactive dust over all their heads.

This story first appeared in FOCUS/midwest online, May 2009.

 

There were nights in the autumn of 2005 when Larry Burgan says he slept with a loaded AK-47 assault rifle next to his bed. He suspected his phone was tapped; he feared that someone might torch his house. The reason for his wariness: A 12-pound bundle of documents released to him by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, and the explosive contents therein.

The documents, which Burgan obtained under the state’s freedom of information law, outlined the extent of radioactive contamination at Burgan’s former workplace, Spectrulite Consortium Inc., in Madison, Ill. The plant was one of hundreds of low-priority radioactive sites nationwide identified by the federal government’s Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program in the 1990s.

Not only did Burgan’s cache of government records confirm that workers were exposed, it also raised new and troubling questions about the risks posed to residents of an adjacent neighborhood in Venice, Ill., over the past 50 years.

“For decades radioactive dust was falling on me and my coworkers everyday,” says Burgan, a 50-year-old disabled steelworker. “Millions of pounds of uranium were processed through my machine and no one ever told me — never told us. We deserve justice; justice not just for the employees, but the residents, too.”

The problems at Spectrulite began the year before Burgan was born, when the foundry was owned by Dow Chemical Co. Dow processed uranium at the plant between 1957 and 1961 under a subcontract with St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Chemical Co., which was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Dow’s work caused radioactive debris to accumulate on overhead girders — where it was ignored for decades.

In 2000, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversaw a radioactive cleanup at the Spectrulite plant, a spokesman for the agency assured employees and the public that the radiation levels inside the plant were low and there was no reason for concern. But in less than a year Burgan’s health began to decline. He says the first hint was when he noticed shortness of breath after climbing stairs. Then he developed a pain in his right foot. His hair began to fall out. Over the next year, his condition improved temporarily and then worsened. He started experiencing severe joint pain throughout his body. His doctor’s visits became more frequent and he was having difficulty doing his job. Eventually, he became bedridden and unable to walk. A severe rash covered his entire body.

“I was covered with scabs — large ones and small ones,” Burgan later wrote in his personal journal. “They would crack and bleed. . . . It was a nightmare.”

Burgan’s nightmare was far from over. His union, United Steelworkers Local 4804, was forced to go out on strike when the company demanded wage and benefit cuts in the new contract.

“Just like that my job was over,” he recalls. “I got sick and they got rid of me.” Unpaid bills piled up. The union stepped in and covered his mortgage payments during the 11-month strike. But despite the help, Burgan ultimately had to declare bankruptcy and go on disability.

Burgan’s nadir came one afternoon as he hobbled to the bathroom with the help of his wife. Passing by a mirror, he stopped to look at his reflection. “I didn’t recognize myself,” he later wrote.

After months of excruciating pain, his condition began to gradually improve. As he recuperated, Burgan pondered the cause of his illness. One of his coworkers suggested that chronic exposure to the radiation at work may have been responsible.

Once he was able to walk again, Burgan drove to a friend’s house who owns a computer. It didn’t take long for him to find a possible link between his health problems and his occupation. His online research led Burgan to an Army Corps Web site devoted to the cleanup of the Spectrulite plant. His friend printed out several illustrations related to the Corps remediation work there. One of the images was an overhead view of the plant. The spot directly over Burgan’s old work space was represented in glowing red, indicating the highest level of contamination in the factory.

Burgan later wrote down his reaction to this discovery in his journal: “My mouth opened in disbelief. My eyes watered up. One single tear fell and landed on the picture, staining it.”

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A photograph from 1993 depicts Burgan as a young man. He is smiling for the camera, cigar in hand, seated in a chair, with his feet propped up on the 50-ton extrusion press that he helped operate.

The day the snapshot was taken he was hamming it up. Burgan doesn’t smoke. The cigar was a prop. He had asked a coworker to take the picture so he could show his wife what a cushy job he had. The then-35-year-old steelworker viewed his job at Spectrulite as relatively easy. Burgan’s union wages and benefits afforded him and his family a middle-class life, and the opportunity to live the American dream. There was plenty of overtime available, too. Fellow employees even called him “Lucky Larry” because Burgan had a knack for finding money at work.

But Burgan was unknowingly paying a price that can’t be calculated in dollars and cents. The photograph shows that his work station was near Beam Z, the most radioactive hotspot in the foundry, 13.6 times above the safe guideline limits. Burgan and hundreds of his fellow steelworkers were not told they were working in a radioactively contaminated work place until 2000 even though their employer and the federal government were both aware of the dangers in 1989 — when he started working at the plant.

The Department of Energy conducted the first radiological testing at the facility in March 1989, which showed elevated levels of Uranium-238 and Thorium-232. A story published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the previous month had spurred the government to do the testing. The story was based on the earlier research of Kay Drey. In 1979, the St. Louis environmental activist had interviewed a terminally-ill truck driver who had delivered uranium ingots from Mallinckrodt Chemical in North St. Louis to the Dow plant in Madison. The truck driver attributed his lung cancer to his occupational exposure to radiation in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Madison plant had assembled tanks during World War II. Six years after the war, the federal government sold the facility to Dow. In 1957, Dow was licensed by the AEC to process fuel rods for nuclear reactors under the subcontract with Mallinckrodt. The uranium processing continued for four years. During that time, radioactive dust escaped as the uranium was heated up and forced through the extrusion press.

But uranium wasn’t the only radioactive material discovered by the Energy Department in 1989. Government records obtained by Burgan also show elevated levels of thorium present in the overhead girders. The records also show that by the summer of 1960, the plant had imported 80 tons of thorium pellets from Canada. Thorium was used in the making of lightweight alloys for military and aerospace applications, another job that Dow did at its Madison plant.

As work continued, the nuclear waste mounted. Dow’s original disposal plan called for the waste to be incinerated. But the burning couldn’t keep up with the increased volume of waste that was being generated. So between 1960 and 1973, Dow dumped millions of pounds of sludge containing 4 to 8 percent thorium behind the plant in a vacant lot that is adjacent to neighborhood residences. This level is several times over the current safety standards. Company guidelines also permitted up to 50 pounds of thorium sludge per month to be poured directly down the sewer. The radioactive contamination could also have been released into the environment by the plant’s several 20-foot diameter exhaust fans.

But Burgan suspects that some of the elevated levels of Thorium-232 detected overhead may have been of more recent origin. In 1992, Spectrulite leased out one of its presses to Martin Marietta, Burgan says. Employees of that firm were brought in to oversee the operation, which occurred for eight days over a two-month period. When Burgan asked what type of metal was being processed, he was only told that it was a “special alloy.” It didn’t dawn on him until much later that the method that Martin Marietta used was similar to the way Dow processed uranium in the same press decades earlier.

“It all started making sense after all the documents were in front of me,” says Burgan.

Armed with the government records, Burgan began his efforts to gain compensation for himself and his fellow workers. His campaign has included countless calls to state and federal regulators, members of the Illinois congressional delegation and the media. Burgan has testified before the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Workers Health twice, and he also persuaded five of his former co-workers to submit affidavits to substantiate their potential exposure. As a result, former Spectrulite workers who worked at the plant as recently as 1999 are now eligible for inclusion in the Energy Employees Illness Compensation Program. The program provides $150,000 to workers or their surviving family members. To qualify, workers must show that they contracted one or more of the 24 types of cancer that are officially recognized as being associated with radiation exposure.

Proving the hazard was a laborious task. The potential health risks posed by chronic exposure, says Burgan, were repeatedly downplayed by both his employer and the federal regulators. At a company safety meeting in February 2000, for instance, Burgan says a manager told workers that the planned radiation cleanup at the plant was “just a way of the government trying to waste money.” On another occasion, Burgan says he was told by a company foreman that the radiation would only be harmful to those who were allergic to it. Around the same time, the project manager for Corps of Engineers told the Post-Dispatch, “Someone would have to eat 250 pounds of the contaminated material to create a health risk.”

Despite the Corps official’s dismissive comment, the agency ultimately concluded that the safe level of exposure for cleanup workers at the site would be two to four hours per year. Burgan estimates his exposure over 12 years at 25,000 hours.

In February 2000, the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety contested the Corps’ cleanup plan as insufficient. In its comments, the state agency stated: “The Corps has not demonstrated that the proposed scope of removal is protective of public health . . . [and] has inadequately assessed the dose to the first critical group (workers) and has entirely ignored the second critical group (residents).”

Burgan’s sights are now set on helping the former residents and those who still live near the plant. For the past few months, he has been meeting weekly with former Spectrulite workers and residents at the Venice City Hall. An organizing committee of concerned citizens is now moving forward with plans to request an in-depth health study of the community by the federal Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry. Among the primary concerns of the committee are health risks to children at a nearby elementary school. Former Dow Spectrulite plant in background

Calvin Ratliff, a former Spectrulite worker who lived near the facility from 1950 to 1993, has conducted an informal survey of a two-block stretch of Meredocia Avenue near the plant. By his count, there were 44 cases of cancer or lung disease among longtime residents, many of whom are now deceased. A larger sampling of longtime neighbors tallied 68 cases of cancer or lung disease in the neighborhood.

Having worked there himself, Ratliff is aware of the different parts of the plant operations and the potential for emissions to escape into the outside environment. His concerns are close to home.

“I lost my father at 54 from a brain tumor and my sister has thyroid cancer,” he says. “I never thought anymore about it until the [Spectrulite] workers brought their claims.” Ratliff adds that he and his sister both have sarcoidosis, a debilitating, chronic disease that commonly causes inflammation of the lungs and other organs, and in some cases can be deadly.

The former resident and plant worker says he has uncovered evidence that a private environmental cleanup company removed 90,000 cubic yards of aluminum slag and contaminated soil from the vacant lot behind the plant in the fall of 1992. The contaminants included Thorium-230 and Thorium-232, as well as PCBs. More than a thousand railcars of waste were excavated and removed from the site, according to the information in Ratliff’s possession. Neither he nor Burgan are sure of who contracted the company to remove the waste. The other unanswered question is whether the cleanup removed all the contaminated soil.

The plant at Weaver and College streets operates today as Magnesium Elektron of North America, a non-union company and a subsidiary of Luxfur Group of Great Britain. Larry Burgan pushes for answersAfter going bankrupt in 2003, Spectrulite’s owners sold the company, but continue to hold a stake in the operation and the property itself. The plant no longer processes radioactive materials, but it continues to process toxic heavy metals that are used to make lightweight alloys for military use.

Both Burgan and his wife survive on a monthly Social Security disability income of slightly over the poverty level. He attributes other serious illnesses, infant mortality and birth defects in his family to secondary exposure to radiation from the radioactive dust that he brought home on his work clothes. The possibility of this haunts his every waking moment.

“My wife is ill from transference, bringing my dusty clothes home everyday,” he says. “All my grandchildren passed away. I’m living on $31 a month over the poverty line, without me or my wife able to work. I have to stand in the food lines at Salvation Army. I’ve been doing this for years. It’s not because of choice or because I’m lazy. It’s because I was put here by people who poisoned me.” — C.D. Stelzer (cdstelzer@gmail.com)

C.D. Stelzer is a veteran investigative journalist based in St. Louis and senior writer forFOCUS/Midwest.