Smoke Screen

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

148A0620

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Caveat Emptor

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Council Joe Cronin (1st Dist) urges caution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

University of Missouri President Mun Y. Choi

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Bluffs tower over the Missouri River and the KATY Trail.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

photo-3

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-06 at 4.47.21 PM

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.”

 

Behind Closed Doors

While the underground fire continues to burn at the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill, the federal government seems more concerned about quietly hashing out deals with corporate interests. 

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-10-02-18

Attend any West Lake Community Advisory Group meeting and you’ll see them there. They’ll be scribbling notes. More often than not, they’re well-dressed women in business suits, serious professionals. But they’re not government officials, scientists, or engineers.

They’re lawyers. Private lawyers.

The attorneys are quietly noting every detail being discussed at the public forums so they can report back to their corporate clients. They are the hired guns of the potentially responsible parties, those companies held liable under the EPA Superfund law for the cost of the  West Lake Landfill clean up. Except for these rare appearances, the lawyers mostly work behind the scenes, with little or no accountability to the public.

It’s not unusual for private attorneys to meet on the low, but in this case their talks are being  facilitated by the Department of Justice. Involvement of the DOJ, which is keeping an unusually low profile, raises more questions about the situation at West Lake, which is already mired by doubts and suspicions due to a lack of transparency by government regulators.

While the lawyers meet behind closed doors, an underground landfill fire is approaching the radioactive waste at the site, exposing residents to unknown risks.

The three potentially responsible parties that share the liability for the clean up of the site are the U.S. Department of Energy,  Exelon Corp., and Republic Services, owner of the troubled dump.

DOJ’s involvement isn’t new. It’s been going on a long time, sanctioned by obscure federal rules and regulations and codified by law.  But few people in the impacted community of North St. Louis County are aware of the DOJ’s influence.

After the Nuclear Regulatory Commission handed over control of the site to the EPA decades ago, the DOJ stepped in to act as an arbiter among the potentially liable parties [PRPs], negotiating the terms of a settlement agreement, a pact which is referred to as a “non-binding allocation of responsibilities.” In short, the deal specifies who pays for what.

The quiet DOJ negotiations  would have remained so if not for efforts of environmentalists intent on uncovering the tangled relationships among government regulators and private industry. The revelation was exposed by the recent release of internal EPA email records obtained by the Environmental Archives under the Freedom of Information Act. One of the emails references DOJ’s role.

On Nov. 23, 2015, Jessie Kerrigan of Lathrop and Gage law firm wrote to Alyse Stoy, EPA Region 7 general counsel:

“As I mentioned the parties do have an existing settlement agreement for allocation of SFS costs to DOJ. I have attached it for your information and to share with DOJ if that would be useful (given that the DOJ team has changed since the execution of this).”

Lathrop and Gage represents  Republic Services, one of the PRPs.  SFS stands for “supplemental feasibility study.” The supplemental feasibility study is being done as a part of reconsidering the EPA’s 2008 Record of Decision.

The message is vague but indicates that DOJ’s current role goes beyond being a mere negotiator. Instead, the email suggests that the DOJ is paying the cost of the supplemental feasibility study or  playing the role of  the EPA’s collection agent. But just how much money is being paid out by whom and for what purposes is unclear because DOJ’s books are closed.