A Disaster Denied

At the turn of this century, the state of Illinois complained that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had failed to adequately clean up a radioactively-contaminated site in an African American neighborhood in Madison County. Sixteen years later, the problem remains unresolved.

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Driving north on Illinois 3, the hulking World War II vintage factory dominates the surrounding landscape, its  smokestacks towering over vestiges of deteriorating industrial infrastructure linked by rusty railroad tracks.

But the thousands of daily commuters who use this heavily traveled highway between St. Louis and Alton, Ill. can easily whiz by the former Dow Chemical foundry that straddles the towns of Venice and Madison without even noticing it.

For decades, the federal government has been turning a blind eye to the site, too, despite a plea from the state of Illinois to take a closer look at the radioactive waste known to contaminate the area inside and outside of the plant. The contamination is the byproduct of nuclear weapons production from the Manhattan Project and the Cold War.

In 2000,  Thomas W. Ortciger, the then-director of the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety made clear to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the clean up of the site was insufficient to protect the human health of workers or residents. The Corps dismissed his appeals.

“… [T]here remains a lack of commitment by the Corps to remediate all contaminated areas at the site,” said Ortciger. His comment is contained in a letter to the Corps dated March 16, 2000. “The State of Illinois’ position on this matter is clearly articulated in the Department’s comments, and we urge you to reconsider them when finalizing your Record of Decision.”

In comments made at the sole public meeting held prior to Corps decision, which was held on Feb. 25, 2000, the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety informed that the Corps that its clean up plan was insufficient. “The Corps has inadequately assessed the dose to the first group (workers) and has entirely ignored the second critical group (residents.)

The residents are still being ignored, and many of them have died in the intervening years.

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The history of radioactive contamination at the foundry dates back to 1957, when Dow began processing uranium for fuel rods under a subcontract with St. Louis-based Mallinckdrodt Chemical Co., which was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. 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. The subsequent government-mandated clean-up, which was overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2000, focused mainly on uranium contamination inside facility and did not include additional monitoring or remediation at the adjacent 40-acre site.

The thorium waste was the byproduct of another facet of the foundry’s operations — production of lightweight alloys used for military and aerospace applications. Between 1960 and 1973 Dow dumped millions of pounds of sludge containing 4 to 8 percent thorium behind the plant on the adjacent property. After Conalco took over the operation, the dumping continued for years, including monthly shipments of thorium waste produced at Dow facilities in Bay City and Midland, Mich.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Deaths in Venice

In 1989, the Consolidated Aluminum Corp. (Conalco) and Dow Chemical Co. began to quietly clean up a 40-acre site adjacent to a foundry in Madison, Ill., that the two companies formerly owned. The plant and dump site are both located on the boundary between the Metro East cities of Madison and Venice.

The clean-up entailed dividing the area into a massive grid made up of hundreds of squares and then using a complicated formula to measure the contamination levels in each of them. To carry out the job, contractors constructed a laboratory, rail spur and loading station.

By the time the project ended in December 1992 more than 105,000 tons of thorium-contaminated slag had been loaded into 978 rail cars and shipped to a low-level radioactive waste facility in Utah, according to a final report prepared for the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety (IDNS), the state agency responsible for overseeing the clean-up.

The 1992 report states: “Because of the proximity of the contaminated area to a residential neighborhood, and the inconvenience that the construction activity imposed upon the neighborhood, the construction was done in a manner such that all contaminated material above natural background was removed and the area was backfilled immediately. ” …

The history of radioactive contamination at the foundry dates back to 1957, when Dow began processing uranium for fuel rods under a subcontract with St. Louis-based Mallinckdrodt Chemical Co., which was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. 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. The subsequent government-mandated clean-up, which was overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2000, focused mainly on uranium contamination inside facility and did not include additional monitoring or remediation at the adjacent 40-acre site.

The thorium waste was the byproduct of another facet of the foundry’s operations — production of lightweight alloys used for military and aerospace applications. Between 1960 and 1973 Dow dumped millions of pounds of sludge containing 4 to 8 percent thorium behind the plant on the adjacent property. After Conalco took over the operation, the dumping continued for years, including monthly shipments of thorium waste produced at Dow facilities in Bay City and Midland, Mich.

The Dow-Madison Site

“For decades radioactive dust was falling on me and my coworkers everyday,” says Larry 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. …

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.