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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Double Trouble

The presence here of plutonium — the most toxic of radio isotopes — is attributed to two sources. Finding either one is like looking for a needle in a haystack.  

plutonium-1

The Department of Energy doesn’t know where the plutonium is.

In March 2001, the DOE reported that the nuclear facility in Weldon Spring handled recycled uranium for years.  DOE investigators reported that 70,000 metric tons of recycled uranium passed through the plant between 1957 and 1966, when the Mallinckrodt Chemical ran the operation for the Atomic Energy Commission. The investigation calculated that 2.4 grams of plutonium would have present in this amount.

Recycled uranium is hotter because it has been irradiated in a nuclear reactor. At the time, it was estimated that exposure to one-millionth of an ounce of plutonium could cause cancer.

But the recycled uranium may not be the only source of potential plutonium contamination in the St. Louis region.

That’s because the Belgian Congo pitchblende that Mallinckrodt processed to make the first atomic bombs contains small amounts of plutonium, according to the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry.

plutonium-5

Waste byproducts from the pitchblende processing is known to have contaminated a several sites in the St. Louis area, including Coldwater Creek and West Lake Landfill.

 

 

The Weldon Spring Saga

from the Riverfront Times by C.D. Stelzer, 1993

At Weldon Spring, in rural St. Charles County, Mo.,  a quarry and nearby uranium plant were contaminated with chemical and nuclear materials.  As a result, radioactive water is now seeping through limestone into the groundwater. If the quarry water is not removed, there is a chance the seepage will soon reach nearby well fields that supply most St. Charles County s with water.

The contaminants include TNT and DNT, World War II-vintage esxplosives dumped at the site by the Atlas Powder Co. After the war, tons of mixed radioavtive wastes were thrown in the quarry by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works. The waste continued to be hauled to the quarry until 1968.

So in 1986, the DOE began an ambitious 12-year cleanup at the two sites. The estimated cost to the EPA Superfund has doubled since 1989, and now stands at between $650 and $850 million. About $4 million of that money has gone to build the water treatment plant at the quarry.

The discharge is the first of 20 million gallons to be released into the river over the next five years. After drainage, solid radioactive wastes will still have to be removed. The second batch of quarry water is supposed to be treated in late January [1994].

Downstream View

A Look back at how the DOE helped contaminate the Mississippi watershed and then funded a $25-million study to examine the effects.

By C.D. Stelzer

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Jan. 27, 1993

 

100_1341

NEW ORLEANS, La. — A change in perspective can sometimes cure myopia.

Take the case of the Weldon Spring quarry, where the Department of Energy (DOE) has already begun its pell-mell release of treated radioactive water into the Missouri River (“Rushing Water,”RFT Jan. 6).

About 700 miles downstream from the nuclear drain site, William C. Van Buskirk, the dean of Tulane University’s school of engineering, sees things a little differently than the DOE’s gung-ho officials.

When informed of the situation at Weldon Spring last week, Van Buskirk took an immediate interest. “It’s a fascinating test case,” he says. The quarry offers the research advantage of being small and self contained, according to Van Buskirk.

There is good reason for the dean’s academic curiosity to be aroused over the waste. Van Buskirk is about to receive the first $5 million installment in a five-year, $25 million grant to study extensively the effects of mixed chemical and radioactive wastes on aquatic environments in the Mississippi River basin. Mixed chemical and radioactive wastes, of course, are the problem at Weldon Spring quarry, upstream on the Missouri River, before it meets the Mississippi.

“This is exactly the kind of research we need done before the DOE dumps anymore radioactive waste into the Missouri River,”says Kay Drey, a St. Louis environmentalist who has opposed releasing the water. Drey wants concerned citizens to ask their elected officials to call for a delay in future discharges of the Weldon Spring water until further studies are done.

A related petition drive to achieve the same end is being coordinated by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in University City. The petition states: “The lack of field experience in removing this particular combination of radioactive and hazardous wastes, and the lack of equipment capable of detecting and accurately measuring the residual pollutants make this project an experiment, not an engineering achievement.”

“Ironically, the Tulane grant was issued by the DOE — the same agency responsible for releasing the treated radioactive water earlier this month into the Missouri River nine miles upstream from two St. Louis area water intakes.”

“I mean, you don’t dump first and study second,” says Drey.
But dumping first and studying second is exactly what has happened.
Ironically, the Tulane grant was issued by the DOE — the same agency responsible for releasing the treated radioactive water earlier this month into the Missouri River nine miles upstream from two St. Louis area water intakes.

A spokesman for the DOE regional headquarters in Oak Ridge, Tenn. tells the RFT that there is a good chance the Tulane grant was issued by a part of the DOE that was unaware of the imminent release of the contaminated water from Weldon Spring. In other words, the DOE’s bureaucratic left hand didn’t know what its partner was doing.

Jerry Van Fossen, the DOE’s deputy project manager at the Weldon Spring site, is unfamiliar with the Tulane grant, but says that the agency normally cooperates with such work. “In this particular case, where you have a university or two universities that have a grant with the DOE, we would be required to coordinate with whoever holds that grant with the agency,” says Van Fossen.

The belated interdisciplinary study will engage between 50 to 100 researchers at Tulane and Xavier universities, Van Buskirk says. The studies may employ not only experts in chemistry and medicine, but also legal scholars and philosophers, who could ponder the effects of public policy and the impact of the media, Van Buskirk says.

Scientists taking part in the research plan to examine the development of new technologies to clean water and soil. Other research will look at how pollutants move through rivers and soil and investigate the effects of pollution on specific aquatic ecosystems. Researchers also intend to study the ways people are exposed to water-borne contaminants and how that exposure effects their health.

“They’ve got a real mess on their hands,” Van Buskirk says,referring to the DOE. “They don’t have the technology to do the cleanup and they don’t have the manpower.” There is a great deal of fear in communities about radioactive and chemical contaminants, according to Van Buskirk, and the university can play a role in allaying public concern by offering scientific data. “Maybe we would be more believable than the EPA or DOE,” he says. U.S. Sen. Bennett J. Johnston, D-La., was instrumental in Tulane receiving the grant, Van Buskirk says.

With this kind of senatorial backing tied to the DOE pursestrings, hope for a truly independent study has to be somewhat tempered. “Sen. Bennett Johnston is one of the most devoted promoters of nuclear power in the Senate,” says Drey. In addition, Drey says the Louisiana senator is a strong supporter of DOE policies. If the DOE chose to allow Tulane to study the Weldon Spring site, “I have to think that they are going to get the results that they want to get — which is there is no problem.

“(But) even raising the question helps. … We have to hope there will be a real scientist who is not paying attention to where his money comes from. Maybe that’s naive, but we have to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

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.

Carolyn Bower Remembers Lou Rose

Rose_mug

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Lou Rose, circa 1969.

It started with a veteran reporter’s morbid curiosity, not an altogether novel point of origin. Reporters by nature often find themselves peering into the darker sides of life — and death.

Good reporters also possess an instinct for detecting stories others overlook. It’s called a “nose for news.” The late Lou Rose, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, was a bloodhound when it came to following the faintest of trails.

In the late 1980s, Post reporter Carolyn Bower remembers Rose sitting at his newsroom desk clipping obituaries of children who had died in St. Charles County, Mo., where the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works once operated a uranium processing plant. Rose had a hunch there might be a correlation between the infant deaths and radioactive waste deposited at the shuttered plant and a nearby quarry.

Ultimately, Rose, Bower, and fellow Post reporter Theresa Tighe teamed up to do an eight-part series on the St. Louis area’s forgotten radioactive waste sites. Gerry Everding, a free-lance reporter, also contributed to the effort. The investigative team ended up digging through thousands of documents, interviewing hundreds of people and visiting dozens of sites. The investigation continued for more than two years. Their work resulted in an eight-part series that ran in the Post-Dispatch in February 1989.