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.
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 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.
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.”