The US federal government and companies responsible for nuclear weapons production and atomic waste storage sites in the St Louis area in the mid-20th century were aware of health risks, spills, improperly stored contaminants and other problems but often ignored them, according to documents recently reviewed by The Associated Press (AP). AP, which is investigating the situation, says it receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy.

Federal health investigators have found an increased cancer risk for some people who, as children, played in a creek contaminated with uranium waste. AP examined hundreds of pages of internal memos, inspection reports and other items dating to the early 1950s, and found “nonchalance and indifference” to the risks of materials used in the development of nuclear weapons during and after World War II.

This is part of an ongoing collaboration between The Missouri Independent, the non-profit newsroom MuckRock and AP. The government documents were obtained by outside researchers through the Freedom of Information Act and shared with the news organisations. The AP review did not uncover evidence of criminal wrongdoing but found repeated instances where companies, contractors or the government failed to address significant problems.

Dawn Chapman of the activist group “Just Moms STL” which is pushing for clean-up and federal buyouts in the area, said the region “saved our country” with its work on the nuclear programme but paid a terrible cost. “We are a national sacrifice zone,” she said.

St Louis was part of a geographically scattered national effort to build the nuclear bomb that was tested in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Much of the work in the area involved uranium, where Mallinckrodt Chemical Co was a major processor of uranium concentrate. In 1942, Mallinckrodt began processing uranium near downtown St Louis and in 1946, the government bought land near the airport and began trucking nuclear waste from the Mallinckrodt facility.

Mallinckrodt stored barrels of K-65, a radioactive residue at the St Louis airport in deteriorating steel drums. In 1949, a Mallinckrodt memo shows, the company was aware the broken drums could result in runoff pollution to the nearby Coldwater Creek. But it determined the threat to workers from attempting to move the drums would be worse.

In 1957, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) opened a plant in Weldon Spring and Mallinckrodt moved its uranium processing there. Radioactive waste contaminated the area, including a large quarry that eventually became a Superfund clean-up site in 1987. The rest of the Weldon Spring site was added two years later.

In 1966, AEC demolished and buried buildings at the St Louis airport site. Continental Mining & Milling Co moved the waste to nearby Bridgeton, piling it in a heap, AEC said at the time. Radioactive barrels lay outside the fence. Storage was so haphazard that even the path to the site was contaminated by trucks that spread waste on their hauls from 1966 to 1969. At this site, uranium processor Cotter Corp dried the waste and shipped it to its facility in Colorado. The site remained contaminated for decades. In 1973, Cotter Corp took hazardous leached barium sulphate from the site and illegally dumped it in the West Lake Landfill, also in Bridgeton. The material contained uranium residue.

Both the St Louis airport and Bridgeton sites are bordered by Coldwater Creek, which runs through the heart of what are now busy suburban neighbourhoods. Tonnes of the waste flowed into Coldwater Creek, contaminating the often-flooding waterway and adjacent gardens for 14 miles, state and federal investigators determined.

In the late 1970s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which replaced the AEC, flew a helicopter over the West Lake Landfill. It used gamma readings in an attempt to determine what parts of the landfill were contaminated with the radioactive waste the Cotter Corp had dumped there. The test correctly identified two contaminated areas but missed huge areas of the landfill. Despite warnings from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and activists that the contamination was likely more widespread, the NRC’s conclusion stood for more than 40 years. However, earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that contamination at the site was more widespread than previously thought.

The government clean-up of Weldon Spring is complete, but the site will require monitoring in perpetuity. Rather than remove the waste, the government built a huge mound, covered in rock, to serve as a permanent disposal cell for much of the waste. The government said the site is safe, but some local residents remain concerned.

AP said Federal officials plan to remove some of the waste at the West Lake Landfill and cap the rest. Clean-up of Coldwater Creek is underway but will continue until 2038. Clean-up has to date cost taxpayers more than $1bn and millions more will be needed.

The AEC was abolished in the 1970s, in part because of public criticism of its handling of nuclear safety. The Department of Energy (DOE) is now responsible for overseeing the situation and has publicly detailed the environmental damage earlier waste mismanagement caused to people and the environment. The Army Corps of Engineers handles clean-up at several former nuclear programme sites, including in St Louis.

Denise Brock’s father worked for years at Mallinckrodt. After he died of cancer in 1978 she lobbied for compensation and in 2003 founded the United Nuclear Weapons Workers. Her actions led the government to begin offering up to $400,000 to those who worked at nuclear facilities across the country and became ill. Over the past two decades, the government has paid out $23bn.

However, while nuclear workers had direct exposure, many people who live near contamination sites were not told about the risks for decades. Chapman and Karen Nickel were so concerned about cancer and other unusual illnesses in their St Louis neighbourhoods that they formed Just Moms STL. In 2019, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry issued a report that found people who regularly played in Coldwater Creek as children from the 1960s to the 1990s may have a slight increased risk of bone cancer, lung cancer and leukaemia. Those exposed daily to the creek in the 2000s, when clean-up began, could have a small increased risk of lung cancer. People in the St Louis area are now pushing for legislation to compensate those who are sick. Others have sued those responsible for the waste.

The earliest known public reference to Coldwater Creek's pollution came in 1981, when the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention was advising residents to avoid Coldwater Creek entirely. A federal study found elevated rates of breast, colon, prostate, kidney and bladder cancers as well as leukaemia in the area. Childhood brain and nervous system cancer rates are also higher.

Families who lived near Coldwater Creek were never warned of the radioactive waste. Details about the classified nuclear programme in St Louis were largely kept secret from the public. However newly discovered documents are now being reviewed by a collaboration of news organisations. The Missouri Independent, MuckRock and AP have spent months combing through thousands of pages of government records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and interviewing dozens of people who lived near the contaminated sites, health and radiation experts, and officials from government agencies.

Some of the documents, obtained by a nuclear researcher who focuses on the effects of radiation, had been declassified in the early 2000s. Others had been previously lost to history, packed away in government archives and not released publicly until now. All told, the documents from the AEC, DOE, NRC and EPA span 75 years.

According to a draft report uncovered as part of the document release, four members of the health and safety research division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee tested the St Louis airport site in 1976 at the request of the Energy Research & Development Administration, the predecessor to DOE. The results showed onsite radiation sources were as high as 8.8 millisievert a year, five times the typical dose of radiation humans receive in a year and nine times the EPA's limit for water pathways. The reading was 220 times higher than the EPA's limit for drinking water pathways.

Image (top left): A photo taken by the Mallinckrodt-St. Louis Sites Task Force Working Group in 1960 of deteriorating steel drums containing radioactive residues near Coldwater Creek

Image (right): Karen Nickel (left) and Dawn Chapman flip through binders full of government documents about St. Louis County sites contaminated by nuclear waste left over from World War II. Nickel and Chapman founded Just Moms STL to advocate for the community to federal environmental and energy officials

Date: Saturday, 15 July 2023
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