As Fire Inches toward Dump Site and Cancer Numbers Rise, Community Groups Push for Resolution of Manhattan Project Contamination
Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2015-2016
By Arianne Peterson
Current and former residents of North St. Louis County, Missouri—where tons of radioactively contaminated Manhattan Project waste were dumped starting in the 1940s—are gaining traction in their efforts to pressure leaders to take responsibility for the widespread contamination in their communities. Local organizers have made progress recently on two related, urgent issues: 1) Clean-up of waste dumped at the West Lake Landfill site, where an underground fire in the neighboring Bridgeton landfill is inching ever closer to the radioactive materials; and 2) Achieving recognition and support for those who have developed illnesses related to the contamination in and around Coldwater Creek, which runs through North St. Louis County.
West Lake Landfill
Concerned citizens including the group Just Moms STL and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment have successfully lobbied the state’s congressional delegation to introduce a bill (HR 4100) that would transfer remediation authority of the West Lake Landfill site—which holds over 40,000 tons of contaminated soil at surface level—from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Army Corps of Engineers. The bill was introduced November 25 with support from Representatives Ann Wagner and William Lacy Clay and Senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill.
The West Lake Landfill is just one of many sites in the St. Louis area contaminated by waste left over from uranium processing done by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works for the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. While clean-up of the other sites falls under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers under the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), the West Lake site formerly did not meet the program’s criteria and instead was designated an EPA Superfund site.
But residents have not been happy with the EPA’s handling of the West Lake waste, which is about 1,000 feet away from a “subsurface smoldering event” that has been burning for over four years at the neighboring Bridgeton Landfill—owned by Republic Services. In 2008, the EPA Region 7 issued a Record of Decision saying it planned to leave the waste in place and cover it with a “cap” of rock, clay, and soil. In a press release about the new legislation, Representative Clay said, “It just makes no sense to allow radioactive waste to remain buried in an unlined landfill, near residential neighborhoods, schools, a hospital, the airport and the Missouri River. It’s time to clean up West Lake Landfill.”
Sen. Blunt said, “The EPA’s unacceptable delay in implementing a solution for the West Lake landfill has destroyed its credibility, and it is time to change course.”
Dawn Chapman of Just Moms STL expressed further frustration with the EPA, saying, “It was clear in May—when head of the EPA, Gina McCarthy, refused to meet with Just Moms STL even after a bipartisan letter was written requesting such a meeting—that EPA’s main focus remained on public relations rather than on being an advocate for our children.”
Just Moms STL has higher hopes for FUSRAP, which is handling the city’s other Manhattan Project waste cleanup sites, but the group recognizes it has a long way to go before their community is made safe. Group member Karen Nickel said, “While we see this as a victory, we still have families living within one mile of this dangerous site, we still have radioactive trees offsite, and we still have an out-of-control burning Superfund site/landfill with very hazardous materials.”
Local residents certainly have cause for concern. In 2014, the EPA released an analysis of what could happen if the underground fire reaches West Lake’s radioactive waste. The study said, “since no one knows what else is mixed in with the radioactive waste, a subsurface fire could potentially react with those unknown substances, causing an explosion.” It also found that high temperatures could cause the proposed cap over the waste to crack, and/or create a buildup of pressure that would force out radioactive gasses. A fire at West Lake would also cause more liquid to build up in the landfill, which could carry contamination away from the site and into groundwater. The EPA has promised to release its plan for dealing with the situation by the end of 2016.
In September 2015, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster released new reports supporting the state’s ongoing lawsuit against Bridgeton Landfill owner Republic Services for negligence and environmental violations related to the ongoing fire. Among the more alarming pieces of evidence added to the lawsuit, as reported by Missouri Public Radio, were:
- Radiological and organic contamination has been detected in trees on properties neighboring the landfill;
- Volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, have been found in “high concentrations” in the groundwater in wells outside the perimeter of the landfill. Those contaminants include benzene, acetone, and 2-butanone.
- The underground “fire”—or high-temperature chemical reaction—in the Bridgeton Landfill is expanding north, toward the radioactive waste in the adjacent West Lake Landfill and has already moved beyond the gas interceptor wells in the “neck” of the landfill that are intended to stop its spread;
- Republic Services has negligently contributed to the growth of the underground reaction by “aggressively over-extracting the gas system well outside industry best practices.”
The state’s suit was filed in 2013 and is scheduled for trial in March 2016. It seeks penalties, actual damages, and punitive damages from Republic Services for the company’s allegedly unlawful conduct.
Those who live near the landfills currently complain of headaches, nosebleeds, and horrible smells coming from the burning area. An unrelated brush fire at West Lake on October 24, and an 11,000-gallon sewage spill at Bridgeton October 27, only served to heighten local concerns about the management of the situation. St. Louis County officials, intending to reassure the public, released an emergency contingency plan in October outlining what to do if the fire reaches the waste. The plan only aggravated some residents’ concerns. Student activist Elaine Emmerich said, “There’s an official 104-page evacuation plan, but no one really knows what could happen [if the fire reaches the radioactive waste], since it all comes down to complete chance about which direction the winds are blowing that day.”
The proposal to transfer control of West Lake from the EPA to FUSRAP [within the Department of Defense] does not alter the site’s Superfund status and does not transfer the liability of those potentially responsible for the damages. Based on the site’s history, the question of liability may boil down to a finger-pointing match between nuclear utility giant Exelon and the Department of Energy (DOE). Exelon holds the liability for the former Cotter Corporation, which hired the contractor that originally dumped the waste. The DOE retains liability for its predecessor the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which released Cotter Corp. from its license to hold the material despite knowing that it was dumped without authorization.
The radioactive material at West Lake includes 8,700 tons of barium sulfate left over from the Belgian Congo Pitch Blend uranium ore—after Mallinckrodt C.W. extracted its uranium for the Manhattan Project. Starting in 1946, 133,000 tons of these byproducts were dumped at the St. Louis Airport site. In 1962, the AEC auctioned off 125,000 tons of the Airport waste to private companies. Cotter Corp. acquired some of the material and shipped much of it back to its home state of Colorado, leaving 8,700 tons of barium sulfate—which contained several tons of uranium—at a site on Latty Avenue, near the Airport. In 1973, Cotter Corp. mixed this material with 40,000 tons of topsoil from the Latty Avenue site and hauled it in dump trucks to West Lake, telling the landfill operator they were bringing “clean fill” that could be used to cover other refuse.
In 1974, Cotter Corp. told the AEC that it was disposing of the material in a landfill. According to AEC records, the agency recommended citing Cotter for disobeying the intent of its regulations. However, later that same year, the AEC released Cotter from the license it held for the Latty Avenue materials. A month later, the AEC was dissolved, and its duties were assigned to the newly formed Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The idea of taking action against the unauthorized dumping at West Lake apparently got lost in the transition.
Doug Clemens, chair of the community advisory group associated with the EPA cleanup, feels the DOE is shirking its responsibility for the West Lake waste. “This was permitted by the federal government and created by the federal government under a weapons program,” he said. “It’s their waste and they’re responsible for it.” The DOE had specifically excluded West Lake from the FUSRAP charged with cleaning up Manhattan Project sites, possibly because the material was owned by a private company. A 1993 DOE memo stated that the agency “remains firm in its position that it is not admitting liability for the West Lake Landfill contamination”; a 1992 memo called the West Lake dumping “a license violation” that “would not have been authorized if licensing approval had been sought.”
Kay Drey, who has researched the weapons waste in St. Louis since the 1970s and is a board member at Beyond Nuclear, feels the US government has both a moral and fiscal responsibility for cleaning up the waste produced by its weapons program. “To me, it’s very clear that this was a federal responsibility,” she told St. Louis Today. “Unfortunately, the Atomic Energy Commission and the NRC didn’t follow through and pay attention to what was at Latty Avenue and then dumped at West Lake Landfill.”
Coldwater Creek Contamination
The same uranium processing waste generated by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works for atomic bomb production that was dumped at West Lake was dumped in many other sites as well, and residents who were exposed to radiation in the 1970s and 1980s—many of whom came in regular contact with Coldwater Creek, a tributary of the Missouri River—are now facing an alarming number of rare illnesses.
After years of organizing efforts to put pressure on government officials to take responsibility for the devastating effects thought to stem from residents’ exposure, activists with Coldwater Creek Facts have succeeded in involving the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in studying their case. In the agency’s first meeting with community members December 2, officials reassured them that their investigation would not be influenced by other government agencies that may seek to avoid responsibility for the problem. Erin Evans, an ADSTR environmental health specialist, told residents, “We are an independent, non-regulatory agency. I get my pressure from you.” She also said, “Hopefully this helps us say these illnesses that we’re seeing in this community may have been caused by this environmental contamination.”
In 2011, current and former residents of the area who grew up near the Creek in the 1970s and 1980s began to notice a high incidence of rare cancers among their relatively young peer group. They started a Facebook group called “Coldwater Creek—Just the Facts Please” to reach out to others who were experiencing similar health issues and begin gathering data. Four years later, the group has over 12,000 members and has documented 2,725 cases of cancers and autoimmune diseases. Forty-five of these are cases of appendix cancer, which is staggering considering the regular incidence of this disease is less than one in 100,000.
A 2013 study by the Missouri Department of Health effectively dismissed the group’s concerns, attributing the high cancer rates to lifestyle factors like smoking and poor diet. After pointing out the flaws of the study, which only considered the diseases diagnosed among those who lived near the Creek from 1996 to 2004—after cleanup efforts were well underway—and failed to consider the major portion of the population that had moved away from the area since their exposure.
Members of the group hope the ATSDR study—which is expected to take 18 to 24 months—will bring them closer to gaining some federal support for those suffering from the effects of contamination resulting from the government’s atomic bomb production. The group is pushing the federal government to recognize their “Downwinder” status under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) for those suffering from radiation exposure stemming from the government’s Manhattan Project. RECA, administered by the Department of Justice, entitles those it recognizes as having contracted certain diseases after exposure to up to $100,000 in damages.
Organizers are also working to educate health care professionals in the area on the effects of residents’ exposure and how to best serve this unique population. On November 30, St. Louis County Public Health Director Faisal Khan responded to community concerns and published a blog post addressing area physicians, sharing recommendations for action and educational resources.
While they keep pressure on federal, state, and local authorities, group members continue to advocate for and support each other through their Facebook page, which contains four years’ worth of devastating stories from those who are sick themselves and/or have lost loved ones to cancer and other diseases. A comment posted by Facebook user Julie Winters on October 22 is a typical post for the page: “My sister died at age 30 from liver cancer. My Mother at 55 from ovarian cancer. My Father age 58 from lung cancer. And last, I had triple negative breast cancer at 45. The stupid creek ran behind our house and I use to catch tadpoles as a kid…….until they suddenly all disappeared. Hmmmm. What do you all think??? Insane!!”
The Coldwater Creek contamination is recognized under FUSRAP, and the Army Corps of Engineers is working to clean up the sources of its contamination. Meanwhile, many current residents living near both the Creek and the West Lake Landfill are struggling to figure out how to move their families away from the radiation given the reality that no one is likely to want to buy or live in their homes. Though both groups are engaged in a fight for their lives, they recognize that their struggles stem from a much bigger problem: the criminal negligence of the federal governments nuclear weapons program. As Facebook user Scott Koeneman posted on the Coldwater Creek page December 2: “All I know is this: West Lake Landfill, and Coldwater Creek, both have, or had, the exact same waste buried in it that my grandfather worked on during the Manhattan Project & the Cold War at Mallinckrodt. It’s the same waste that killed him, and it’s the same waste that is killing you.”
Sources: St. Louis Public Radio, Mar. 31, 2014, Sept. 3 & Nov. 3, 2015; Missouri Attorney General Press Release, Sept. 3; Quartz, Oct. 29; STL Today, Nov. 2; Student Life (WashU), Nov. 9; Byron DeLear Interview on Antidote (YouTube), Nov. 9; KDSK News, Nov. 10; PoliticalNews, Nov. 25; Washington Univ. Institute for Public Health Blog, Nov. 30; St. Louis American, Dec. 3; AP, Dec. 4; US Dept. of Justice RECA Website, Dec. 4, 2015
Editor’s Note: Nukewatch has reported on both the Coldwater Creek contamination and the West Lake dump site regularly in the Quarterly since 2013. We are encouraged by the recent progress made by these citizens’ groups as well as the increased media coverage their struggle is now receiving.