When We Are History

Steve McCracken has overseen a 13-year, $800 million cleanup and burial of the radioactive waste at Weldon Spring. Now that the odyssey is nearing its end, one thought haunts him -- how to warn people in the future not to dig it up.

In mid-1987, the Environmental Protection Agency listed the quarry as a Superfund site, making it eligible for major federal funds. One year later, the chemical-plant site, including the waste pits, was officially included. Early on, a citizens' group called St. Charles Countians Against Hazardous Waste formed to watchdog the DOE's work, which, in the meantime, was also being scrutinized by the federal EPA and the Missouri DNR.

For McCracken, new lessons in communication started early on, because the DOE, like the armed forces, focused more on accomplishing the task than on public relations or polite diplomacy. McCracken speaks candidly about his agency's PR snafu. "Unfortunately at that time, I think the DOE was in the operating mode of not communicating very well," he says. "We were assuming we could make decisions without providing the opportunity for the public and the state and the EPA to really understand and agree. That proved to be our undoing in 1987."

That year, the DOE barreled into its first big controversy by announcing that waste would be treated and disposed of on-site rather than shipped off to some other place. The agency had done the studies, estimated what it thought was there and was ready to go, go, go.

"Well, we had the state, the EPA and about 2,000 people tell us they thought that was a bad idea," says McCracken. "So we went through a year of trying to work this through, and a good part of the year was spent trying to defend what we thought was correct. We wanted to move on. Finally it became obvious that it was 3-to-1 and we were losing.

"Basically what people were saying -- and they were correct -- was that we hadn't studied the site well enough to make the kinds of decisions we were making," McCracken continues. "People didn't like the fact that we were making assumptions based on what might be there; they wanted us to know for sure. So, beginning in 1988, we said, 'OK, here's what we'll do: Let's agree that we'll go back and study the site, but because that will take four or five years and nobody wants this site to sit for another four or five years with no work going on, let's agree on what work can be done in the meantime.'"

They did, and though the decision to store on-site would come later, the first compromise was reached in 1987. Weldon Spring then changed from a site into a project.

Working out a plan for the jigsaw puzzle that had to be taken apart piece by piece began with the basics: picking up all the contaminated debris, including what was in the quarry and in the waste pits; taking down the 44 buildings; and, most important, mitigating the flow of hazardous waste from the site.

Enter Ken Greenwell, a construction engineer who understood radioactivity well, having worked at uranium-mining sites in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. Greenwell came in as deputy director for the MK-Ferguson Co., a subsidiary of the Morrison Knudsen Corp., hired by the DOE as the project management contractor. Morrison Knudsen, an 8,000-employee international company specializing in heavy construction and engineering, includes in its dossier the construction of the Hoover Dam, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. Greenwell, like the company he works for, takes the Weldon Spring job pretty seriously. "I came here with a mission," he says simply. "It's what I do."

There were several things to do right away: taking down about 30 power lines and poles with transformers contaminated with PCB-laced oil; digging up 150,000 feet of cable and another 13,000 feet of pipes lined with asbestos; and building a dike, as well as diversion channels, to block the escape of uranium from the "south dump," a swampy depository of uranium oxides that didn't meet the agency's earlier standards.

And fears about contamination leaking or blowing toward the high school had to be addressed. When the DOE first arrived, it was getting frequent and frantic requests from parents in the community to move the high school or provide some measure of proof that the poisons weren't reaching their children while they attended school.

By this time, McCracken and the DOE had begun to learn their lessons about communicating with the outside world. For the high school, the DOE set up air-monitoring systems and gave the school district money to hire an independent analyst to verify the monitoring. Next the agency brought the superintendent, then the principal, then the teachers and finally the students onto the site for tours. "It made a lot of difference," McCracken says. "In the past, nobody was allowed on the site. All you saw were these radioactive signs, so there was a real mystery to what was behind the fences. Once we got the place to a point where we could bring people back here, well, that changed everything."

Since that time, no radioactivity reading above normal has ever been recorded at the school.

The Cleanup Begins
Then began the detail work. Industrial hygienists donned their lunar gear and literally went from one end of the site to the other, identifying what was in each of the 4,000 unmarked barrels, hundreds of miscellaneous containers and the strange orange pods sprayed with polyurethane.

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