The Right to Answers

Nobody knows why the babies are dying near Weldon Spring. But the grownups can't help asking whether the site's toxic stew is to blame.

Moving like sleepwalkers, the parents follow the small casket down the aisle and out the heavy doors of Immaculate Conception Church of Dardenne. Blinking in the daylight, they motion to the Rev. Gerry Kleba to go on to the cemetery without them; they have to get back down to Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital, where their other newborn twin is struggling to breathe the warmed, filtered air of her ICU tent.

Kleba nods agreement, but as he watches them walk toward their car, his eyes narrow, the wrinkles of years of pastoral work closing around a blue so bright it hurts. Will closure come? How can they grieve their dead baby while hovering, sick with worry, over her twin?

Ann Bachmann's clear soprano cuts into his thoughts. "Be not afraid," she sings, and Kleba picks up the refrain as they walk over to the churchyard, four parishioners and a priest, voices thin in the October wind.

"It's easier for me to believe in God than in the government," says Father Gerry Kleba.
Jennifer Silverberg
"It's easier for me to believe in God than in the government," says Father Gerry Kleba.

They bury the baby girl next to Shannon E. Breen, born that May and dead by June 23, and the Craig twins, whose gravestone bears no lifespan at all. Three other babies, all dead in the past year, are buried elsewhere. Two rows back stands the older gravestone of Ann Bachmann's own baby, David Lael Bachmann, buried in 1998 after, Bachmann says, "16 precious hours" of life.

At least Immaculate Conception has a pall now, a rectangle of fine, soft white fabric sized for a child's casket, embroidered with a dove and a blood-red cross. Before, they just used a tablecloth. But they never needed one seven times in a single year.

Born in South City, the son of a tax accountant so honest his clients gave him blank checks, Kleba (the name is Czech for "bread") grew up in a world of red brick, narrow alleys and clothesline gossip. Tall, gangly, ruddy-cheeked and quick with his mouth, he wanted to be a priest so badly he managed to keep quiet all through seminary. He spent that pent-up energy battling slumlords, crack dealers and pimps in North St. Louis, eventually writing a book, The People Parish, about the fight for justice and the rebirth of hope.

Last spring, Kleba's vow of obedience brought him to a new assignment as a senior associate pastor in the placid suburbs of St. Charles County. What he saw shocked him. "This parish has more sick and dying children than I have ever experienced in my 35 years as a priest," he told the new social-concerns committee. They answered with stories of Dardenne Creek running red with TNT from the Weldon Spring Ordnance Works (the largest explosives manufacturer in World War II, crystallizing 35 million pounds of TNT a month) and cattle with ulcers on their legs after walking into the water. Older parishioners described the thick yellow smoke that burned their eyes when the Atomic Energy Commission took over Weldon Spring to purify uranium for the Cold War. One woman remembered her aunt hanging diapers on the clothesline and furiously brushing away gray ash from the site's incinerator. The baby who wore those diapers, she added, got cancer in her 30s. Everybody said there was more cancer out here -- also more miscarriages, birth defects, neurological problems, autism, ADD.... Before the government's $900 million cleanup began, people used to joke that you'd glow if you drank from the water fountains at Francis Howell High School, just a quarter-mile to the north of the plant.

Kleba listened thoughtfully to the litany of illnesses. Maybe people had grown paranoid, over-reading random tragedies. Or maybe what he was hearing was vigilance, babysitting an unknown monster.

Kleba gave his first eulogy at Immaculate Conception in July, for an infant born with Down syndrome. He stayed up late the night before, reading the Gospel of Mark, about Jesus' calling little children unto him. It didn't take the pain away. Some weeks later, he was shaking a sea of hands after Mass when parishioner Chris McNamara wove her way through the crowd. Could they talk for a while?

She described the oily red sheen and fungus that often coated the creek behind her house, built new nine years ago on farmland near the Weldon Spring site. Heidi, the McNamaras German shepherd, used to splash through that creek -- until she died of a rare intestinal cancer. McNamara's kids played in the creek, too. She had three healthy children when they moved there. Then the 1-year-old started breaking out in odd rashes. McNamara experienced her first miscarriage, then four more. She started going into preterm labor; she lost an infant to SIDS. The two babies who lived had mysterious childhood illnesses -- a measleslike rash; a mumpslike malady that swelled the lymph glands; something that looked like chickenpox but wasn't; fevers of unknown origin.

"People would joke about the water out here, but they never said anything seriously, so I didn't give it much thought," mused McNamara. She grew suspicious only recently, after reading about environmental causes of neurological problems. Her eldest son had attention-deficit disorder, her 9-year-old suffered from depression and cognitive processing problems so severe he couldn't write clearly, and the 5-year-old was starting to show similar signs.

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