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.

You live, says Kleba, with vigilance. You do all you can to make the world a safe and healthy place for your children and your children's children. And you don't give up.

"I know people think I'm crazy, an alarmist, Erin Brockovich with a collar," he adds with a shrug. "I just don't like to bury people's kids if there's a way to avoid it."

"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.

Last Thursday, Simoes drove to St. Charles County, flanked by his deputy director, to present the statistical findings. First they met with local politicians for an hour-and-a-half in County Executive Joe Ortwerth's office. Kleba and McKeel showed up at the appointed time, the priest's face a model of clerical innocence as he waited to hear plans for a full-blown epidemiological study. He knew they'd keep their promise. McKeel wasn't so sure.

Simoes handed them the preliminary "Report on Perceived Excess of Infant and Fetal Deaths in O'Fallon, Missouri, in 2000." McKeel scanned the charts. They looked a little hasty -- better ZIP codes could have been selected, and the methodology wasn't spelled out -- but most of the findings were unremarkable. He skipped to the conclusion, which stated that the recent deaths were statistically insignificant. Then he flipped back to the section on neonatal deaths in O'Fallon over the past three years.

Two deaths in 1998. Two deaths in 1999. Six deaths in the first 10 months of 2000, and the totals not in yet (Missouri gives hospitals and physicians six months to report mortality stats). McKeel thought back to the seven deaths at Immaculate Conception between October 1999 and October 2000. "That means seven of the eight deaths in that two-year period all occurred along Dardenne Creek in this one area," he exclaimed, pointing to the dots darkening their home-made map. "That'd raise my antennae 10 feet!"

That, said the officials, was why they were going to continue. They would be sending a health professional to interview the families, and then they would conduct a long-term surveillance study of infant mortality and also birth defects.

Kleba repented, on the spot, every harsh judgment he'd ever made about hard-hearted bureaucrats who put up barriers. His hope had been restored.

The vigilance would have to continue.

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