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.

The next time Kleba met with the social-concerns committee, he suggested three possible projects: shoring up the St. Vincent DePaul Society, starting a Habitat for Humanity project or investigating the infant deaths in the parish.

Nobody hesitated.

The environmental sins of Weldon Spring sprang first to everyone's mind, but the group didn't want to demonize the site, so they cast about for other possibilities. Neurotoxic pesticides from area farms? POPs, persistent organic pollutants, from common household products? Air pollution (St. Charles County ranks in the worst 20 percent of all U.S. counties, according to the Environmental Defense Fund)? Chemicals from Monsanto's old experimental farm? Undetected dioxin in the soil, shoveled up and dispersed with each new construction project?

Jennifer Silverberg
Ann Bachmann plays with 2-year-old Dominic. The Bachmanns lost his twin brother to a rare birth defect, and now an older son, Patrick, is having unexplained high fevers. She can't help but wonder.
Jennifer Silverberg
Ann Bachmann plays with 2-year-old Dominic. The Bachmanns lost his twin brother to a rare birth defect, and now an older son, Patrick, is having unexplained high fevers. She can't help but wonder.

Interesting possibilities, but the Weldon Spring site dwarfed them all.

Maybe it was time for a field trip.

The day Kleba and his ragtag group of parishioners showed up to tour the site, a late-August sun was glaring straight down on the 45-acre pile of gray-white rock, a barren Arc de Triomphe, the government's monument to belated prudence. Under layers of silent clay lay more than 7,044 curies of radioactive waste, each curie decaying at a rate of 37 billion disintegrations per second. Awed by the stillness at the storage cell's surface, the group drove up its gentle slope to the flat top, nearly 75 feet high. The site looked like a giant's playset, with tiny trucks and tractors rolling over hills of mud, miniature men in white hardhats moving yellow barrels of waste, every section roped and fenced, the grid's lines dotted with fluorescent-orange traffic cones.

It had all begun in 1941, when the U.S. Army declared a state of emergency and claimed more than 17,000 acres of St. Charles County, evacuating the tiny towns of Toonerville, Howell and Hamburg to build an explosives plant. While corpsmen sweated, cooled and recrystallized TNT and DNT in the boonies, a Nobel-laureate physicist at Washington University, Dr. Arthur Holly Compton, was inveigling wizard-chemist Edward Mallinckrodt Jr. to find a quick, efficient way to refine uranium. At the time, there was about a teacup's worth of purified uranium in the world; to build an atomic pile and test the theoretical chain reaction that could win the war, they'd need more than 40 tons.

By 1942, Mallinckrodt's downtown facility was knee-deep in Belgian Congo pitchblende, the highest grade of uranium in existence. Enough was purified to prove the chain reaction. Enough to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Enough to launch the Cold War. The "tailings" (radioactive waste) eventually wound up at the Weldon Spring site, and, in 1957, the Atomic Energy Commission moved the entire operation there. A decade later, they shut down, and the Army tried to "decon" (decontaminate) the site so that Agent Orange could be made there.

Two years later, they gave up abruptly, announcing the end of the operation to workers who'd just opened their lunchboxes. Everybody cleared out, leaving the site to the ghosts. Two decades later, in a blur of Superfund momentum and public pressure, the site made the National Priority List, and the Department of Energy and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to share the cleanup. Part of the 17,000 poisoned acres had become, in a masterstroke of irony, the August A. Busch Memorial Wildlife Area; part was still an Army training site; the rest would be parceled out to the state and to Francis Howell High School.

DOE's cleanup crews arrived first, in 1986. They found chemical and radioactive waste riddling the 9-acre quarry and four mucky lagoons called "raffinate pits" ("raffinate" comes from the French word for slag). "Hot dirt" was scattered throughout, and toxins laced the subterranean labyrinth of groundwater. The site had absorbed two decades's worth of its own waste, plus 5,000 truckloads of radioactive waste, rubble and soil from Mallinckrodt; several thousand barrels of low-level radioactive waste from the Army's Granite City Arsenal; and hundreds of drums of thorium-230 from the Fernald uranium plant outside Cincinnati. The crews found more than 7,000 curies of radioactivity: uranium as old as the earth itself (half-life 4.5 billion years), plus all its spun-off daughters -- actinium, protactinium, radium, thorium, alpha particles, beta particles, radon gas. One of those daughters, thorium-230, had a half-life of 80,000 years, and the site held about 3,800 curies of it. (A large medical-research university might use 2 curies total, dividing them among more than 1,000 labs and handling them gingerly, with elaborate safety protocols.)

The soil held up to 1,220 picocuries per gram of uranium-238 (normal background is 1.1 picocurie per gram), but it also held nonradioactive toxicants: polychlorinated biphenyls (known as PCBs), TNT residues and excesses of such heavy metals as arsenic, chromium, lead, thallium, lithium and molybdenum. The water held nitrates, TNT, DNT, uranium, radium, thorium and trichloroethylene, known as TCE. Two years earlier, the U.S. Geological Survey had found tritium (a rare radioactive hydrogen isotope, the "H" in the H-bomb) in the quarry, in the Femme Osage Slough and in several raffinate pits.

With such a mix of toxins, the DOE had to plot each step of the cleanup like soldiers in a minefield. They removed 6,130 drums bubbling with contaminants and scraped hot dirt out of the deep crags in the quarry. Treated more than 4,100 tons of selenium brine and more than 276 million gallons of contaminated water, then released it into the Missouri River. Built a disposal cell to hold everything too dangerous to dispose of any other way, mixing contaminated sludge into a puddinglike grout to fill the voids.

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