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.

That August afternoon, the DOE staff spent hours answering the parishioners' questions. Project manager Pamela Thompson gives such tours patiently, convinced that if people see the slides often enough, they'll finally stop worrying. "We didn't come here to produce a hazard; we came to clean up a hazard," she says. "So of course we're here to answer these questions over and over. It's not in the drinking water. It's controlled. Everything's gone down [in toxicity]. And we're now at the final stage." She looks up from her formal statement: "We're proud to be able to do this. People here in St. Charles County made a commitment back in the '40s to give up their towns and their land, first for the Department of Defense and then to win the Cold War. They didn't leave us a 'mess,' they left us a legacy of risk."

There's passion in her voice, and frustration. Weldon Spring is touted as a model site. The DOE has tested the air, the soil and the water for years, documenting every measurement. They've shown their slide show to anyone who asked. Soon they'll build a platform of information stations on top of the cell itself, as the ultimate proof of safety. What more do people want?

They want it never to have happened.

Among other contaminants, the Weldon Spring site contains nuclear waste the government discreetly tucked away, under cover of "national security," after the Manhattan Project.
Among other contaminants, the Weldon Spring site contains nuclear waste the government discreetly tucked away, under cover of "national security," after the Manhattan Project.
Emily Kreft, who barely survived her battle with childhood leukemia, now drinks only bottled water -- "just in case."
Jennifer Silverberg
Emily Kreft, who barely survived her battle with childhood leukemia, now drinks only bottled water -- "just in case."

Immaculate Conception parishioner Ann Bachmann sings at every baby's funeral. She comes to all the committee meetings, too, and Kleba has come to count on her steady presence. She confided her suspicions months ago, even showing a photo of her newborn twins, David with a festive little white chef's hat hiding the missing top of his head and brain. "We moved here in 1992, to a brand-new house, built on farmland, a couple miles from the Weldon Spring site," she began. "I didn't even know what had happened there. We always used to run and bike on the Katy Trail." That trail, Kleba realized later, cut right behind the Weldon Spring site, a quarter-mile from the quarry.

In 1993, Bachmann became pregnant with her fourth child. It was her first pregnancy in Weldon Spring, and the first time she had to go on bed rest: "I was 33, so I just thought, 'Maybe I'm old.'" In 1995, she had thyroid tumors. In 1998, she became pregnant with the twins and learned that one had anencephaly, a rare birth defect that's even rarer in twins. While she was pregnant, her 15-year-old son experienced kidney problems. Then her older kids were found to have ADD, and her 6-year-old started running 104-degree fevers for six days at a time. "They diagnosed him with 'periodic fever syndrome,' and they said it could be environmentally caused; they just didn't know," she recalled. "Now another child in the parish is running high unexplained fevers."

When Bachmann researched anencephaly on the Internet, she found several moms who suspected thorium. Then she joined a support group, the Center for Loss in Multiple Birth. Months later, the president called her from Anchorage, Alaska: They were updating their database, and they were curious as to just how long her street was. Did it run the length of the city? The group had three members on that street, all of whom had lost babies.

Dunsmore Circle, said Bachmann, is five blocks long.

She's repeating this exchange at Madison's, the nicest café near church, when the owner comes out to say hello. He and Bachmann share a bond: His baby girl died in 1991 as the result of a neurological degradation the doctors couldn't pinpoint. "Weren't you living near the Weldon Spring site then?" she asks casually. "Right behind it," he replies, drawing no connection.

By now, Bachmann's drawing lots of connections, annotating Kleba's list of Weldon Spring contaminants with the latest in medical research. Virtually every contaminant at the site is a known carcinogen. The radioactivity means that, for thousands of years, these ores will be spinning off atoms, reflecting alpha and beta energy that, if it escapes, could penetrate and damage cells, killing them or disordering their logic so they mutate, reproducing unnaturally. TCE, a clear solvent with a sweetish smell and a burning taste, is not only strongly carcinogenic but is suspected to have toxic effects on the neurological and reproductive systems. PCBs, lead and arsenic can cause developmental problems. Lead and arsenic are suspected of affecting endocrine, nerve and immune function. Mercury, PCBs and lead can cause reproductive toxicity. Benzene, beryllium, nickel, toluene, PCBs and asbestos, all listed in the old USGS surveys of the site, can damage the immune system. PCBs, TCE and heavy metals have been implicated in learning disorders and other cognitive problems. And children are 10 times more susceptible to any health threat than adults, with their still-wobbly immune systems and rapidly dividing cells.

All that's irrelevant, say public-health officials, because there have been no exposures, no "pathways" by which the site contaminants could have reached residents. Since the cleanup began in 1986, the site has been fenced, with 24-hour guards -- and even if the rumors of teenage devil worship and daredevil swimming in the quarry were true, such instances couldn't have been frequent. The groundwater is contained, most of the contaminated sludge is already buried in the cell and officials feel sure that whatever contaminants have escaped -- blowing away as dust or bubbling up in the springs of Busch Wildlife -- they're not enough to pave "exposure pathways." The deaths are due to chance.

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