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.

Kleba and his parishioners heard the DOE's reassurances in late August. In October, the seventh infant died. On Nov. 1, Kleba put on his white alb and a kente-cloth stole given to him by schoolkids in the city, reread the Gospel of Mark and celebrated the funeral Mass of Justin Jacobs, dead of leukemia two weeks before his seventh birthday.

Then he called the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and asked whether someone could provide a little more information for his parishioners. They steered him to Kay Drey.

"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.

Drey was Weldon Springs Joan of Arc, crusading for a cleanup since 1979. Most St. Louisans had no idea they were living with the oldest radioactive waste of the atomic era -- let alone what its health effects might be. Drey told them and watched the outrage build. Then she watchdogged the project, filling a row of filing cabinets with documentation and challenge. She's convinced that the DOE, the Army and the Missouri DNR, charged with overseeing the cleanup, have done -- despite a few blind spots and slip-ups -- their human best. What haunts her, she told the parishioners, is the chance that in a place like Weldon Spring, their best might not be good enough.

Back when they were cranking out explosives and uranium, government workers dumped toxins in the fissured limestone quarry, then hacked out rock to build roads. They poured chemicals into seven wastewater lagoons and burned buildings soaked in explosives. They pumped radioactive quarry water into Femme Osage Creek and filled unlined raffinate pits with toxic sludge. They used simple bag filters to vent uranium dust out of the buildings into the fresh air. They watched stormwater run off the lagoons and soak into ditches and ravines, eventually reaching the shallow aquifer and traveling to nearby springs and creeks.

All that ended when the government returned in spacesuits and "contained" the site. Now they talk about it as if it's Alcatraz. But Drey still remembers the day cleanup workers lost a piece of radioactive pipeline and couldn't figure out whether they'd incinerated it. She remembers how, in 1996, they wanted to pipe treated leachate from the disposal cell across a uranium-laced drainage ditch and discharge it into the clear waters of Dardenne Creek. She's read the annual incident reports: The day they overpressurized a 55-gallon drum and it blew, spraying material everywhere. The day the PVC pipe separated at an elbow, spraying brine contaminated with 389,380 picocuries per liter of uranium. The day the truck operator fell asleep, squirting that puddinglike grout of contaminated sludge, ash and cement into an uncontrolled area.

Drey doesn't trust the governments tests, either. Soil hasn't been sampled off-site. Air sampling has been difficult; radionuclides can whiz by in minuscule amounts and still do damage once inhaled. Much of the site testing has been sporadic, stopping for a while, then resuming when work resumes in a given area. Contaminants such as tritium have vanished from discussion, and she's not convinced they're gone. Levels of uranium and other radionuclides have fluctuated dramatically, increasing whenever workers moved the water, soil or sludge. Unusually high readings have been written off as anomalies or mistakes. Contaminants such as TCE are heavier than water and tend to settle in the sediment, contaminating all the water that rushes over them but not getting measured themselves until they're flushed out by heavy rain. (Cleanup crews found traces of thorium-230 as high as 5,000 picocuries per liter in the raffinate pits and quarry. Then it stopped showing up on their tests. But in 1999, it increased again, after a shot of sulfuric acid dissolved thorium that had sunk into the pond solids to hide.)

Testing, Drey warned Kleba's group, is tricky. So is mapping groundwater as it filters its way through dissolved limestone as porous as cheesecloth. She thumbs through the homemade Post-It tabs on one of the first site reports ("the earlier ones tend to be more honest") and reads aloud: "[Samples] tend to confirm a fairly free communication between the ground water inside and outside the quarry."

Ah, but the quarry's been scraped clean; the contaminated groundwater under the chemical plant is "contained"; and the DOE has insisted all along that the quarry's toxins stop before reaching the public wellfield, which consistently tests clean. Every time Drey asked just where all that contaminated water was going, she was told, "To the Femme Osage Slough," a long, narrow canal on the edge of the wellfield that she thought was bound to overflow into the field. "People fish in that slough!" she retorted, pointing to 1980 tests that revealed uranium, thorium, radium and arsenic in the fish. Those levels have since dropped, but Drey reads sentences like "The likely future land-use for the Femme Osage Slough is recreational" and gets nervous -- especially because the DOE now believes the alkaline slough acts as a "reduction zone," preventing the uranium from dissolving in water. So where does it go? Into the soil -- which they're not planning on exhuming.

Finally, Drey doesn't trust a 75-foot-high disposal cell sited amid porous limestone in a rapidly growing residential area. Thompson insists that the ground directly beneath the cell is solid -- "the site was chosen by the DOE because of its stability" -- and as for the cracking, dissolving geology all around it, she says, "We think it's very controlled. The fractures are tiny, and we know where they are going. We feel like the karst topography is not karst like many people think."

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