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.

Back at the rectory, he called Phillips -- three days running -- and got no response. Finally a parishioner called state Rep. Jonathan Dolan (R-Lake St. Louis), who elicited a renewed promise from the state health department to analyze the deaths. St. Charles County Executive Joe Ortwerth also had a change of heart and joined the push, demanding thorough case histories.

But when Eduardo Simoes, M.D., chief of epidemiology for the Missouri Department of Health, finally called Kleba, he was emphasizing statistics again. "That's worthless," warned Dr. Dan McKeel, a pathologist at Washington University School of Medicine who'd offered to help Kleba. "It's just a way to take the wind out of your sails." A longtime environmentalist with flyaway gray hair, a friendly round face and a Virginia drawl, McKeel had come to the January meeting, and he hadn't been terribly impressed by the prior-year stats proffered there as proof: "St. Charles County is a wealthy county compared with others, and you'd expect health to be better," he noted. "What's irritating is, everybody knows this. The only data they could present that would make any sense would be historical data for the same place, but St. Charles County isn't static enough; there are too many people moving in and out. What you need," he concluded, "is an M.D. interviewing these families."

They also needed a new kind of analysis. "It's very hard to prove clustering," says William Suk, a research director at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, "because it has to be 'statistically significant,' and you're usually talking low numbers. It's when you start adding everything together (different cancers, reproductive problems, learning disabilities, etc.) -- which is usually not done in public health, because it's apples-and-oranges -- that you get a different picture."

"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.

Ah, but that picture just about guarantees you a needle-in-the-haystack, money-out-the-window environmental investigation. The world is more contaminated every day, and the sources are hard to isolate; subtle effects can accumulate over time ("body burden," it's called); diseases often involve multiple factors, and toxic substances interact with each other in unforeseen ways. Yet public-health officials still reach for the medical model, striving to link a specific agent to a specific disease and calling it good news if nothing that neat emerges. They're looking, in other words, for a smoking gun and big fat bullet holes -- but toxic chemicals spray shotgun pellets.

As for statistics, they're the bluntest weapon of all -- a useful way to compare groups, a quick way to silence hysterical laypeople. Results depend on the size and character of the groups you're comparing, and what they won't tell you is whether a blip on the chart is pure chance, systemic bias or a sign that something has happened. "The tools we use to look at these things are incredibly insensitive," notes David Ozonoff, chair of environmental health in the Boston University School of Public Health. "My definition of a public-health catastrophe is a health effect so powerful, even an epidemiological study can detect it."

In February, word of what Immaculate Conception was trying to do spread through the community and seeped like groundwater into Kleba's rectory office.

First came a letter from Andy Zotta, who used to fish at Busch Wildlife and still remembered the rainy, steamy-hot August morning, 15 or so years ago, when he rowed out to the deserted middle of Lake 35. He fished for a while, then bent toward the water to splash his face. "I started noticing a lot of dead fish coming to the surface, all kinds," he recalls. "On the way home, my eyes started burning so bad I had to pull over for a couple hours before I could even see. The next day I went back and told the conservation guy about it, and he said every time they had a continuous rain like that, there was a fish kill. He figured it was radiation, leaking into the lake from the saturated ground."

Next, Drey got a letter from a soil engineer who'd worked at the site for about six months, back when the cleanup crew started building the cell, and felt so uncomfortable with their practices he quit. He said they'd been allowed to repeat a failed nuclear-densitometer test as far away as 25 feet on either side -- "That's a heck of an area," he says -- and the clay they'd used on the cell's exterior walls hadn't always held enough moisture. "When it's oversaturated, it swells, which means it's like walking on Jell-O, and when it's less than the optimum moisture content, it dries out and causes voids, thereby allowing seepage through this material," the engineer explains. "When they put more on that didn't have enough moisture but had higher density, I'd tell them to bring in the water truck and spray it down, and they'd say, 'Nah, we'll just reroll it.' Well, the more they rolled it, the more moisture they drove out of the previous [layer] and drove up into the existing [layer]. I'm certain there were voids."

Kleba was still digesting "nuclear densitometers" when parishioner Marty Unterreiner called. He'd been talking to his new secretary, Laurie Stump, who temped at the Weldon Spring site back in 1987. "I sat in a backroom transcribing these huge government logs from 1966-67," recalls Stump. "There were complaints from local farmers about animals sick and dying or born deformed, and they always had these little explanations or follow-ups, saying, essentially, 'We consider it the lesser of evils; we can always come back and clean it up later.'"

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