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 DOE is drawing its Weldon Spring work to a close. The air, soil and surface water may not be perfect, but they're a damn sight cleaner than they were in '86. As for that contaminated groundwater, the DOE is convinced (the DNR is not) that it will prove impossible to pump it out and cleanse it of all toxins. Instead, they plan to inject chemicals to neutralize the worst, the TCE. How, in the gossamer tracery of underground veins and seeps, will they find it? "We have an extensive amount of wells, and we know exactly where it's at," insists the DOE's Thompson.

They say they can find it, they just can't pump it out -- and the reason is their old shadow, karst. "The complex hydrogeologic characteristics of the site render compliance with the requirements technically impracticable," say DOE reports, now emphasizing "karstic features such as paleochannels, conduits, fractures, weathering, and dissolution features.... The distribution of contaminants is complex.... [R]esidual contaminants are likely to be present in undefinable and irremovable quantities."

"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.

And the McNamaras' famous red creek? They're doing a thorough test, reports DNR's Weldon Spring project manager Ben Moore, a patient, bearded, plaid-shirted fellow without a whiff of the bureaucrat about him. "That creek does drain part of the chemical site and the ordnance works," he says, but the rusty color is probably from oxidizing iron. "The water's warm, and bacteria like to feed in that environment. As they die, they give off residue that floats to the surface and forms a crust, almost a sheen."

McNamara's waiting for the test results. And Kleba is waiting for his epidemiological study.

"I initiated the investigation about a month ago," Simoes told the RFT last week. "Father Kleba was concerned that too many babies had died in his neighborhood, and we realized that we had enough information already to extract the minimal information to make an assessment of whether there is a real problem or not."


"I understand why Father Kleba was preoccupied," said Simoes, who planned to drive up to St. Charles to present his findings later that week. "The numbers have gone up in that community in the past three years, and the reason is not obvious right now. But this increase is not beyond what should be expected for a population that size. And sometimes numbers, they play tricks. It has to be enough higher that, statistically, it could not be by chance. If you don't have these incredibly high differentials, even if there is something there, you will never be able to identify the factors. You are really exploring the limits of epidemiology when you do cluster investigations."

"It's easier for me to believe in God than in the government," teases Kleba, but his eyes stay serious. Air, water, soil -- this is the very stuff of Creation, the matrix of our lives on Earth. When people can't trust that matrix, fear and doubt gnaw at them, nibbling away their souls' ease.

Nineteen-year-old Emily Kreft of Cottleville drinks only bottled water to this day, and she's just waiting for somebody to come out with "something bottled water does to you." Kreft was found to have leukemia 10 years ago, right after she made a tournament soccer team, on the day of a big Brownie meeting. "I wasn't scared, exactly," she recalls, "more embarrassed; I thought maybe I'd done something wrong." She missed the next three years of school, what with spinal taps, bone-marrow aspirations, chemotherapy, two relapses and, finally, a bone-marrow transplant. "I threw up every day for four years," she sighs. "I just had a bucket with me all the time."

Emily never asked "Why me?" but she was always curious about the cause. "The Weldon Spring site's maybe five minutes from my house; we used to go to Busch Wildlife on field trips. If we'd known how to go about it, we would have checked into that from the very beginning." Instead, her family installed a water filter -- "not that it'll do any good," sighs her dad. "You think about running, and then you hear about some other problem in the new place. I don't know what the right thing to do is anymore."

"I think about it every day, every time Patrick has a fever," says Bachmann. "I don't let the kids play in the creek anymore," volunteers McNamara. "I told them there are big snakes. And when they go to school, I say, 'Don't drink out of the drinking fountain.' The other day, I was making Kool-Aid, thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I almost used tap water.' And I don't have any proof that it's the water -- but I've got to start somewhere."

Jan Unterreiner, Marty's wife, knows all the studies have been very scientific, but every time she hears another person's story, she worries all over again: "It might have nothing to do with Weldon Spring at all -- or maybe it's something that came from there a long time ago and is still doing damage. It's so hard to know, it's mind-boggling."

"Our group isn't setting out to lay blame," she adds quickly. "We just want to know if there's anything now that we should rectify. Do we quit building so many subdivisions? Do we use bottled water? How should we live?"

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