St. Louis Must Do More To Protect Citizens From Nuclear Waste

St. Louis has some of the worst nuclear contamination in the nation

click to enlarge St. Louis Airport Site and Coldwater Creek - GOOGLE EARTH
St. Louis Airport Site and Coldwater Creek

Former state legislator Maria Chappelle-Nadal wants to raise awareness about nuclear contamination and other environmental hazards in St. Louis, and how we're all more at risk than we think.

In 1946, before it had all the neighborhoods many are familiar with today, north St. Louis County was not so populated. That may be the reason why mounds of nuclear waste — sometimes stories high — were stored and left for several years between Banshee Road and McDonnell Boulevard and adjacent to Cold Water Creek.  As a state senator, I represented this area around Lambert International Airport known as the SLAPS (St. Louis Airport Site). And now, a 70-year old bridge there is slated for demolition and replacement.

Most people don’t know (and I was one of those people) that radioactive elements can penetrate almost anything, including a bridge. When the bridge is demolished, it will be a major contamination event, releasing the radioactive elements it had absorbed.

Within the small circle of St. Louis environmental activists addressing radioactive contamination, we have learned that safety should be taken seriously, at every stage and especially when the result could be further contamination of the general population. This means that all levels of government should have aligned policies and an aggressive public education plan.

Bill 97 first appeared on the March 22nd St. Louis County Council draft agenda. The internal memo that came in a separate email explaining what Bill 97 would do was an instant red flag due to my many years of environmental justice work.

The words “McDonnell Blvd,” “bridge” and “demolition” sent my heart racing. There was no emergency plan in place to protect citizens and workers. In fact, the County’s director of emergency management was unaware of this major demolition event until May.

To the director’s credit, once aware, she tirelessly worked through a weekend to start a draft plan. In this instance, the right person at the right time raised the red flag, and government responded the way it is designed to work. But, how many other times have roads and bridges been resurfaced or demolished without preventive protocols to keep residents safe? The structural failure in this instance was the lack of an integrated approach between and among county departments.

Government has previously found a way to address such issues.

In 1992, St. Louis County Councilwoman Geri Rothman-Serot (D-District 2), established the Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Oversight Commission. Bill 205 was passed by the St. Louis County Council and signed by then–County Executive Buzz Westfall.

The oversight commission was charged with “conducting studies and making recommendations to the County Executive, the County Council and the United States Department of Energy for the purpose of monitoring and assuring the safe and complete cleanup of the metropolitan area's radioactive and hazardous waste. The commission may, in effectuating this goal, advise and consult with the County Council, County departments, and other private and public agencies and persons.”

Councilwoman Rothman-Serot had the forethought to address our region’s legacy of nuclear waste and sought input from the public and any entity, public or private, to ensure residents are safe from harm. Through this commission, local government was responsive and accountable through public policy.

Though now decommissioned, the oversight body was a good start and served the interest of the public well. A commission that is proactive with set controls is as vital as a commission that is reactive to emergencies after they have already occurred.

Another example of why such a commission is needed is the MET Center, formerly Wagner Electric, where PCBs, a highly carcinogenic compound, were improperly disposed of.

For 16 years, I represented Wellston in the Missouri legislature. Older citizens would tell me about the good ol’ days when business was booming and people were thriving. A large part of that vibrancy could be attributed to the Wagner Electric Company.

A brief look at historical aerial maps of Wellston will show a very large campus that spanned multiple blocks. Over 5,000 workers were employed at Wagner Electric.

Fast forward to the 1980s, St. Louis County inherited a portion of the Wagner property under then–County Executive Gene McNary. The main facility, on Plymouth, was referred to as the Cornerstone Partnership. By the 2000s, the building was named the MET Center.

Wagner Electric first appeared on my radar while I was serving in the Missouri Senate. In the 1950s, Wagner Electric advocated the opening of a landfill squarely in the middle of an African American community. And as it turned out, Wagner Electric was successful in keeping that landfill open and prepped for dumping a block away from an elementary school.

The problem with Wagner’s waste is that some of it contained PCB’s, a highly carcinogenic chemical compound. The company not only dumped its waste in landfills, but much of the waste never made it to landfills. Conveniently, River Des Peres is right next to the MET Center, once Wagner Electric. Today, there are only two documents on the county’s search engine, open to the public, that explains where the PCBs at the MET Center are stored. Wait. For. It.

Within the MET Center parking lot and building itself.

This came back to haunt former county employees and tenants in 2008 during one of the worst floods that ever occurred while I was in the Missouri legislature. Two African American senior citizens on Wilson were carried away by the flood waters into the River Des Peres. Their bodies were later recovered miles away.

During the same period, the MET Center flooded, too. Employees walked through the water, moving furniture to higher floors, recovering what could be saved. Working in the building were county employees, contract Whelan security guards and other entities leasing space.

Not one of the employees knew that PCBs were encapsulated and entombed within the MET Center and the parking lot. The flood waters caused a disturbance of toxic contaminants, and the likelihood workers were exposed is exponentially high. As I review the list of former employees that passed away, the majority of them had similar illnesses. These employees all worked at the MET Center during the flood of 2008.

The reason Bridge 164 and the MET Center are important is because they both expose failures in government processes. In order to keep people safe, government must do a better job at working collaboratively with people who know our region’s contamination history and the response teams that can keep us safe. It does not serve the public well when decisions are made in isolation and without the insight from experts. The government needs to consider things carefully and provide aggressive public education about the issues.

If Councilwoman Rothman-Serot were alive today, I wonder what mechanisms and policies she would put in place to ensure cancerous dust particles on a windy day were limited and negated to keep utility workers, congregants, cyclists and our loved ones safe during the demolition and replacement of bridge 164. Would she want departmental policies and procedures to be aligned with the federal government?

Would Councilwoman Rothman-Serot seek to ensure that at every step of the process, the general public is aware of each precaution St. Louis County government puts in place?

I believe Councilwoman Rothman-Serot would do anything and everything possible to keep citizens safe and away from the exposure to radioactive waste.

Bridge 164 is not just any old bridge. The MET Center is not just any old building.

At the RFT, we welcome well-reasoned essays on topics of local interest. Contact [email protected] if you've got something to say.

About The Author

Maria Chappelle-Nadal

Maria Chappelle-Nadal, Democrat, has long been in public service. She was a state representative from 2005 to 2010 and again from 2019 to 2020, and a member of the Missouri Senate from 2011 to 2019. Chappelle-Nadal continues to address regional environmental injustices. She also works with St. Louis County Council...
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