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.

Moving like sleepwalkers, the parents follow the small casket down the aisle and out the heavy doors of Immaculate Conception Church of Dardenne. Blinking in the daylight, they motion to the Rev. Gerry Kleba to go on to the cemetery without them; they have to get back down to Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital, where their other newborn twin is struggling to breathe the warmed, filtered air of her ICU tent.

Kleba nods agreement, but as he watches them walk toward their car, his eyes narrow, the wrinkles of years of pastoral work closing around a blue so bright it hurts. Will closure come? How can they grieve their dead baby while hovering, sick with worry, over her twin?

Ann Bachmann's clear soprano cuts into his thoughts. "Be not afraid," she sings, and Kleba picks up the refrain as they walk over to the churchyard, four parishioners and a priest, voices thin in the October wind.

They bury the baby girl next to Shannon E. Breen, born that May and dead by June 23, and the Craig twins, whose gravestone bears no lifespan at all. Three other babies, all dead in the past year, are buried elsewhere. Two rows back stands the older gravestone of Ann Bachmann's own baby, David Lael Bachmann, buried in 1998 after, Bachmann says, "16 precious hours" of life.

At least Immaculate Conception has a pall now, a rectangle of fine, soft white fabric sized for a child's casket, embroidered with a dove and a blood-red cross. Before, they just used a tablecloth. But they never needed one seven times in a single year.

Born in South City, the son of a tax accountant so honest his clients gave him blank checks, Kleba (the name is Czech for "bread") grew up in a world of red brick, narrow alleys and clothesline gossip. Tall, gangly, ruddy-cheeked and quick with his mouth, he wanted to be a priest so badly he managed to keep quiet all through seminary. He spent that pent-up energy battling slumlords, crack dealers and pimps in North St. Louis, eventually writing a book, The People Parish, about the fight for justice and the rebirth of hope.

Last spring, Kleba's vow of obedience brought him to a new assignment as a senior associate pastor in the placid suburbs of St. Charles County. What he saw shocked him. "This parish has more sick and dying children than I have ever experienced in my 35 years as a priest," he told the new social-concerns committee. They answered with stories of Dardenne Creek running red with TNT from the Weldon Spring Ordnance Works (the largest explosives manufacturer in World War II, crystallizing 35 million pounds of TNT a month) and cattle with ulcers on their legs after walking into the water. Older parishioners described the thick yellow smoke that burned their eyes when the Atomic Energy Commission took over Weldon Spring to purify uranium for the Cold War. One woman remembered her aunt hanging diapers on the clothesline and furiously brushing away gray ash from the site's incinerator. The baby who wore those diapers, she added, got cancer in her 30s. Everybody said there was more cancer out here -- also more miscarriages, birth defects, neurological problems, autism, ADD.... Before the government's $900 million cleanup began, people used to joke that you'd glow if you drank from the water fountains at Francis Howell High School, just a quarter-mile to the north of the plant.

Kleba listened thoughtfully to the litany of illnesses. Maybe people had grown paranoid, over-reading random tragedies. Or maybe what he was hearing was vigilance, babysitting an unknown monster.

Kleba gave his first eulogy at Immaculate Conception in July, for an infant born with Down syndrome. He stayed up late the night before, reading the Gospel of Mark, about Jesus' calling little children unto him. It didn't take the pain away. Some weeks later, he was shaking a sea of hands after Mass when parishioner Chris McNamara wove her way through the crowd. Could they talk for a while?

She described the oily red sheen and fungus that often coated the creek behind her house, built new nine years ago on farmland near the Weldon Spring site. Heidi, the McNamaras German shepherd, used to splash through that creek -- until she died of a rare intestinal cancer. McNamara's kids played in the creek, too. She had three healthy children when they moved there. Then the 1-year-old started breaking out in odd rashes. McNamara experienced her first miscarriage, then four more. She started going into preterm labor; she lost an infant to SIDS. The two babies who lived had mysterious childhood illnesses -- a measleslike rash; a mumpslike malady that swelled the lymph glands; something that looked like chickenpox but wasn't; fevers of unknown origin.

"People would joke about the water out here, but they never said anything seriously, so I didn't give it much thought," mused McNamara. She grew suspicious only recently, after reading about environmental causes of neurological problems. Her eldest son had attention-deficit disorder, her 9-year-old suffered from depression and cognitive processing problems so severe he couldn't write clearly, and the 5-year-old was starting to show similar signs.

The next time Kleba met with the social-concerns committee, he suggested three possible projects: shoring up the St. Vincent DePaul Society, starting a Habitat for Humanity project or investigating the infant deaths in the parish.

Nobody hesitated.

The environmental sins of Weldon Spring sprang first to everyone's mind, but the group didn't want to demonize the site, so they cast about for other possibilities. Neurotoxic pesticides from area farms? POPs, persistent organic pollutants, from common household products? Air pollution (St. Charles County ranks in the worst 20 percent of all U.S. counties, according to the Environmental Defense Fund)? Chemicals from Monsanto's old experimental farm? Undetected dioxin in the soil, shoveled up and dispersed with each new construction project?

Interesting possibilities, but the Weldon Spring site dwarfed them all.

Maybe it was time for a field trip.

The day Kleba and his ragtag group of parishioners showed up to tour the site, a late-August sun was glaring straight down on the 45-acre pile of gray-white rock, a barren Arc de Triomphe, the government's monument to belated prudence. Under layers of silent clay lay more than 7,044 curies of radioactive waste, each curie decaying at a rate of 37 billion disintegrations per second. Awed by the stillness at the storage cell's surface, the group drove up its gentle slope to the flat top, nearly 75 feet high. The site looked like a giant's playset, with tiny trucks and tractors rolling over hills of mud, miniature men in white hardhats moving yellow barrels of waste, every section roped and fenced, the grid's lines dotted with fluorescent-orange traffic cones.

It had all begun in 1941, when the U.S. Army declared a state of emergency and claimed more than 17,000 acres of St. Charles County, evacuating the tiny towns of Toonerville, Howell and Hamburg to build an explosives plant. While corpsmen sweated, cooled and recrystallized TNT and DNT in the boonies, a Nobel-laureate physicist at Washington University, Dr. Arthur Holly Compton, was inveigling wizard-chemist Edward Mallinckrodt Jr. to find a quick, efficient way to refine uranium. At the time, there was about a teacup's worth of purified uranium in the world; to build an atomic pile and test the theoretical chain reaction that could win the war, they'd need more than 40 tons.

By 1942, Mallinckrodt's downtown facility was knee-deep in Belgian Congo pitchblende, the highest grade of uranium in existence. Enough was purified to prove the chain reaction. Enough to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Enough to launch the Cold War. The "tailings" (radioactive waste) eventually wound up at the Weldon Spring site, and, in 1957, the Atomic Energy Commission moved the entire operation there. A decade later, they shut down, and the Army tried to "decon" (decontaminate) the site so that Agent Orange could be made there.

Two years later, they gave up abruptly, announcing the end of the operation to workers who'd just opened their lunchboxes. Everybody cleared out, leaving the site to the ghosts. Two decades later, in a blur of Superfund momentum and public pressure, the site made the National Priority List, and the Department of Energy and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to share the cleanup. Part of the 17,000 poisoned acres had become, in a masterstroke of irony, the August A. Busch Memorial Wildlife Area; part was still an Army training site; the rest would be parceled out to the state and to Francis Howell High School.

DOE's cleanup crews arrived first, in 1986. They found chemical and radioactive waste riddling the 9-acre quarry and four mucky lagoons called "raffinate pits" ("raffinate" comes from the French word for slag). "Hot dirt" was scattered throughout, and toxins laced the subterranean labyrinth of groundwater. The site had absorbed two decades's worth of its own waste, plus 5,000 truckloads of radioactive waste, rubble and soil from Mallinckrodt; several thousand barrels of low-level radioactive waste from the Army's Granite City Arsenal; and hundreds of drums of thorium-230 from the Fernald uranium plant outside Cincinnati. The crews found more than 7,000 curies of radioactivity: uranium as old as the earth itself (half-life 4.5 billion years), plus all its spun-off daughters -- actinium, protactinium, radium, thorium, alpha particles, beta particles, radon gas. One of those daughters, thorium-230, had a half-life of 80,000 years, and the site held about 3,800 curies of it. (A large medical-research university might use 2 curies total, dividing them among more than 1,000 labs and handling them gingerly, with elaborate safety protocols.)

The soil held up to 1,220 picocuries per gram of uranium-238 (normal background is 1.1 picocurie per gram), but it also held nonradioactive toxicants: polychlorinated biphenyls (known as PCBs), TNT residues and excesses of such heavy metals as arsenic, chromium, lead, thallium, lithium and molybdenum. The water held nitrates, TNT, DNT, uranium, radium, thorium and trichloroethylene, known as TCE. Two years earlier, the U.S. Geological Survey had found tritium (a rare radioactive hydrogen isotope, the "H" in the H-bomb) in the quarry, in the Femme Osage Slough and in several raffinate pits.

With such a mix of toxins, the DOE had to plot each step of the cleanup like soldiers in a minefield. They removed 6,130 drums bubbling with contaminants and scraped hot dirt out of the deep crags in the quarry. Treated more than 4,100 tons of selenium brine and more than 276 million gallons of contaminated water, then released it into the Missouri River. Built a disposal cell to hold everything too dangerous to dispose of any other way, mixing contaminated sludge into a puddinglike grout to fill the voids.

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.

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.

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.

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."

Karst is karst is karst, as far as Drey's concerned. She remembers DOE subcontractors telling her they weren't allowed even to use the word, it was such a bright red flag. Mike May, a geologist at Western Kentucky University and former environmental consultant for the EPA, understands why: "Karst is one of the quickest ways water can move underground. Groundwater flow maps in karst have a different significance; it seeps, and, locally, the seepage can go the opposite way of regional groundwater flow. The water can be like a spiral.

"Karst isn't for the faint of heart," he adds lightly. "The public doesn't understand karst, the significance of it environmentally. Karst environments are the curve balls of Mother Nature."

Kleba set out a friendly circle of folding chairs for the January social-concerns meeting, then watched it lose its shape as parishioners and neighbors poured into the multipurpose room. Raising his voice over the buzz, he introduced Bachmann, who said a soft prayer for all mothers. Then they waited, all eyes on the Missouri Department of Health and St. Charles County officials they'd invited to answer their questions.

Because, in the absence of solid information, people tend to assume "it's in the water," Angela Minor, an environmental specialist with the state health department, opened the meeting by explaining that her department started out monitoring 150 wells around the site but cut back to 30 as the findings improved. Only four wells recently tested positive for low levels of radium-226 and uranium, Minor said, and the source had been deduced to be natural and "recommended water softeners." The women in the crowd stared back at her -- since when did "Heloise Hints" work for radioactivity?

"The levels we are seeing here are very small," she continued.

"I'm not concerned with what you're seeing now," called a parishioner. "What if there was a leak in the cell; how long would it take to be dangerous?"

"That," she replied, "I can't answer."

Seeing the looks on people's faces, Mary Halliday, a St. Charles County environmental-services coordinator, leaned forward. "We know your concern," she said warmly. "There is no greater pain than losing a child." Halliday had gathered information for an earlier public-health study, that one triggered by unusually high childhood-leukemia rates. "Please look at everything," she urged the group. "I would like to see you stay with this. In '82, we came to the conclusion that we had an elevation [in leukemia], but we couldn't attach it [to a cause]. It's happened at least twice since then."

"So did people just give up?" asked a parishioner.

"It's exhaustion," Halliday answered simply.

At this, Halliday's boss, Gil Copley, director of community health and the environment, retrieved the microphone and assured the group that studies showed no link whatsoever between the site and area health problems. Up rose Bachmann, who looks as fragile as Mia Farrow and fights for her children just as fiercely: "No one has asked for my baby's medical records, yet the EPA's saying there's no link." Copley frowned: "The EPA's not saying anything." Bachmann checked her file: "I'm sorry. 'Public-health officials' -- would that be you?"

He conceded that it would -- "although I'm not the one quoted," he added hastily. "The people making that statement are looking at large numbers of people and looking for anything abnormal." He passed out charts showing reassuringly normal birth stats from previous years. This report, he hoped, would close the case: It showed St. Charles County with lower infant and in utero death rates than the state in general, and the ZIP codes around the Weldon Spring site with even lower rates than the county's. Now, they didn't have the 2000 stats analyzed yet, but ...

"We baptized 164 children and buried seven -- that's 4 percent mortality," interjected Bachmann. "Missouri's rate is 0.7 percent."

Copley said he was sure the state Department of Health would look into those seven babies' deaths immediately.

The morning after the meeting, Kleba, who'd pushed for a full epidemiological study all along, started to worry. He knew they needed detailed medical and lifestyle information -- as a promise of justice and a safeguard for future generations. Yet he'd sat with bereaved parents for hours, trying to help them accept death's mystery, urging them past anguish over whether they could have somehow saved their babies. "How many ways can we beat ourselves up for not living a perfect life?" he wondered aloud, then vowed to make this process as easy for people as possible.

The next week, after a visit to the preemie twin, now three months at Cardinal Glennon, he dropped in on Minor. What information would they need for an epidemiological study? Could he take the official forms and permission releases to the parents himself, all at once, so they wouldn't have to unfold their grief for a succession of strangers?

Minor called Pat Phillips, D.V.M., a state epidemiologist in Jefferson City, who promised to fax the forms. "So I feel like I've made enormous strides," recalls Kleba, "so I stop. Four days go by. No forms. I call and say, 'You know, if I get them by the weekend, I can spend a little time with the families after church.' Then Angela calls back and says they might not be doing that kind of investigation after all; they'll just check the death certificates, if I'll send those." Kleba's temper flashed. "I said, 'Angela, you have access to all death certificates already. I don't want to do your work for you. And I don't want to limit you to seven, either -- why don't you study any infant in this area who's died since last October? You might find more.'"

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."

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.'"

Another parishioner told Kleba that insurance rates at Francis Howell High School had gone up sharply, and people were saying it was because so many of their teachers there had miscarriages. (Lou Ann Platt, director of personnel for the district, says there was no single cause -- claims were high across the board compared with other employers their size. "We did have a very high number of transplants, more than most of their other groups combined. And when we were soliciting bids, I had companies tell me that both our medical and our prescription costs were very high. One company called because they thought we must have typed the prescription figure wrong!")

Finally Kleba heard from Mary Jo Dazey and Peggy Buhrman. Moms from Cottleville, a town south of the Weldon Spring site, they'd tried to research local leukemia rates in the early '90s. Dazey taught at the St. Joseph parish school and lived in the Meadow Ridge subdivision, and she'd watched 9-year-old Emily Kreft, who lived just down the street from her in Meadow Ridge, battle leukemia while another little girl in her class went into remission and a boy in the fourth grade died. Then they found four more leukemia cases in the district. "The officials were, like, 'Oh, please go away, you frustrated housewife,'" recalls Dazey. Now another young girl in Meadow Ridge had been found to have leukemia. Maybe Kleba, who'd already gotten so much more public support, could continue what they had started?

Nobody knows what causes most cases of childhood leukemia. It's one of the most common childhood cancers, but childhood cancer itself is relatively rare, hitting only one or two kids in every 10,000. St. Charles County has twice exceeded the norm: From 1975-79, there were 13 cases where seven were expected; from 1985-91, there were 12 cases where six were expected. But because the overall rate, averaged over the entire 22 years, wasn't increased, and because the geographic distribution wasn't patterned around the Weldon Spring site, the state saw no need for concern.

Alyce Turner, an investigator who helped collate study data, wanted to go further, studying medical histories and habits and possible environmental links, but her $125,000 grant application was rejected. If there were no mechanisms for the contaminants to reach people, why study exposure's possible consequences?

By mid-February, even some of Kleba's own parishioners were starting to doubt his quest. "It's not right to scare young couples who are buying their dream house and starting their family," murmured one woman, and the mother of the seventh dead infant, who'd just brought her twin safely home, said she was pretty sure their case, at least, wasn't environmental -- it was a placenta problem common with twins, and they'd only moved to the area four months before the birth. Even Bob Hoing, one of the parish's old stalwarts, hinted with all the tact he could muster that Kleba was heading down a foolish path. "Just a quirk of nature," he called the infant deaths and leukemia spurts. "I guess I'm sort of a fatalist about it."

Kleba listened and nodded, but he couldn't forget that one of Hoing's grandsons had had neuroblastoma, a rare brain cancer, when he was 4, and the other needed a pacemaker at 3. Compared with the entire state, children in St. Charles County have slightly higher rates of all cancers but lower rates of accidental injury, birth defects, homicide and heart disease. Compared with St. Louis County, adults in St. Charles County have slightly higher rates of colorectal cancer, lung cancer and lung disease (all of which have strong links to environmental toxins) and lower rates of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Statistically, the leading health problems for St. Charles County are cancers.

Immaculate Conception had seen its share of adult leukemia, too, parishioners reminded Kleba. What about Dove Vohs, whose leukemia was diagnosed when she was 35 and who was now in remission after bone-marrow and stem-cell transplants? She and her husband moved to a home a few miles from the Weldon Spring site 10 years ago; after six healthy, active years, she found herself coming home bone-tired, going straight to bed and not getting up until the next morning. The first thing her doctor asked was how close to the site she lived. Then she went to get the first of many prescriptions filled, and the pharmacist asked, too. "There's been cases of leukemia as far as Shenandoah Stables [20 miles north, one of the area's first dioxin-tainted Superfund sites]," he told her. "When you feel better again, you might want to check into it."

Vohs went straight to the public library and pulled heavy binders documenting the cleanup off the top shelf. The numbers swam before her eyes. "What I was looking for, I don't know," she admits. "But there's a stream right by my house that turns into a rainbow every summer, blue and yellow with chemicals." Remembering how the water used to smell like chlorine when they first moved there, Vohs went to the water department, too. They asked why she suspected the water supply and not the air. She didn't know what to say.

By now, Kleba's office was piled high with files and documents people had pressed upon him. He had no intention of grappling with the science himself; he was trusting the experts, pushing them to do what he believed they should. He'd heard enough to grasp that the stats were on the site's side: There were no obvious exposure pathways; heavy metals rarely wandered far from home; test results had dropped to "safe" levels. But what was a "pathway," and what was "safe"? Dust blows. Water seeps through limestone. Gases fly. Could enough have escaped to do any harm?

By the "maximum contaminant load" standards of the EPA, what has escaped -- at least the part that's been measured -- is within safe limits. But MCLs aren't based on health. They're compromises that consider the cost of remediation and the availability of technology. It's the MCL goal that's "protective of adverse human health effects and allows an adequate margin of safety." And the goal, for TCE and radionuclides and many of the other Weldon Spring contaminants, is zero.

In the real world of environmental remediation, though, zero's risible. The baseline is usually ALARA: "as low as reasonably achievable." So how much of this reasonable exposure is needed to cause, say, cancer or birth defects? "That's easy," says Ozonoff. "Nobody knows. Generally we believe there is some risk at every level of exposure. Cancer starts with a single cell going bad. So all you have to do is, excuse the expression, fuck up that first cell, and it doesn't take much chemical to do that.

"Here's what the EPA will tell you -- incorrectly, by the way," he continues. "They will say, 'We test these things at high doses in animals and then we extrapolate down to the low dose and we make the estimate conservative.' OK. Draw a graph. In the upper right corner, put two dots, for high dose and high risk. In the lower left, draw dots for low dose and low risk. That's where you want to get to, so draw a line." He waits two seconds. "How'd you draw that line? You could've drawn it an infinite number of ways. The EPA has a particular mathematical formula for it, but what they don't tell you is, there are probably half-a-dozen plausible formulas, and if you chose one of the others, the risk could be up to 10,000 times higher. For TCE, it is 10,000 times higher."

What about the dangers of low-level radiation? "Again," says Ozonoff, "they're hard to measure. What we know about radiation's effects on humans, we know only after the fact, from crises and not controlled experiments. And nature's a lousy research assistant." Some scientists now believe low-level radiation is even more dangerous than high levels, because instead of killing cells outright, it merely damages them, throwing cell reproduction askew.

Even the cautious National Academy of Science is re-evaluating "Health Effects from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation" -- and just requested a deadline extension to 2003. More fervent scientists at the independent Radiation and Public Health Project are convinced that radioactive fallout and residues are beginning to mix with industrial pollutants, multiplying each other's carcinogenicity and other toxic effects.

"Interaction's the frontier we're on right now, and we don't know much about it," admits Ozonoff. We do know that some particulates soak up toxic vapors and help them travel farther. Some substances enhance the absorption of others or intensify them. Volatile organics such as TCE combine with nitrogen oxides to create poisonous ground-level ozone. In Toms River, N.J., epidemiologists studied a Superfund site and found that "things had gotten mixed together," finishes Ozonoff, "creating a styrene so unusual there's nothing in the literature about it."

And the witches' brew at Weldon Spring? "It is very unlikely that there are any adverse effects due to the contaminants interacting with one another, especially given the extremely low concentrations," says Bruce Ballew of the DOE.

Meanwhile, the new St. Charles County Community Health Assessment Survey asks whether people wear seatbelts, take vitamins and wash their hands after using the restroom, but it doesn't ask a single question about miscarriages, birth defects or environmental contaminants. The Missouri Department of Health Web site lists the risk factors for cancer as nutrition, obesity, physical inactivity and smoking but doesn't mention a word about toxic exposures.

According to a General Accounting Office report submitted to Congress last May, toxic exposures are of paramount public concern. The GAO urged states and federal agencies to test exposures directly, through blood, urine and tissue samples, instead of randomly plucking bits of air, water and soil and generalizing about how people -- who are actually very different from each other -- absorb various substances. Scores of federally funded studies are examining the effects of toxic chemicals at Superfund sites on surrounding communities.

Missouri's Department of Health places the blame elsewhere.

"Most communities we have to work with, they already have their mind set that there is something [environmental] in that community," says Simoes. "It's a natural tendency in human beings: We try to find some cause that is not us. But it's behavior that causes most cancer."

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."

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?"

You live, says Kleba, with vigilance. You do all you can to make the world a safe and healthy place for your children and your children's children. And you don't give up.

"I know people think I'm crazy, an alarmist, Erin Brockovich with a collar," he adds with a shrug. "I just don't like to bury people's kids if there's a way to avoid it."

Last Thursday, Simoes drove to St. Charles County, flanked by his deputy director, to present the statistical findings. First they met with local politicians for an hour-and-a-half in County Executive Joe Ortwerth's office. Kleba and McKeel showed up at the appointed time, the priest's face a model of clerical innocence as he waited to hear plans for a full-blown epidemiological study. He knew they'd keep their promise. McKeel wasn't so sure.

Simoes handed them the preliminary "Report on Perceived Excess of Infant and Fetal Deaths in O'Fallon, Missouri, in 2000." McKeel scanned the charts. They looked a little hasty -- better ZIP codes could have been selected, and the methodology wasn't spelled out -- but most of the findings were unremarkable. He skipped to the conclusion, which stated that the recent deaths were statistically insignificant. Then he flipped back to the section on neonatal deaths in O'Fallon over the past three years.

Two deaths in 1998. Two deaths in 1999. Six deaths in the first 10 months of 2000, and the totals not in yet (Missouri gives hospitals and physicians six months to report mortality stats). McKeel thought back to the seven deaths at Immaculate Conception between October 1999 and October 2000. "That means seven of the eight deaths in that two-year period all occurred along Dardenne Creek in this one area," he exclaimed, pointing to the dots darkening their home-made map. "That'd raise my antennae 10 feet!"

That, said the officials, was why they were going to continue. They would be sending a health professional to interview the families, and then they would conduct a long-term surveillance study of infant mortality and also birth defects.

Kleba repented, on the spot, every harsh judgment he'd ever made about hard-hearted bureaucrats who put up barriers. His hope had been restored.

The vigilance would have to continue.

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.