St. Charles tourist attraction sits atop radioactive waste
The third-graders from Kennerly Elementary in the Lindbergh School District fidgeted a bit during Kevin McCarthy’s presentation inside the interpretive center that sits on what once was the Weldon Spring Chemical plant in southwestern St. Charles County, not far from Interstate 64.
But there was no hesitation that bright October day as they scrambled up the steps to the top of the 75-foot hill that looms over the center.
At the top of that massive pile of rock rip-rap, the students had a panoramic view of much of the landscape of southwestern and central St. Charles County including Francis Howell High, a half-mile to the northeast, the August A. Busch Wildlife area to the north, and the heavily forested Weldon Spring Conservation Area to the south and west.
“There was a time when we used to say it was the highest point in St. Charles County; now we say it’s the highest publicly accessible point in St. Charles County,” said McCarthy, who along with teachers and parents tried to keep up with those younger legs.
The third-graders didn’t pay much attention to the placards placed on the top of the dome that recounted some of the history about how the rocks got there.
But if they had, they would have learned that the rock pile is not an ancient burial mound. No, buried beneath the mound are thousands of tons of hazardous and radioactive waste – waste that may take many years to become less toxic to humans – if it ever does. The waste repository is designed to last 1,000 years.
The rocks which form the mound are the culmination of the Weldon Spring Site Remedial Action Project that took shape in the 1990s to address how to contain tons of contaminated waste and radioactive material left behind after 50 years of activity. The site was contaminated by the production of explosives during the 1940s and by the processing of uranium by the Mallinckrodt chemical company in the 1950s until about 1966.
By the 1980s, public concern about movement of water toward the county’s drinking well fields and worries about the interpretive center prompted a $900 million cleanup of the site that largely ended in 2001. Monitoring of groundwater from 106 locations and wells continues, along with monitoring of surface water.
The rocks cover the site’s “disposal cell.” The 45-acre cell sits amid where old contaminated plant buildings stood. Into it was placed rubble and material from 44 plant structures as well as waste from a nearby quarry site. The cell is perhaps the final resting place for 1.48 million cubic yards of waste associated with the U.S. Army’s explosive production plant and later the Weldon Spring Uranium Feed Materials production facility.
The 82 third-graders weren’t doing something unique or dangerous, officials say. The center has been open to the public since August 2002. Work on the cell was finished in 2001. Adjacent to the 10,663-square-foot interpretative center, it is staffed by contractors for the U.S. Department of Energy, which manages the site.
Class field trips have come to the site for six or seven years, said Crystal Williams, a teacher at Kennerly Elementary.
The site – a tomb for the byproducts of winning World War II and the Cold War as well as a monument to some of its costs – suggests what can be done to deal with cleaning up dangerous messes left behind, messes that will need to be watched for years to come. That’s an issue that continues in other parts of the St. Louis area such as Coldwater Creek and the West Lake Landfill.
Questions about the Weldon Spring area, particularly the movement of materials underground off the site, continue to prompt debate. But for now, the Weldon Spring site has been around long enough to become a bit of a tourist attraction.
More than an oddity
Just another roadside attraction? Not exactly.
The center was opened to preserve some of the site’s history and educate people about what was done there, said McCarthy, who is with Stoller Newport News Nuclear and manager of the interpretive center. But McCarthy doesn’t bristle when the site gets characterized as a tourist attraction.
“That’s a good thing, I think, it’s a good opportunity to educate people about the site,” he said. It’s a lot easier to answer questions if people come to see it, he added.
The center, in a nondescript, remodeled building erected for the cleanup, features an exhaustive collection of exhibits that highlight the history of the site and area, and include photos of works and the plant, and the technical processes used to decontaminate and bury the waste. The center also has several classrooms that are available to community groups and numerous publications.
Along with touring the center and climbing to the top of the cell, visitors can hike and bike along the Hamburg Trail that travels through the site and view the Howell Prairie, an area adjacent to the center first planted in 2002 featuring prairie grasses and flowers.
Since 2002, the center has had more than 220,000 visitors, averaging about 20,000 a year. Visitation is on a pace to hit 25,000 this year, McCarthy said.
Visitors can range from students to those whose curiosity is piqued driving by on Hwy. 94 to astronomy groups to community groups using its classrooms for training.
Still, the question remains whether a radioactive waste site is a good place for all that activity.
While McCarthy said the site is safe, he added that “You cannot blow off those concerns.” So, testing is done – routinely and frequently.
Readings this summer at 95 sampling locations on the site, ranging from picnic tables to steps up the hill were all below background radiation levels, McCarthy said.
“We can show that the site is being cleaned up and safe to visit,” he noted. “The general group of people who are visiting here – they’re amazed and at the same time they had no idea this was here,” McCarthy said. “They say ‘I had no idea St. Louis and this area played such a critical role in World War II and even the Cold War.’ I would say that kind of outweighs the negative comments.”
Others are more skeptical about the site’s cleanup, continued monitoring and claims of no impact on public health.
“I’ve been out there where busloads of kids are sent out to go to the top of the pile,” said Ed Smith, state energy director with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, a major independent citizen environmental group in the St. Louis area. “It’s Orwellian.”
Cancer risk, or not?
Smith, with his reference to famed author George Orwell’s dire predictions of destructive to the welfare of a free and open society, is not alone.
Father Gerry Kleba also is troubled by the idea of children playing atop a pile of radioactive waste, precisely because of questions that linger. Every kid wants to get to the top of the hill and fast-growing young tissue may be more susceptible to the effects of any harmful radiation or waste, he said.
Kleba also remains troubled because of what happened when he was a parish priest at Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie, which sits on the north of the Weldon Spring site. There, seven infants died in an 18-month span during 2000 and 2001. Kleba said he never buried seven infants in 35 years as a priest.
The outcry over the infant deaths and other issues prompted state reports in 2005 and a follow-up report in 2012 by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and Missouri Cancer Registry on leukemia cases and deaths in St Charles County. Those reports concluded that county residents were not at a higher risk due to the waste at the Weldon Spring site.
Robert Criss, a Washington University geochemist who studies groundwater contamination, criticized the 2012 report, saying it was inadequate.
“I didn’t think it was very thoughtful,” Criss said in a recent interview. “I don’t like dismissing risk, if you don’t have a good data set, you should keep your mouth shut.”
Criss and others said the updated report didn’t address issues posed regarding the county’s explosive population growth in recent decades and didn’t look at other types of cancers. The report included a large number of zip codes and didn’t take into account that many of those people may have just moved to the area. The report could have examined more closely long-time residents of the area or those who worked at the plants, they said.
“I just thought it (the report) was meaningless, they shouldn’t have been making any statement,” Criss said. But he acknowledged that tracing cancer risk is an extremely hard topic because cancer causes remain elusive.
Kleba also said the state’s studies have been inadequate. The federal government could have put some of the nearly $1 billion it spent on the cleanup into conducting a comprehensive health study that looked at everyone born within 2 miles of the site and who lived the first 18 years of their lives there, Kleba said. Instead, he said, they built a bike trail.
A model cleanup?
Public attention has shifted away from the Weldon Spring site to about 20 miles to the east – in north St. Louis County.
Radioactive wastes have been found near homes along Coldwater Creek. But most of the attention is focused on an underground fire in the Bridgeton Landfill that is approaching the adjacent West Lake Landfill, which has radioactive waste.
Residents of Bridgeton and nearby suburbs have been worried about the danger posed by the fire reaching the waste. Then, in September, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster released reports which further raised concerns about the impact of the fire reaching the waste. This was followed by St. Louis County releasing emergency response plans on responding to the situation. School districts near the landfill, including Francis Howell, St. Charles and Orchard Farm, as recently as last month sent out letters to parents about their plans in case of emergency at the landfill.
Government officials and residents have recommended that the site be transferred from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s jurisdiction to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP).
Removing the waste is one option the EPA is considering, but it’s costly and poses risks for workers.
Smith said there is no easy solution to the West Lake situation. “It is the epitome of a rock in a hard place,” he said.
A solution similar to Weldon Spring may be contemplated, Smith said. But it’s difficult because it’s a seismically vulnerable area for earthquakes, is on a floodplain, in an urban area and is adjacent to a smoldering fire. The West Lake Landfill material also may become more radioactive over a long period of time, he said.
Besides, the coalition wasn’t wild about what was done with Weldon Spring, Smith said. But he added, “It’s better than what it was, that’s for sure.”
Smith described the Weldon Spring cleanup as a 1,000-year engineering solution. “If you look at the longevity of radioactive materials, Weldon Spring is a band-aid on the situation.”
Kleba is sympathetic with the worries raised by north St. Louis County residents about their waste sites. But, at 73, health problems have limited his involvement. He’s now pastor of St. Cronan Church in St. Louis. He said that years ago his involvement at Immaculate Conception wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm by some businesses and civic officials.
He talks about that experience and the Weldon Spring site in a recent documentary film by local film maker Tony West. The film, about St. Louis’ role in the Manhattan Project, is called “The Safe Side of the Fence.” It includes interviews and stories from former Mallinckrodt employees and residents near the locally contaminated sites.
Kleba said the film title comes from a question posed to him by an interviewer for the film. He said he told the interviewer that much of the Weldon Spring plant site was surrounded by a 12-foot fence with signs posted every 50 to 100 feet warning about radioactivity.
Everyone inside the fence doing the cleaning was wearing a hazmat moon suit, while everyone working in an office on the other side of the fence was wearing civilian clothes, he said.
“It was clear that they (federal officials) thought that none of that radioactive waste would come through the fence. The challenge is to stay on the safe side of the fence,” Kleba said. “It’s the biggest laugh in the movie.
“I’d love to think there would be greater honesty and intelligence about this [future cleanups at Coldwater Creek and the West Lake Landfill], because I think the Weldon Spring effort was treated like a joke at times.”