by Nick Thompson
HAZELWOOD, Mo. – Thousands of Missourians are paying the price today for their hometown’s role in producing the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
President Harry S. Truman, a Missouri native, decided to drop those bombs four months into his presidency in August 1945.
Truman would later say he never lost “a wink” of sleep over his decision to use the weapons produced by the U.S.’ top-secret Manhattan Project.
The story of the Manhattan project begins in the late 1930’s, when Albert Einstein further stoked the fear of the U.S. And its allies as their militaries pushed back against German aggression.
He told President Roosevelt the Germans had learned to split a uranium atom.
The federal government soon began the project to develop nuclear weapons before the Germans could.
Springfield native Robert Moon was a University of Chicago physicist and a key player in the Manhattan Project.
Chemist Edward Mallinckrodt of St. Louis asked Washington to give him the contract to enrich uranium from the Belgian Congo.
In Chicago in 1942, scientists watched the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, made possible with uranium enriched at Mallinckrodt’s St. Louis facility.
“And then Mallinckrodt comes along and says yes we will do it, we’ll do it in St. Louis,” said State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City. “And Mallinckrodt said we don’t want to have any of the liability and the U.S. Government said you won’t — but we will own all of this uranium.”
Chappelle-Nadal will be the first to say she is not a scientific expert.
However, she has done hours of homework and has held dozens of town halls in her north St. Louis County district to teach her constituents the truth about where they live.
“In the 1950’s there was a St. Louis County but it was mostly farmland,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “And the haulers were paid by the loads that they were able to get rid of. So the more radioactive waste they were able to get rid of, they got paid, not knowing there’s an impact.”
The Mallinckrodt Chemical Company enriched uranium in downtown St. Louis. When they ran out of room to store material, the federal government secured about 20 acres near Lambert St. Louis International Airport (this site is known as St. Louis Airport Storage Site or SLAPS).
In the early 1960’s, a contractor purchased the material from SLAPS. That contractor extracted minerals from it and then dumped the residues at Latty Avenue in Hazelwood.
Another contractor brought some of those residues to Canon City, Colorado. However, about 9,000 tons of it was illegally dumped in the Westlake Landfill in Bridgeton in 1973.
“They had mountains of it,” said Just Moms STL Advocacy Group Founder Dawn Chapman. “They had enough waste to fill our Busch Stadium to the top. I mean that’s how much waste was left over. I don’t think they realized that they would have so much of it.”
Chapman helped form Just Moms STL when she discovered the radioactive waste buried in Westlake Landfill is about two miles from her home.
“Some of the people [haulers of the waste] in their testimony to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when this was dumped at Westlake, one person commented and said this looked like rich topsoil. It looked like clean-fill dirt.”
Chapman tracks how government agencies are responding to the landfill situation.
She is also aware of a cluster of cancers and other diseases North County residents believe they can trace to their upbringing in the Coldwater Creek watershed.
“We’re all connected in that we’re part of the ugly Manhattan project family tree if that makes any sense,” Chapman said. “We’re all part of this tree. We have a branch, they have a branch.”
Chapman knows St. Louis is not alone in dealing with the consequences of the world’s first atomic weapons, but there are few places on the planet with the types of scars St. Louis has.
“I could walk two blocks and know somebody here that doesn’t know,” Chapman said. “But in Japan, they know the role that we played, they know what sits out at our airport, they know about Westlake. So it’s interesting.”
KOLR10 News will hear from residents of North County who tracked occurrences of disease along the Coldwater Creek watershed in Part 2 of this series Tuesday on KOLR10 News at Nine and Ten. In Part 3 on Wednesday night, KOLR10 will explain why the Westlake Landfill has become a modern public health and environmental crisis.