The New York Times
by Keith Schneider
ST. LOUIS— Nearly half a century after a company here began processing fuel for nuclear weapons, St. Louis and several western suburbs are battling over a new disposal plan for millions of cubic yards of dirt contaminated with uranium, thorium, radium, actinium and other radioactive elements that are polluting the water, soil and air.
Not even in Denver, where plutonium particles escaped from the nearby Rocky Flats Plant, or in Salt Lake City, where a pile of uranium wastes was recently moved from the city to the desert, has a major metropolitan area contended with radioactive wastes on the scale facing St. Louis.
‘Oldest Radioactive Waste’
”We have a million cubic yards of radioactive waste on this side of the Missouri River, a million and a half on the other side, and they don’t know where to put the first cupful,” said Kay Drey, a nuclear opponent here who is providing technical assistance to several suburban leaders. ”This is the oldest radioactive waste of the atomic age, and there still is no safe place to put the stuff.”
The Federal Government, which has spent a decade and $75 million studying the extent of the contamination, has not settled on a solution, but officials are leaning toward a plan that they say can accommodate half the waste: consolidating debris from a former uranium processing plant downtown and a handful of other sites onto 82 acres just north of Lambert International Airport in the suburb of Berkeley.
The City of St. Louis owns the land, which is divided into a site where some waste is already stored and an adjoining park that was closed in 1988 because of radiation in the soil.
Showing support for the Energy Department plan, St. Louis’s Board of Aldermen has voted to transfer ownership of the land to the department. But the Mayor of Berkeley, William Miller, wants all the wastes removed from the area; he is leading a campaign to collect signatures from 15,000 St. Louis voters and repeal the board’s decision.
”It makes no sense at all to have this much hot dirt around so many people and so many businesses,” Mr. Miller said in an interview. ”Ultimately, we’re going to have the responsibility to watch this site. But we have no say in what’s done here.”
Mr. Miller’s campaign has drawn support from the St. Louis County Municipal League, which represents more than 90 municipalities, and the mayors of Bridgeton, Hazelwood and eight other cities.
‘A Potential Health Hazard’
The Energy Department’s response to such concerns has hardly been reassuring. It has displayed a new candor about the risks that residents face, describing in a January report the extent of contamination around the metropolitan area, with special attention paid to the problem in Berkeley.
The radioactive waste near the airport, along the Berkeley-Hazelwood border, ”represents a potential health hazard to the general public,” the the report said. ”There is no control of off-site contamination to prevent further spread of this material. The problem is magnified by the extensive commercial development in this area.”
The situation here is one of the most graphic illustrations of the enduring costs paid by an American community for its participation in the cold war. For 24 years, St. Louis was a vital link in the chain of production for atomic weapons because of a chemical process that the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works developed for purifying large quantities of uranium.
The company, one of the city’s oldest industrial concerns, produced the uranium used at the University of Chicago on Dec. 2, 1942, to sustain the world’s first nuclear chain reaction and for the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
Government Approved Dumping
Until 1966, Mallinckrodt processed uranium for nuclear weapons at its main plant along the Mississippi River in downtown St. Louis and in Weldon Spring, 25 miles to the west.
Under the cover of national security secrecy, the Government authorized the company to dump radioactive wastes quietly in the suburbs, including a 21-acre Berkeley field owned by St. Louis. It is that field and the 61-acre park across the street that the Government is considering for a permanent storage site.
David R. Bohm, an assistant city counselor for St. Louis, said the transfer of the land to the Government was subject to conditions. ”For the Department of Energy to gain control of the land,” he said, ”they must agree that they will not charge the city for the cost of the cleanup. They must also agree not to put any other radioactive wastes there except those from three specific sites in the region.”
The Energy Department has spent $75 million since 1977 to assess the extent of contamination here and to build several small projects at Weldon Spring to reduce water pollution. In the meantime, the estimated cost of cleaning up Mallinckrodt’s two plants and controlling the wastes at the site abutting the airport has reached $1.4 billion.
And the department also acknowledges that even though it has settled on a possible solution, new estimates of the size of the problem, inevitable court challenges and an array of other political hurdles mean that it is no closer to a permanent answer than it was when work began in the region 13 years ago. In 1981 the department estimated that there were 556,000 cubic yards of radioactive wastes in the St. Louis metropolitan area, roughly a fifth the current estimate.
”It’s the most frustrating part of my life as a public official,” said Mr. Miller, the 43-year-old Berkeley Mayor. ”People are retiring on the money they’re making off this. It’s a multimillion-dollar wait-and-see.”
Danger Denied in 1946
The wastes became an issue briefly in 1946, when reporters here asked questions about the trucks that were hauling dirt from the plant to land bordering the airport. The concerns disappeared after the Government and Mallinckrodt said the wastes were ”not radioactive or otherwise dangerous.”
From 1946 to 1957, Mallinckrodt hauled wastes from its downtown processing plant and dumped them in shallow pits north of the airport. In some places in Berkeley and Hazelwood, along roads where waste spilled from trucks, the Energy Department has found radiation levels seven times normal. Uranium, thorium and radium have also been found in sediments in Cold Water Creek, which drains the Berkeley park and then flows to the Missouri River.
The park, where children and adults played softball for decades, was closed in 1988 because of the high radiation levels found in the soil. The Energy Department hopes to use the park as the site for a permanent bunker to store the wastes.
While the Government favors this plan as the most economic cleanup method, it is studying a variety of options and says it will not make a decision until 1994 or 1995.
Problems Across the River
The problem is not Berkeley’s alone. In 1957 Mallinckrodt transferred uranium processing to a new Government-owned plant across the Missouri River in Weldon Spring, and began dumping radioactive wastes into a quarry on the site. Uranium processing was halted in 1966, but the wastes remain. Cleaning them up is now expected to cost $594 million. In 1979 the Energy Department estimated the Weldon Spring cleanup cost at $3.6 million.
And in downtown St. Louis, just south of the McKinley Bridge, the department found radiation levels in excess of Federal health guidelines inside 14 buildings at the Mallinckrodt chemical plant that are still in use.
A fourth contaminated site, the West Lake landfill, has been found about 10 miles west of Berkeley in Bridgeton.
Keith F. Pickett, a spokesman for the company, now called Mallinckrodt Inc. and owned by the International Minerals and Chemical Corporation, says the hazard to the company’s workers is negligible because most of the contamination is confined to small spots. ”The Department of Energy has assured us and our employees that there is no real risk,” he said.
Excessive Deaths From Cancer
But some workers are worried. In 1980 a study by epidemiologists under contract to the Energy Department found an excessive number of deaths from cancer of the esophagus and leukemia among 2,731 white males who processed uranium for Mallinckrodt from 1942 to 1966. The researchers did not identify a cause of the cancers.
Scientists have long known that high levels of radiation, far above the levels at which the Mallinckrodt workers have been exposed, can lead to malignancies of the blood, bones and organs. At low levels the effect is less certain, although a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences said low doses of radiation were more dangerous than was thought five years ago.
”My concern is that we’re getting doses that are bad and nobody wants to tell us,” said Kathy Collins, a 38-year-old chemical operator at the plant. ”The company doesn’t want to talk about this because it’s a skeleton in their closet. They hide behind the Energy Department, which tells them there is no problem.”
Photo: Federal officials are leaning toward a plan to consolidate the extensive radioactive contamination around St. Louis onto an 82-acre site just north of Lambert International Airport in the suburb of Berkeley, Mo. (The New York Times/T. Mike Fletcher) (pg8); Until 1966, the Weldon Spring Quarry, 25 miles west of downtown St. Louis, was used for disposal of the waste from a plant that processed uranium for nuclear weapons. (The New York Times/Bill Stover) (pg8); Map of Missouri showing location of several waste sites. (pg8)