Many of you who have been following the ever-evolvingWest Lake Landfillstory know the history of how the Manhattan Project, established during World War II to create the first working atomic weapons, produced over 125,000 tons of nuclear waste in St. Louis, Missouri. To give you a sense of how much material this is, the towering, 630-foot tall Gateway Arch, made of steel and concrete, only weighs 43,000 tons. In 1973, somewhere between 43,000 and 48,000 tons of radioactive contaminants were illegally dumped at the West Lake Landfill. Currently, the landfill has become anational news storydue to a migrating undergroundfirewhich some experts estimate could reach the radioactive material in as little as 3-6months. What would follow has been described as a potentially “catastrophic event.” After 42 years of finger-pointing and an endless train of studies and reports, the West Lake Landfill has yet to be cleaned-up, but we may have finally found the “smoking gun” as to why it slipped through the cracks. Bottom line? During a period of agency upheaval and a “changing-of-the-guard” between the Atomic Energy Commission and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Government dropped the ball and didn’t follow the law.
In 1942, the Manhattan Project began processing uranium for the war effort at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis, Missouri. The utmost secrecy of the Manhattan Project is well-known today; company work orders used code names such as “orange juice,” “derbies,” “cocoa,” and “biscuits” for various top-secret processes and materials. As explained in a 1962-issue ofMallinckrodt News, “the word uranium was taboo, and the project became identified with the name ‘Tube Alloy Process.’” One of the first Manhattan Project/Mallinckrodt documents from 1942 shows the name “Uranium Oxide S.L.” penciled-out and replaced with “Tube Alloy Dioxide.”
For the next 15 years, the best kept secret in St. Louis produced tens of thousands of tons of processed uranium for the defense of our nation and, until the late 1950s, was theonlysource of this material for the entire country. However, the various processes also generated more than a hundred thousand of tons of nuclear waste and residues which in some instances were actually more radioactive than the uranium product itself.
“Eventually, more than 100 radiologically contaminated locations were identified throughout the St. Louis region.”
Beginning in 1946, this highly dangerous, radiotoxic material was stored on a 22-acre site near the city airport, some buried, some in rusting barrels, some littered on the surface in piles. As reported that year by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, company officials and security officers stated the material was neither radioactive nor dangerous. Tragically, the cancer-causing substances began seeping into nearby Coldwater Creek which runs through several densely populated zip codes in north St. Louis County. During July-October 1973, 3000 truckloads of the stuff were dumped at the West Lake Landfill. Eventually, more than 100 radiologically contaminated locations were identified throughout the St. Louis region.
Today, all of these sites have fallen under the appropriate federal clean-up program (FUSRAP) for nuclear weapons-related waste except for the West Lake Landfill. Why? It all comes down to anobscure transactionin the 1960s when the Atomic Energy Commission auctioned off all the contents of the airport nuclear waste site. Oddly, instructions to bidders said, “everything must go.” The eventual owner of the material, Cotter Corporation, shipped much of the material to its processing facility in Colorado, but more than 40,000 tons were illegally dumped at West Lake. The supposed reasoning for West Lake’s exclusion is that because the radwaste was illegally handled and dumped by a private entity, the Federal Government has been essentially absolved of its responsibility to clean it up. Consequently, the “impasse at West Lake” persists to this day despite the fact that its dangerous, radiotoxic material is the exact same material from the exact same source as the other 100 contaminated sites in the region. Some have suggested that this is a form of “territorial discrimination” adversely affecting nearby residents and that the site’s exclusion from clean-up violates the principle of equal protection under the law.
“The ‘impasse at West Lake’ persists to this day despite the fact that its dangerous, radiotoxic material is the exact same material from the exact same source as the other 100 contaminated sites in the region.”
With regard to West Lake, the system seems to have broken down. It is failing the community. Health studies now underway are beginning to show the real human cost of four decades of inaction. The State of Missouri reports a 300% increase inchildhood brain cancerfor the zip code immediately surrounding the landfill. Noxious and toxic fumes emit from the site, property values have plummeted, and people are beyond fed-up. The West Lake Facebookpagehas grown in the last few weeks from less than 4000 to over 18,000 concerned citizens. Local school districts have written parents to warn of thesituation, and this week, Just Moms STL delivered 12,000 signatures in a black coffin calling for Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to declare astate of emergency. Nixon has yet to respond.
Elected and appointed officials are often dumbstruck when asked about the impasse at West Lake. There just doesn’t seem to be a reasonable explanation why in a suburban county with a population of one million a landfill topped with Manhattan Project nuclear waste hasn’t been cleaned-up. But there may be a good reason for their hesitancy and confusion—there should have never been an impasse in the first place.
“According to U.S. law, the illegally dumped material at West Lake must be removed by the U.S. government.”
Recently it was discovered that the legislative authority under which these nuclear wastes were licensed clearly states that if any “byproduct material” was illegally handled, or if that material poses an ongoing health hazard, or if the material was dealt with in a manner beyond the purview of the licensed use, the Federal Government must “recall” the waste. Yes, you heard that correctly, the Atomic Energy Commission, in its establishing legislation from 1946 and its lateramended authorityin 1954, is directed to pull-back any distributed radioactive materials that have been mishandled. Simply put, according to U.S. law, the illegally dumped material at West Lake must be removed by the U.S. government.
“The [Atomic Energy] Commission… shall recall any distributed materials from any applicant, who is not equipped to observe or who fails to observe such safety standards to protect health as may be established by the Commission or who uses such materials in violation of law or regulation of the Commission or in a manner other than as disclosed in the [license] application therefor.” ~Atomic Energy Act of 1946
The 1973 dumping of radioactive material by the Cotter Corporation at the West Lake Landfill perfectly fits this scenario and triggers all three conditions, namely, 1. The radiotoxic waste presents an ongoing health and safety risk; 2. The dumping of this waste violated the law; and, 3. Cotter Corporation clearly went beyond the scope of its AEC license.
“Congress intended to protect the public with these provisions of the Atomic Energy Act,” said Diane Curran, a leading attorney on a wide range of nuclear licensing and enforcement cases. “The risk posed by the encroaching fire calls for fast action by the Federal Government to ensure prompt cleanup of the West Lake landfill for compliance with the government’s responsibilities under the Atomic Energy Act.”
The hope is that this clause in the original Atomic Energy Act legislation now brought to light communicates unequivocally that the people of the United States through their representatives have expressed a very clear directive that nuclear material under the control of the AEC should never be allowed to persist as a health threat to any community after being mishandled by a private entity. Those of us in the community would like to see the material removed immediately and believe it is the Federal Government’s responsibility to do so. The explicit directive cited in this article only bolsters this opinion.
“Regardless of who is financially responsible, at the end of the day this community needs to be brought out from under the mushroom cloud of the Manhattan Project,” said Dawn Chapman of Just Moms STL. “This law says the Federal Government must act whenever licensed material threatens the safety of the public—frankly, this happened as soon as those licenses were issued.”