Alvarez, Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C., lays out several imminent risks associated with inaction—1. The landfill has no engineered barriers and its radioactive material is uncontained; 2. It’s located in a densely populated area; and 3. The site is only thousands of feet away from the Missouri River, a source of drinking water for area residents.
“Of significance is the fact that the largest estimated amount of Thorium-230, a long-lived, highly radiotoxic element, is present at West Lake — more than any other U.S. nuclear weapons storage or disposal site.” —Robert Alvarez, Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington D.C.
To further compound the problem, there is an underground fire in an adjacent landfill smoldering away and could be creeping toward the majority of radioactive material if it hasn’t hit it already. Radioactive substances on fire would liberate some of the material in the form of airborne particulates—a community-wide health problem of nightmarishproportions.
One serious persistent issue is the lack of detailed and accurate records of precisely what has been dumped at the site. A number of private corporations swirl around the narrative with even less accurate depictions of what was moved to West Lake. Despite the lack of official documentation and spotty records from private entities, workers have now begun to come forward with stories of undocumented disposal of hazardous waste products at the site.
Of course, the irresponsible handling of radioactive material is not unique to St. Louis and many of the contaminated sites around the U.S. have similar stories of mishandling and neglect. In the following decades, many workers on these projects suffered horribly asradiation poisoningslowly crept-up on them. But workers are not the only victims of these programs—at these contaminated sites, nearby residents have also been affected.
This week, internationally recognized physician Dr. Helen Caldicott reviewed documents and reports concerning the West Lake landfill. She stated in no uncertain terms that the health records and data clearly show that contaminants have been causing cancers in the affected region at elevated levels.
“The [West Lake] site needs to be dealt with immediately. It needs to be cleaned-up this year.” — Dr. Helen Caldicott
As the recipient of 21 honorary doctoral degrees for her work on the health consequences of exposure to nuclear material including the disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, Caldicott is one of the world’s most-respected experts on the topic. With regard to the West Lake site, she concluded that ongoing health dangers demand that, “the [West Lake] site needs to be dealt with immediately. It needs to be cleaned-up this year.”
On Friday,Dr. Caldicottspoke withJust Moms STLand agreed to advise on their situation, help broaden awareness of the site’s dangers, and more importantly, coerce Federal action to clean it up and deliver safety to nearby residents and region.
During the Second World War, the race was on to develop the first working nuclear weapons, and following a letter written by Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt warning of the growing capacity for Nazi Germany to acquire nuclear weapons technology, theManhattan Projectwas launched. Its goal was to produce the first A-bomb and to do it before Hitler did. It was a matter of winning the war and some would say the research, uranium refining, and building of America’s first atomic weapons was conducted in a reckless manner. Throughout the early Cold War years, these practices continued on in much the same way.
For security reasons, the Manhattan Project was decentralized with disparate communities across the nation playing very distinct roles. Workers and even managers were totally in the dark about the ultimate purpose of the secret project. In St. Louis, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works was charged with refining the purest uranium ore then available and by 1958 had processed approximately 50,000 tons.
Anti-nuclear stalwart and native St. Louisan, Kay Drey, puts the quantity into terms that local folks can really metabolize: “One fact is that there was enough nuclear waste left over from the processing of the bomb in St. Louis to fill Busch Stadium.”
It would be a victory for us to gather the necessary resolve to face the fact that this material, born of the unparalleled effort by the Greatest Generation to win World War II, is the responsibility of our nation writ large just as much as the Manhattan Project itself. It would be a victory for us as Americans to acknowledge that a price is still being paid by citizens in defense of our nation—and we mustn’t ignore their plight.
As mentioned, workers in this space suffered immeasurably and there are many documented cases of cancers and deaths caused by exposure to radioactive material. For example, Caldicott estimates, “between one-fifth and one-half of uranium miners in North America have died and are continuing to die of lung cancer.”
The refining process created thousands of tons of waste which was initially stored at the airport and eventually deposited directly on the ground at the “Latty Avenue” property in Hazelwood, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. Subsequently, portions of this material was sold to Cotter Corporation and 12-18 inches of Latty Avenue top-soil was transported to West Lake landfill under the deceptive rubric “clean-fill.”
This misrepresented dirt was neither clean nor clear as Alvarez explains, “The top soil at the Latty Avenue site contained high levels of long-lived uranium decay products,after,the removal of a reported 39,000 tons of top soil over a wide area were mixed with the remaining wastes disposed at West Lake. Despite this evidence, how much of the other wastes that were sent to the West Lake landfill remains unaddressed.”
The history of who owned the material after Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, and where and when it was transported, is complex and convoluted. But today, after thousands of hours of research by an inspirational group of St. Louis mothers and activists namedJust Moms STL, the documents collected have started to fill in the picture. Sadly, what’s been emerging is more harrowing than ever.
The families and children near the West Lake landfill have experienced a host of maladies ranging from nose bleeds and breathing problems to full blown cancer, tumors, and death. Several studies have shown elevated levels of these health complications and in particular certain rare cancers that are idiosyncratic to exposure to daughter products of uranium weapons processing such as Thorium-230 and Radium, etc.
Because of the complexities of ownership over the years and the propensity to not want to face any scenarios—let alone the worst case ones—the West Lake landfill was excluded from clean-up programs that cover and handle the vast majority of U.S. nuclear sites. And the stuff is just sitting there. No concrete structures, no barrels, just sitting there for 40 years leaching into the ground water, the air, the neighbors.
These victims are heroes in the sense that they have suffered due to the war effort and are continuing to suffer. It is a patriotic duty for us to never leave our heroes behind. It would be a victory for us to gather the necessary resolve to face the fact that this material, born of the unparalleled effort by the Greatest Generation to win World War II, is the responsibility of our nation writ large just as much as the Manhattan Project itself. It would be a victory for us as Americans to acknowledge that a price is still being paid by citizens in defense of our nation—and we mustn’t ignore their plight.
In his report, Robert Alvarez’s main recommendation is that, “like other U.S. nuclear weapons legacy sites in the St. Louis, Missouri area, the U.S. Congress should seek to remove these radioactive materials and assure long-term stewardship responsibilities under the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Energy.”
Dawn Chapman, one of the lead organizers forJust Moms STL,observed, “These people are dying from ‘friendly fire,’ if you will, and all over St. Louis you have children laying in coffins…those children, in essence, are in many ways not unlike the victims of WWII.”
It’s about time to capture what was left behind and take care of our own.