Designing a summer research project to do in my home community has been an amazing experience. Not only am I putting the resources that Northwestern offers its undergrads to work to produce better understanding of a problem, but I get to do it at home, addressing an issue that directly affects the people I care about. Additionally, it has been a nice way to save money, as I do not need to worry about paying rent or utilities.
It does, however, come with some complications, and when my dad was admitted into the hospital this month with pneumonia and heart failure, I put the research on hold in order to be there for him and my family. The nice thing is that I was here, and I would not change that for anything. But it does mean that I have been behind on the blog posting, so hopefully from now on this blog will be updated more regularly.
Here we are, halfway through the summer and halfway through the research project. The mound of documents I still need to go through feels as large as the concrete mound covering Weldon Spring (more on that later). But, I have learned enough to give a brief history of how the waste came to be in the Westlake Landfill in the first place. It is impossible to talk about this portion of the problem without talking about at least two or three other nuclear waste sites in and around St. Louis, so I will give you the main five:
There is the St. Louis Downtown Site, where it all began. The St. Louis Airport Site (SLAPS) and the Hazelwood Interim Storage Site (HISS) were where the waste that would eventually end up in Westlake was temporarily stored. There is Westlake, of course. And there is the aforementioned Weldon Spring site, where operations were relocated from the Downtown Site in order to scale up production.
In 1942, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in downtown St. Louis received a contract to purify uranium-235 for the Manhattan Project. Tons of uranium ore were shipped from the Belgian Congo to Mallinckrodt’s New Jersey property, from which it was shipped via rail to St. Louis. While the dangers of radiation were well known at this point due to earlier studies, uranium was not a well-known element. The entire Manhattan Project was conducted in extreme secrecy, and no one—not even the workers themselves—was told what the new product was for. As such, despite regulations and Mallinckrodt’s monitoring of its employees’ health, the workers were somewhat careless with the substance and with their own safety. Uranium particulates spewed out of smokestacks into the air St. Louisians were breathing; the factory floor was covered in radioactive dust; the byproducts of production (uranium-238, thorium, barium, and other elements) sat outside in large piles, exposed to the elements and free to migrate into the Mississippi River.
There was not enough room to store this waste onsite, so it was loaded into trucks and transported to an empty lot at the airport. Here, some of the waste was hand-packed into barrels, some of which were buried but most of which were not. The government wanted to find a more permanent location to store the wastes during the war, so when the airport site filled, HISS, located in northern St. Louis County, was purchased and large piles of waste were deposited there. This waste, exposed as it was to the elements, migrated to the nearby Coldwater Creek. Coldwater Creek is a five-mile urban stream that runs through north St. Louis County and joins the Mississippi River. Today, many attribute a cancer cluster in the area to the radiation in the stream, and the Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of remediating the creek bed and surrounding properties. The downtown site stopped purifying uranium in 1968.
The downtown site, however, was not the only nor the largest site that Mallinckrodt eventually operated in the area. In 1957, the military and Mallinckrodt opened a new yellow cake production plant opened in Weldon Spring, MO, 30 miles outside of St. Louis. Before being used for uranium production, the site had been owned by the Army and used for producing explosives for WWII. It might be worth noting that a local high school, which has never been closed since its 1945 founding, sits on the same property a half mile from the production plants. A nature reserve in which people can subsistence fish as well as hike and potentially drink from the streams is across the street. The Weldon Spring plant dwarfed the St. Louis plant in size, and it was supposed to be much safer for the workers and the environment, but the political pressure of the Cold War meant that it often operated at more than four times its capacity, straining the safety features. Operations stopped at Weldon Spring in 1967, when it was slated to be repurposed to produce Agent Orange for the Vietnam War. Fortunately for the residents of the area, this purpose was never achieved, and the site was never fully converted. It was, however, largely abandoned. When Department of Energy officials visited in 1985, they reported grass growing on the buildings, open lagoons of nuclear and chemical wastes, and air vents full of uranium dust.
What happened to the waste? The HISS and SLAPS material was sold to private companies. It was supposed to be transferred to Colorado for reclamation of valuable byproducts. Feeling that the waste was not so valuable after all, one of these companies had 43,000 tons of material mixed with “clean soil” (in parentheses because, despite claims, the soil was also contaminated as reported by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and dumped illegally in the West Lake Landfill, where this story begins, with the fear of fire reaching the waste since 2010.
Other waste was indeed transferred, in trucks that spread contaminated soil across the Midwest. There are dozens of fields and buildings in St. Louis that have been exposed due to careless transportation. An unknown number has been exposed because of migration from known sites.
The Weldon Spring site has been dismantled and covered with a 75-foot large concrete mound. Pipes run along the perimeter and out to ensure that the groundwater and soil are not being contaminated. The mound was built to last at least 1,000 years. The disposal cell is a public park, and one can climb to the top on a nice day and enjoy a view of the whole county and the nature reserve across the street.