In a bipartisan letter made public today, U.S. Senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill of Missouri have called attention to the West Lake landfill which contains tens of thousands of tons of radioactive material generated during the top-secret Manhattan Project of World War II. The site has never been included in the appropriate Federal clean-up program and the bipartisan congressional delegation have called for a reevaluation of its status.
Addressed to Ernest Moniz, a nuclear physicist and head of the U.S. Department of Energy, the statement touches on what’s emerging as a civil rights issue based on environmental justice—the fact that out of numerous radiologically contaminated sites in North St. Louis County, only one site has been excluded from the Federal program tasked with cleaning-up nuclear weapons-related waste.
Located in Bridgeton, Mo., the site that’s been left behind is the West Lake landfill, which also happens to rest dangerously next to an underground fire burning at an adjacent site—the Bridgeton landfill.
After McCaskill and Blunt’s letter was made public, a spokesperson for Exelon Corporation provided new revelations to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “there’s some evidence that there could be other waste streams there.”
Sadly, this new information may confirm the worst fears of nearby residents—it may indicate that the Bridgeton landfill also contains radioactive substances, which, it would seem, are now on fire.
“…new concerns have been raised by a PRP (potentially responsible party) that non-Cotter affiliated material may be present at the West Lake and Bridgeton sites.”—Sen. McCaskill, Sen. Blunt, Rep. Clay, and Rep. Wagner in a letter to the DoE regarding the dangers of unknown radioactive material at the West Lake landfill
Exelon inherited the liability of the private company (Cotter) that illegally dumped the radioactive waste at the West Lake site and is most likely the party mentioned by the Missouri congressional delegation’s letter: “…new concerns have been raised by a PRP (potentially responsible party) that non-Cotter affiliated material may be present at the West Lake and Bridgeton sites.”
The new information from Exelon only confirms data included in a 2013 white paper, The West Lake Landfill: A Radioactive Legacy of the Nuclear Arms Race by Robert Alvarez, Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. Alvarez’s paper details the fact that many more tons of contaminated material sourced from the Latty Avenue site made its way to West Lake under the deceptive rubric “clean-fill.” The evidence of more dense contaminants was later confirmed by soil samples taken at West Lake which show the presence of Uranium and Thorium—common “daughter products” associated with nuclear weapons development.
“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.”
The radioactive material littered across North St. Louis County all stems from the war effort during World War II to build the first nuclear weapons before Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan could develop or acquire the technology. St. Louis played a pivotal role in the defense of our nation and ever since has been paying an insidious price.
As the New York Times reported 25 years ago, “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.”
For various reasons including corporate malfeasance, national security and secrecy, and a general misunderstanding of many of the health dangers involved, the nuclear waste from WWII and early Cold War years was dumped at numerous sites in North St. Louis County and at a nearby Mallinckrodt production facility located at Weldon Spring, Mo. which was listed as a Superfund site in 1987.
“The DoE came to St. Louis in 1990 and determined that the radioactive downtown Mallinckrodt site, radioactive airport site, and radioactive Hazelwood Latty Avenue site qualified under FUSRAP,” explained Heather Navarro, Executive Director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, at a press conference today hosted by the Franciscan Sisters of Mary.
FUSRAP or the “Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program” was launched by Congress in 1974 to specifically clean-up areas contaminated by nuclear-weapons related radioactive material and contamination.
“The DoE intentionally left West Lake landfill off of the FUSRAP list even though the radioactive materials dumped at West Lake came from the Hazelwood Latty Avenue site,” continued Navarro. “The DoE’s refusal to include West Lake as a FUSRAP-designated site led to it becoming an EPA site later in 1990. This is why we appreciate the letter today asking the DoE to reevaluate this decision and we hope that it will lead to a FUSRAP-designation for West Lake as it should have been designated in 1990.”
The pertinent radioactive and cancer-causing substances that were stored out in the open at the St. Louis Airport sites and Latty Avenue are uranium, thorium, radium, and their radioactive decay products. Through freedom of information requests, archival documents unearthed by Just Moms STL, Harvey Ferdman, Ed Smith, and Kay Drey show that at least 50,000 tons of the nuclear-weapons radioactive waste was illegally dumped at West Lake.
“How can we assess the real threat when no-one has performed a thorough testing of both the West Lake and Bridgeton sites? We don’t know exactly what’s there, but we know people are dying.”—Dawn Chapman, Just Moms STL
“But no one really knows what’s been dumped there because the site has never been fully ‘characterized’ or analyzed,” said Dawn Chapman of the group Just Moms STL, which has been organizing community meetings to call attention to the site and to find a “safe and permanent solution” for the threat of the radiotoxic material. “How can we assess the real threat when no-one has performed a thorough testing of both the West Lake and Bridgeton sites? We don’t know exactly what’s there, but we know people are dying.”
Dr. Helen Caldicott, one of the world’s preeminent experts on the health impacts of radiation poisoning, last May had reviewed the archival documents and current health studies concerning the site, and proclaimed it “an acute medical emergency” which needs to be cleaned-up “this year.”
Joined by U.S. Reps Lacy Clay (D) and Ann Wagner (R), Sens. McCaskill and Blunt state the “people of St. Louis have had to live with this burden for generations, and we believe it is incumbent upon the Federal government to find a clear path forward for all the sites either through removal of the RIM [radioactive material] or effective containment.”
What’s key about this development is the tacit bipartisan acknowledgment that all the contaminated sites must be dealt with in an equitable and holistic manner. There have been cancer clusters, auto-immune diseases, and deaths associated with the presence of the radioactive material which was stored in open and uncontained locations for decades leaching into the ground water, nearby Coldwater Creek, and polluting the air. Some of the cancers that have expressed themselves are extremely rare forms such as appendix cancer of which there are more than 50 documented cases.
“…we believe it is incumbent upon the Federal government to find a clear path forward for all the sites either through removal of the RIM [radioactive material] or effective containment.”—Sen. Blunt, Sen. McCaskill, Rep. Clay, and Rep. Wagner
Equal protection under the law
The ongoing dangers due to the uranium, thorium, radium, and radioactive decay products at West Lake may be violating the civil rights of nearby residents in Bridgeton and Maryland Heights. There is an emergence of a civil rights case based on the unequal application of law.
The argument is as follows: What is it about West Lake area residents that are undeserving of the same level of protection afforded to people that live near the Latty Avenue site or other St. Louis radioactive sites which are all being cleaned-up by the FUSRAP program?
The radioactive contaminants at both West Lake and Latty are identical and were created at Mallinckrodt as part of the Manhattan Project and U.S. nuclear weapons program and yet Latty has been designated for FUSRAP clean-up while the material at West Lake is ignored. Same radioactive material, same source, same health threat. Folks not only deserve equal protection under the law, it is their constitutional right.
“It’s going to be a long, complicated process, but a journey of 1000 miles starts with one step.”—Councilman Jerry Grimmer, City of Bridgeton
“This is a regional and even national issue that’s finally receiving the attention that it deserves. We need to get busy and clean it up like every other site [in St. Louis] because the reality is West Lake has been ignored,” commented Jerry Grimmer, Councilman for the City of Bridgeton. “The EPA, although well-intentioned, has written report after report but nothing gets done. This letter is a positive step of taking some action. It’s going to be a long, complicated process, but a journey of 1000 miles starts with one step. Finally, folks here have some vindication for what we’ve been fighting for.”