Long ago, on a busman’s holiday to the Big Easy, C.D. Stelzer learned that we’re all subjects in an ongoing experiment
first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Jan. 27, 1993
NEW ORLEANS, La. — A change in perspective can sometimes cure myopia.
Take the case of the Weldon Spring quarry, where the Department of Energy (DOE) has already begun its pell-mell release of treated radioactive water into the Missouri River.
About 700 miles downstream from the nuclear drain site, William C. Van Buskirk, the dean of Tulane University’s school of engineering here, sees things a little differently than the DOE’s gung-ho officials.
When informed of the situation at Weldon Spring last week, Van Buskirk took an immediate interest. “It’s a fascinating test case,” he says. The quarry offers the research advantage of being small and self contained, according to Van Buskirk.
There is good reason for the dean’s academic curiosity to be aroused over the waste. Van Buskirk is about to receive the first $5 million installment in a five-year, $25 million grant to study extensively the effects of mixed chemical and radioactive wastes on aquatic environments in the Mississippi River basin. Mixed chemical and radioactive wastes, of course, are the problem at Weldon Spring quarry, upstream on the Missouri River, before it meets the Mississippi.
“This is exactly the kind of research we need done before the DOE dumps anymore radioactive waste into the Missouri River,”says Kay Drey, a St. Louis environmentalist who has opposed releasing the water. Drey wants concerned citizens to ask their elected officials to call for a delay in future discharges of the Weldon Spring water until further studies are done.
A related petition drive to achieve the same end is being coordinated by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment in University City. The petition states: “The lack of field experience in removing this particular combination of radioactive and hazardous wastes, and the lack of equipment capable of detecting and accurately measuring the residual pollutants make this project an experiment, not an engineering achievement.”
“I mean, you don’t dump first and study second,” says Drey.
But dumping first and studying second is exactly what has happened.
Ironically, the Tulane grant was issued by the DOE — the same agency responsible for releasing the treated radioactive water earlier this month into the Missouri River nine miles upstream from two St. Louis area water intakes. A spokesman for the DOE regional headquarters in Oak Ridge, Tenn. tells the RFT that there is a good chance the Tulane grant was issued by a part of the DOE that was unaware of the imminent release of the contaminated water from Weldon Spring. In other words, the DOE’s bureaucratic left hand didn’t know what its partner was doing.
Jerry Van Fossen, the DOE’s deputy project manager at the Weldon Spring site, is unfamiliar with the Tulane grant, but says that the agency normally cooperates with such work. “In this particular case, where you have a university or two universities that have a grant with the DOE, we would be required to coordinate with whoever holds that grant with the agency,” says Van Fossen.
The belated interdisciplinary study will engage between 50 to 100 researchers at Tulane and Xavier universities, Van Buskirk says. The studies may employ not only experts in chemistry and medicine, but also legal scholars and philosophers, who could ponder the effects of public policy and the impact of the media, Van Buskirk says.
Scientists taking part in the research plan to examine the development of new technologies to clean water and soil. Other research will look at how pollutants move through rivers and soil and investigate the effects of pollution on specific aquatic ecosystems. Researchers also intend to study the ways people are exposed to water-borne contaminants and how that exposure effects their health.
“They’ve got a real mess on their hands,” Van Buskirk says,referring to the DOE. “They don’t have the technology to do the cleanup and they don’t have the manpower.” There is a great deal of fear in communities about radioactive and chemical contaminants, according to Van Buskirk, and the university can play a role in allaying public concern by offering scientific data. “Maybe we would be more believable than the EPA or DOE,” he says. U.S. Sen. Bennett J. Johnston, D-La., was instrumental in Tulane receiving the grant, Van Buskirk says.
With this kind of senatorial backing tied to the DOE pursestrings, hope for a truly independent study has to be somewhat tempered. “Sen. Bennett Johnston is one of the most devoted promoters of nuclear power in the Senate,” says Drey. In addition, Drey says the Louisiana senator is a strong supporter of DOE policies. If the DOE chose to allow Tulane to study the Weldon Spring site, “I have to think that they are going to get the results that they want to get — which is there is no problem.
“(But) even raising the question helps. … We have to hope there will be a real scientist who is not paying attention to where his money comes from. Maybe that’s naive, but we have to give them the benefit of the doubt.”