Barry Commoner

Operation Tooth

When the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information touted its $10,000 grant from the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the public didn’t know the foundation was a CIA front.

first published at firstsecretcity.com

The announcement came at the second-annual meeting of the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Safety at the Heman Park Community Center in University City, Mo. on May 8, 1960. More than 500 attendees heard the good news. Their organization had received a $10,000 grant from the J.M. Kaplan Fund to pursue its laudable work.  It was cause for celebration. But they were unaware of one string attached to the generous gift, a nettlesome detail that may have dampened their enthusiasm that long ago spring evening: the Kaplan Fund was a CIA front.

Then as now there were ramped up concerns over an ongoing public health crisis. In 1960, the problem was the wind-driven dispersal of nuclear fallout. St. Louisans were  worried about the proliferation of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and the potential health effects that atmospheric testing was having on their children. To address the issue, they enlisted leaders of the scientific community to study the effects of radiation. There was no reason for them to suspect that their local organization’s goals had been subverted. That possibility wasn’t on anybody’s radar back then.

It’s a question that’s remained unasked until now; a footnote to history that’s been buried in the First Secret City for 60 years.

The citizens’ committee, a coalition of parents, educators, medical professionals and scientists, had formed in 1959 to measure Strontium-90 levels by collecting the baby teeth of elementary school children in the St. Louis area and elsewhere.  The radioactive isotope, known to be present in nuclear fallout, concentrated in human bones and teeth, particularly growing children who consumed milk. Kids were encouraged by parents, teachers and dentists to give their teeth to science instead of the tooth fairy. In return, they were rewarded with a membership card and button to the Operation Tooth Club.  The program was called The Baby Tooth Survey. The director of the survey was Dr. Louise Reiss, and its scientific advisory board included Washington University biologist Barry Commoner.

The keynote speaker at the 1960 meeting of the committee was internationally renowned  anthropologist Margaret Mead, according to accounts published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Globe-Democrat. The same news accounts also reported the generous contribution from the J.M. Kaplan Fund of New York, which later would be revealed in congressional hearings to be a covert conduit for funneling CIA cash.

Margaret Mead

U.S. Rep. Wright Patman, a Texas Democrat, outed the private foundation’s ties to the CIA  at a hearing of his House Small Business Sub-committee on Aug. 31, 1964. In addition to the congressional probe, the Kaplan Fund was also under investigation by  the Internal Revenue Service, which confirmed the foundation’s ties to the CIA, according to a news story in the New York TimesJacob M. Kaplan, former head of Welch’s Grape Juice company and founder of the non-profit charity, had already garnered IRS attention for using the fund as a tax dodge. Patman’s hearings determined that the Kaplan Fund had been used as a CIA front  from 1959 to 1964.

U.S. Rep. Wright Patman (Texas-D)

It is uncertain whether the money donated to the St. Louis group was part of the CIA’s clandestine operations, but the agency’s extensive use of private foundations, including the Kaplan Fund, gained further exposure in subsequent investigative reports that appeared in the late 1960s in the Texas Observer, Nation, and Ramparts magazines.

Mead’s presence at the St. Louis meeting, where the the Kaplan Fund’s generosity was announced, is intriguing because of her previous involvement in espionage dating back to World War II, when she and then-husband Gregory Bateson,  also an anthropologist, produced propaganda in the South Pacific for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA.

Harold Abramson

In the early 1950s, Bateson tripped on LSD furnished to him by Dr. Harold Abramson, who was part of the agency’s top-secret MK-Ultra project, a program that experimented on the use of hallucinogenic drugs and other means to influence and control human behavior. After scoring more of the CIA’s acid, he turned on his friend Alan Ginsberg, the beat poet. Funding for Abramson’s LSD research was funneled through two other CIA cutouts: the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research and the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation.

In  late November 1953, Abramson — an allergist — acted as the unlicensed psychiatrist  of Frank Olson, shortly before the Army biological warfare scientist fell to his death from a 13th floor window of the Statler Hotel in New York City. Olson had received counseling from Abramson for anxiety and depression after being wired up on acid by the CIA.  While under the influence of the drug, Olson voiced ethical concerns about his germ warfare research to colleagues, which was considered a national security breach by the agency.  Abramson and Olson had previously worked on classified aerosol research at Camp Detrick, the Army’s chemical warfare research facility in Frederick, Maryland. Olson’s unsolved death is the subject of the 2017 Netflix series Wormwood by Errol Morris.

This false cover story, which appeared in the Post-Dispatch on June 23, 1953, hid the real purpose of the Army’s aerosol testing in St. Louis.

Coincidentally, 1953 is also when the Army began its secret aerosol testing in St. Louis. Parsons Corporation ran that covert military operation out of an office in the 5500 block of Pershing Ave. in St. Louis. The tests involved the spraying of poor, inner-city neighborhoods without residents knowledge.  Workers who participated in the study were also kept in the dark. When the testing became known about decades later, the Army said it used zinc cadmium sulfate, which it claimed wasn’t harmful to human health. In the 1990s, former Parsons employees said they believed their cancers were caused by being exposed to the chemicals used in the tests. The EPA announced last year that Parsons Corporation was awarded the main contract for the clean-up of radioactive contamination at the West Lake Landfill site in St. Louis County. The contamination is from uranium processing conducted by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis for the Manhattan Project.

The Baby Tooth survey, which began six years after the aerosol testing,  found a correlation between atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and Stontium-90 levels  in children’s teeth in the St. Louis area. But its scientific findings were in some ways eclipsed by the survey’s public relations successes.  Publicity garnered by the Baby Tooth Survey is credited with spurring the passage of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

Frank Olson never made it home for Thanksgiving.

An earlier covert collaboration by the Atomic Energy Commission, Air Force and Rand Corporation to  measure Strontium-90 in humans received harsh criticism, after it was revealed that researchers obtained scientific data by snatching bodies. Beginning in 1953, Project Sunshine collected bone sample from cadavers, including those of stillborn babies.

Gathering scientific data by collecting the baby teeth of living children was deemed more acceptable and received unquestioning public cooperation.

A Different Kind of Fire

 When Greenpeace chemist Pat Costner opposed the incinerator industry, someone incinerated her home

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), July 22, 1994

There will be many questions asked this week, when the Second Citizens’ Conference on Dioxin convenes at Saint Louis University on Thursday.

The inquiring ranks at the four-day gathering will be comprised of more than 100 scientists, environmental activists, former Times Beach residents and Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Big names like Retired Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr. and Barry Commoner, the former Washington University ecologist, are among the scheduled speakers.

Fewer people outside of the environmental movement may have heard of Pat Costner, but the 54-year-old chemist will also address the conference. Costner is the research director of Greenpeace’s U.S. Toxics Campaign. For the past eight years, she has been providing the technical answers that have stoked the environmental group’s fiery opposition to dioxin-generating incinerators.

The point at which science, politics and business intersect can be a volatile one. Costner, who lives near Eureka Springs,Ark., knows as much. She also knows there is no pat answer or formula that will reveal who torched her house on March 2, 1991.

“The night my house burned down, I went to town to visit a friend,” recalls Costner. “I came home and it was gone. It was burned totally to the ground. I can’t tell you how you feel at a time like that. I sat out here by myself, for I don’t know how long.”

The Arkansas Gazette reported that Costner’s “house was valued at $25,000, but only her computer equipment and office materials were insured.” But that’s not all that turned to ash.

“I probably had one of the larger technical libraries in the environmental movement,” Costner says. The irreplaceable books and technical papers took 30 years to accumulate and minutes to destroy. Costner’s will to employ her expertise remains un-singed. Her knowledge is based on years of experience within the industry she now opposes. Earlier in her career, the scientist worked for both Shell Oil and Arapaho Chemicals, a subsidiary of Syntex.

At the time of the blaze, Costner planned to publish a book based on five years of research into toxic waste incineration. Ironically, she had entitled her work Playing with Fire.

“We had arson investigators who said that my office burned at temperatures that were five or six times hotter than a normal house fire. They sent samples of the ash off to have it analyzed and found traces of an accelerant,” says Costner.

The evidence strongly suggests that her office and library were the targets of the arsonists. “It was a professional hit. It was not just somebody who wandered by with matches, says Sheila O’Donnell, a private investigator hired by Greenpeace.

The alleged attack against Costner is one of many acts of violence that may have been perpetrated against environmentalists in recent years. “I know that some of these attacks have been very well orchestrated,” says O’Donnell. The Center for Investigative Reporting has counted 124 credible cases in 31 states since 1988. Among them is the 1989 car bombing of Earth First! activists Darryl Cherney and Judi Bari in Oakland, Calif.

Costner estimates her efforts were instrumental in shutting down at least six hazardous waste incinerators in the year or so before her house burned. In most, if not all, of these cases, the Greenpeace scientist says she engaged in debates with incinerator proponents and government officials. In 1989, for example,Costner’s testimony helped block a multi million-dollar incinerator slated for the Kaw Indian reservation in Oklahoma. WasteTech, the proposed builder of the project, is a subsidiary of Amoco Oil, according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Despite the personal set back, Costner has continued to fight the Vertac incinerator, an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup. The dioxin-contaminated waste at the Jacksonville, Ark. site was left over from the manufacture of Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam War. The struggle by Costner and others to halt the burning of the waste has been supported by three decisions handed down by U.S. District Judge Stephen Reasoner. In each instance, however, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis has overturned his rulings.

Although the arson case remains unsolved, O’Donnell’s investigation uncovered some interesting leads. “We located witnesses who said there had been three different incidences of thugs coming to town looking for Pat,” says O’Donnell. About six weeks before the fire, Costner says a local woman had warned that a man had inquired about her whereabouts. Two weeks later, customers at a Eureka Springs restaurant reportedly overheard Costner’s name come up in a conversation between two men. One of the strangers allegedly bragged of being trained at Quantico,Va., which is both the headquarters of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and the FBI training center.

After the fire, Costner immediately pulled in a house trailer and set about having her home rebuilt. She makes no secret of where she lives. From St. Louis, head down I-44 to Springfield and veer onto U.S. 65. Keep driving past Branson. Past Andy William’s Pepsodent smile, past the other giant billboard images of Tony Orlando, Bobby Vinton, Wayne Newton and Mel Till-ill-is. Then head southwest across the Arkansas line,where straightaways are memories and the oak and hickory roots run deep under the roadbed. Outside of Eureka Springs, turn off Route 23, the faint gray line on the road map, and go down a dirt road a piece.

“I have 135 acres and I live plunk out in the middle of it.

“This is my home,” says Costner, as a rooster crows in the background. “I’ve lived here for 20 years. My children grew up here.”

She ain’t leavin’.

BLOWING IN THE WIND

Studies show airborne dioxin vapors travels great distances from their source

BY C.D. STELZER

(first published in the Riverfront Times, June 19, 1996)

Dioxin found in the Great Lakes region originated at incinerators located as far as 1,500 miles away from the affected area, according to recent scientific studies conducted by the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (CBNS) at Queens College in New York City.

The findings draw into question the reliability of long-established risk assessment guidelines used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for rating incinerator safety, including the current Times Beach Superfund project. The research also contradicts assurances issued here last week by Linda Birnbaum, head of the EPA’s reassessment on the dangers of dioxin. Birnbaum was in St. Louis to address a conference of the Society of Toxicologic Pathologists. In an interview following her speech, she cited the dangers of allowing dioxin-contaminated soil from 27 sites in Eastern Missouri to be further distributed by the wind.

Blaming potential dust storms, however, is not an accurate representation of how dioxin enters the environment, says former Washington University professor Barry Commoner, the biologist who heads the CBNS.

“What Birnbaum was forgetting is that we now know exactly how dioxin gets into crops, which is the key thing for human exposure. It penetrates the leaves of the crops as vapor — not as dust,” says Commoner. “Any time you burn dioxin or any other chlorinated material, you are going to get some airborne dioxin that contributes to the health hazard.”

Commoner’s warnings are partially based on the EPA’s own research showing the average person is already exposed to dioxin levels that can result in health problems, including cancer and reproductive and immunological disorders. Birnbaum was out of the country last Friday and unavailable for comment.

“Our study, … released a year ago — (which) she must know about — shows that the stuff travels all over the country,” Commoner says. The CBNS Great Lakes data tracks dioxin from incinerators as far away as Florida. Typically, dioxin enters the food chain through crops and is passed to humans through dairy products and meat.
Standard EPA site risk assessments, such as the one at Times Beach, are flawed because they misrepresent dioxin dangers by limiting their focus to a very small geographic area, Commoner says. “The risk doesn’t come from any one incinerator, it comes from all the incinerators.”

Burning the dioxin-contaminated soil at Times Beach is actually contributing to the problem not solving it, according to Commoner. “The way you get dioxin vapor is out of an incinerator,” he says. “If you keep dioxin attached to the soil particles and not able to get into the air it’s safe.” The biologist recommends paving over the contaminated soil or confining it in concrete bunkers.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall has refused to meet with opponents of the Times Beach incinerator, citing a revised EPA risk assessment that again claims the project is safe. In a June 10 letter to incinerator opponents, Westfall called their concerns “alarmist attacks.”

Opponents had requested the meeting to explain factors that have been omitted from the latest EPA report, including data on incomplete combustion, fugitive emissions and food chain exposure. The renewed assurances from the EPA come after repeated electrical outages at the incinerator, which allowed unknown quantities of dioxin to escape into the atmosphere.
The burn continues.