U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

A Good Day for a Hanging

Former County Executive Steve Stenger pleads not guilty to bribery, mail fraud, and theft of honest services, as giddiness infects the press gallery and U.S. Marshals hand out steno pads.

All Smiles: Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger (fourth from left) poses with other dignitaries on Dec. 13, 2018 at the NGA Land Transfer ceremony held at the St. Louis Public Library Central Branch. Immediately behind Stenger is Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Richard K. Hartley, a former CIA operative attached to the National Reconnaissance Office, 1997 to 2003.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith stayed on script Monday afternoon, responding tersely to questions posed by a gaggle of reporters during a news conference held on the sidewalk outside the Thomas Eagleton Federal Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

“We are confident of our case,” Goldsmith said, referring to the three-count criminal indictment issued by the U.S. Justice Department against former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger. Following this vague answer, a veteran broadcast journalist turned aside and muttered to himself: “Great sound bite — six words.”

The dearth of prosecutorial verbosity and courthouse histrionics did not deter the assembled press, however, from relishing the proceedings in an amicable atmosphere akin to the camaraderie shared by farmers of bygone days who went to town to witness a hanging in the public square.

To commemorate the auspicious event, U.S. Marshals offered free notebooks and pens, but there were few takers. The journalists in attendance seemed satisfied to gloat rather than scribble. KMOV-TV hired a sketch artist for the occasion.

The only thing missing were picnic baskets.

After pleading not guilty to bribery, mail fraud and theft of honest services, Stenger was released on his own recognizance by Judge Noelle  C. Collins. Celebrated defense attorney Scott Rosenblum represented Stenger during the arraignment.

The second term Democrat resigned from public office Monday morning following the release of the indictments. He had won reelection in November but continued to be dogged by allegations of corruption involving favors granted to campaign contributors, including businessman John Rallo. The scandal, which played out in the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and before the St. Louis County Council over the course of the last year, centered on the actions of Stenger underling Shelia Sweeney, CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.

Five Post-Dispatch reporters contributed to the story today. A pack of TV and radio reporters were also present.

One of the many questions not asked of Goldsmith at his sidewalk press conference was whether federal investigators are probing the contract between the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and Kit Bond Strategies, the lobbying firm of former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond and his wife.

In January 2016,   Linda Bond, the former senator’s wife, signed a contract with St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney. The Development Partnership is a joint government agency of the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County, which wields broad powers and operates largely in the shadows with the benefit of millions of dollars in annual payments from  casino interests raked in by the St. Louis County Port Authority, an agency that shares the same staff as the Development Partnership. The County Port Authority’s purpose has nothing to do with ports. Instead, it acts as a conduit for the casino payments.

In 2016 and 2017, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership funneled $230,000 of public funds to Kit Bond Strategies, according to federal lobbying reports. Part of that total went to pay for the failed congressional effort to turn the West Lake Landfill Superfund Site over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — an agency that expressed serious reservations about assuming the responsibility for taking control of the project in the first place. The exact amount spent specifically on the West Lake lobbying effort is uncertain. A request under the Missouri Sunshine Law for further details was denied last fall.  But this much is known:  the development agency’s contract called for KBS to be paid $10,000 a month for its services. The lobbying records show that the public money was doled out to the lobbyist in quarterly payments. The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership paid the lobbying firm an additional $60,000 in 2018 , but by then the effort to persuade Congress to turn the West Lake clean up over to the Corps had been dropped.

Note: Stenger pleaded guilty on May 3. 

Mum’s the Word

Sheila Sweeney declined to comment when asked about the lobbying deal she signed with Kit Bond Strategies in 2016. 

As she exited the federal courthouse in St. Louis late Friday afternoon, Sheila Sweeney, 61, refused to comment on whether federal authorities have quizzed her about her role in steering a $240,000 lobbying contract to Kit Bond Strategies in early 2016.

Sheila Sweeney outside the federal courthouse in St. Louis with her attorney Justin Gelfand, Friday May 10, 2019.

Earlier, the former St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO pleaded guilty before federal Judge Catherine D. Perry to three-counts of defrauding the citizens of St. Louis County in the same pay-to-play scheme that snared former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger. Stenger pleaded guilty last week. Their partner in crime, John “Johnny Roller” Rallo, pleaded not guilty Friday morning. They were all charged with scheming to give contracts and property deals to Rallo in exchange for him contributing to Stenger’s campaign coffers.

The pay offs to Rallo were funneled by Sweeney through the St. Louis County Port Authority, which she also headed. The port authority received the funds from Penn National, the owner of River City Casino in South County. The casino pays the port authority about $5 million a year in rent, which is then passed on to the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.

The money paid to Kit Bond Strategies appears to have originated from the same pool of cash. Sweeney signed the contract with Linda Bond, a principal partner in KBS with her husband, former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond. The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership paid KBS to lobby Congress to turn over the clean up of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The effort to convince Congress to take the overall authority for the clean up away from the EPA and hand it over to the Corps involved coordinating the support of the St. Louis congressional delegation. As part of that effort, Rep. Ann Wagner (R) and Rep. Lacy Clay (D) testified together before a House subcommittee. The effort by KSB also included the support of then-Sen Claire McCaskill (D) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R). Legislation authorizing the turnover to the Corps passed the Senate, but failed to clear the House subcommittee.

 

The lobbying deal was carried out with little to no public knowledge, which raises questions as to why the effort kept on the low down. When asked about the deal on Friday, Sweeney remained mum.

After refusing to comment, Sweeney strolled across Clark Avenue with her attorneys and shared a laugh. She awaits sentencing and has been released on her own recognizance.

Life is good.

 

 

Spy vs. Spy?

In 2015, the Russian news service landed in North County to cover the troubles at West Lake Landfill and Coldwater Creek. The question now is whether the CIA mounted a counter-intelligence operation here.

KWMU reporter Vérinique La Capra aims a microphone at  Mary Oscko as cameras captured the moment in August  2015 at the Hazelwood Community Center.

It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely place for an espionage operation to take place than the Hazelwood Civic Center. But recent revelations by the U.S. intelligence community suggest that it may have been one of the locations in North St. Louis County where a secretive propaganda battle quietly played out in August 2015.

Hundreds of people gathered at the civic center for a community meeting that month had no inkling they were bit actors in this Cold War revival. The overflow crowd that jammed the conference room on August 20 attended  out of concern for the health of their families and the safety of the community. Radioactive contamination leftover from the Manhattan Project and its aftermath still plagued the St. Louis suburbs and residents wanted answers from government officials about the long-delayed clean ups.

Questions were asked, testimonials were given and frustrations were vented at the event, all captured on video by camerapersons, including at least one with ties to RT America, the Russian foreign news service.

In the heat of the moment, those present were not aware that they were pawns in a larger political struggle between the U.S. and Russia. Evidence of the covert chess game didn’t surface until January of this year, long after the meeting had faded in the community’s collective memory.

That’s when the CIA took the unprecedented step of releasing a classified report on alleged Russian interference in American politics. The unusual act by the agency was spurred by the continuing controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Those allegations remain the focus of  congressional investigations, and a probe by an independent counsel appointed by the Justice Department.

Allegations of the hacking of email accounts of Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and her campaign staff by Russian operatives prompted the CIA’s release of the report. But the majority of the declassified information in the report is unrelated to the furor over whether Donald Trump and his cronies benefited from the alleged Russian intrusion.

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RT honcho Margarita Simonyan briefs Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in October 2012 in Moscow. (photo courtesy of the CIA’s declassified report)

Instead, the CIA released an intelligence assessment put together in 2012  that details how RT America is allegedly used by the Kremlin as a propaganda tool to cast the U.S.  government in a bad light.

The obvious question this now raises is whether the CIA mounted a domestic counter espionage campaign to offset the perceived damage being inflicted by the negative image that the Russian news service allegedly broadcast not only in America but to a global audience via the Internet.

The CIA report was compiled in 2012 three years before the Russians showed up in North St. Louis County and four years before the U.S. presidential campaign. Though classified, it can be assumed that its contents were shared with the White House and other federal departments and agencies.

It is therefore reasonable to surmise that the CIA and other government agencies were not simply monitoring Russia’s interference in America — but actively combatting it with their own surreptitious operations.

If this is true, it begs the question as to whether American intelligence assets were present at the Hazelwood Civic Center that sultry, late summer evening back in 2015.

Only The Shadow knows.

Correction: Originally, this story identified the meeting as taking place at the Machinist Union Hall in Bridgeton. Instead, the meeting took place at the Hazelwood Community Center. 

 

The Mayor’s Partner

Gerhard J. Petzall, a former law partner of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, was a director of Spectrulite Consortium Inc., which owned and operated an Eastside plant contaminated with radioactive waste.  After the problem came to light, the company forced its union work force to strike, filed for bankruptcy, and then reorganized under a different name, selling half the business to a foreign conglomerate. 

I collared outgoing St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay at the Earth Day celebration in Forest Park back in 2013 and asked him for a spot interview. He  told me then that he didn’t have time to go on camera for even a few minutes to talk about St. Louis’ longstanding radioactive waste problem.  He was too busy that sunny Sunday afternoon promoting some other well-intentioned environmental cause. It might have been recycling. As a result, the mayor does not appear in our documentary, The First Secret City.

But Richard Callow, the mayor’s longtime political consultant, does make a cameo appearance in the film. Aside from representing the mayor, Callow has also been a local spokesman for Republic Services, the giant waste disposal company that owns the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill Superfund site in North St. Louis County. In that role, Callow has acted to tamp down public concerns about the severity of the environmental and health problems related to the troubled landfill.

Callow, however,  is not the only link between the mayor and the radioactive waste that has plagued the region since it first began piling up as a byproduct of Mallinkcrodt Chemical’s work on the Manhattan Project.

As it turns out,  Gerhard J. Petzall — the mayor’s former law partner — has past ties to the now-defunct Spectrulite Consortium Inc., a company that owned a plant  in Madison, Illinois contaminated with radioactive waste from the Cold War.  Missouri incorporation records  show that Gerhard J. Petzall, a senior partner in the politically-connected law firm of Guilfoil Petzall & Shoemake, sat on the board of directors of Spectrulite for years and continued  act as an attorney for the company until 2009.

By that time, Slay was in his second term as St. Louis mayor. Slay was a partner in Guilfoil Petzall & Shoemake for 20 years prior to becoming mayor.

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The problems at Spectrulite began in 1957 when the foundry was owned by Dow Chemical Co. Dow processed uranium at the plant between 1957 and 1961 under a subcontract with St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Chemical Co., which was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Dow’s work caused radioactive debris to accumulate on overhead girders — where it was ignored for decades. In 2000, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversaw a partial radioactive cleanup at the Spectrulite plant.

The Department of Energy conducted the first radiological testing at the facility in March 1989, which showed elevated levels of Uranium-238 and Thorium-232. A story published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the previous month had spurred the government to do the testing. The story was based  in part on the earlier research of Kay Drey. In 1979, the St. Louis environmental activist had interviewed a terminally-ill truck driver who had delivered uranium ingots from Mallinckrodt Chemical in North St. Louis to the Dow plant in Madison. The truck driver attributed his lung cancer to his occupational exposure to radiation in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The plant at Weaver and College streets operates today as Magnesium Elektron of North America, a non-union company and a subsidiary of Luxfur Group of Great Britain. After going bankrupt in 2003,  Spectrulite’s owners sold the company, but continue to hold a stake in the operation and the property itself.

Oddly enough, Spectrulite  remained an active corporation in Missouri — with Petzall’s name appearing in its annual reports long after the business had filed for bankruptcy in federal court in East St. Louis, Ill.  The records show that Petzall continued to be listed as a director of the corporation until 2003, and his name still appeared as a counsel for the by-then non-existent company until 2009.  Spectrulite never operated its manufacturing plant in Missouri. The plant was located across the river in Illinois. But the bankrupt, Illinois-based company, which had been sold to a foreign concern, remained an active corporation in Missouri for six years after its apparent demise; proof that there is life after death at least in the legal world.

Mayor Slay leaves office next week, after serving an unprecedented four terms.  Petzall, the mayor’s legal mentor,  will celebrate his 86th birthday in June.

A Secret Biological Intelligence Program

In 2007, the same congressional committee that years later refused to transfer authority for the clean up of West Lake Landfill to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, investigated the awarding of a Homeland Security bio-surveillance contract to SAIC, the giant defense contractor.

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Leidos offices in St. Louis at 2327 South Grand Blvd.

 During President George W. Bush’s administration, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce announced an inquiry into the National Bio-surveillance Integration System, an intelligence gathering operation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security administered by the Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC).

The House committee was then apparently interested in whether the bidding process was rigged.

In 2013, SAIC spun off a large portion of its classified government work by forming another company, Leidos. Both SAIC and Leidos have received  multi-million-dollar contracts to do clean up work  for the  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Formerly Utilized Site Remediation Program (FUSRAP) in St. Louis, including the continuing cleanup of Coldwater Creek in North St. Louis County.

In addition to its environmental engineering component, Leidos is the largest private cyber espionage outfit in the nation with estimated government contracts worth $60 billion. The company employs 80 percent of the private-sector work force engaged in contract work for U.S. spy and surveillance agencies, including Homeland Security, the CIA and NSA.

Leidos also has a contract with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources through its  federal facilities management division.

The earlier creation of the National Bio-surveillance Integration by Homeland Security through its contract with SAIC has received little subsequent attention. The program was authorized by President George W. Bush under Presidential Directive 10. Its stated mission was “to provide early detection and situational awareness of biological events of potential national consequence by acquiring, integrating, analyzing, and disseminating existing human, animal, plant, and environmental bio-surveillance system data into a common operating picture,” according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The Department of Homeland Security further describes the classified program as follows: “The National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) integrates, analyzes, and distributes key information about health and disease events to help ensure the nation’s responses are well-informed, save lives, and minimize economic impact.” 

Spurred by the outcries of concerned residents about potential health problems associated with chronic exposure to radioactive waste, the St. Louis County Health Department in conjunction with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have taken an active interest in the radioactive waste issue in the St. Louis region.  Whether Homeland’s Bio-Surveillance operation is monitoring conditions in St. Louis independently or with the cooperation of these other government agencies remains unknown.

Other community activists have long advocated taking away the control of the West Lake Landfill Superfund site in Bridgeton, Mo.  from the EPA and putting it under the control of the Corps of Engineers FUSRAP program, which has authority over the other St. Louis area radioactive sites.  But despite bi-partisan support of the St. Louis area congressional delegation, a bill slotted to shift control died in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last year.

The West Lake Landfill Superfund site is owned by Republic Services Inc., the second-largest waste disposal company in the U.S. The company’s chief spokesman is Russ Knocke, a former top spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

The presence of a top-secret operation inside an AT&T building near West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton adds another murky hue to an already cloudy picture. The facility is presumed to be controlled by the National Security Agency but may house some other unknown government covert operation.

 

 

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

When C.D. Stelzer called the Department of Energy’s FUSRAP office back in 1997, a secretary for a private company answered the phone, two corporate managers acted as mouthpieces for the government, and the DOE official in charge had gone elk hunting.

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First published in The Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Dec. 3, 1997

IT’S SHIFT CHANGE on Friday afternoon at the Boeing Aircraft plant north of Lambert Field, and workers are fleeing in droves, streaming bumper-to-bumper down McDonnell Boulevard, oblivious to the narrow, 21.7-acre piece of real estate next to the thoroughfare. Until recently, this barren stretch of earth offered little to see besides an abundance of weeds surrounded by a rusty cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. In late September, however, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) began rearranging the landscape on the property. From the shoulder of the road, where it crosses Coldwater Creek, a yellow bulldozer and backhoe can now be seen parked near a plywood wall extending across the top of the steep embankment leading down to the creek bed.

It’s hard to tell, at a glance, that the work in progress here is part of an overall federal project estimated to cost nearly $800 million. Ordinary building materials — bales of straw, rocks and plastic sheeting — create a setting common to construction sites. But this is no ordinary erosion-control action. Soil at this location, known in regulatory circles as SLAPS (St. Louis airport site), harbors deadly byproducts of the nuclear-weapons industry, which developed during World War II and mushroomed in the Cold War. From 1946 until the mid-1960s, the U.S. Army — and, later, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) — dumped hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of radioactive waste, residue from uranium processing at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis.

As a consequence, the acreage, which is now owned by the St. Louis Airport Authority, has been contaminated with increased levels of uranium-238, radium-226 and thorium-230, according to the DOE. This is no new discovery, of course. Official foot-dragging has been going on for decades. More than 20 years ago the DOE discovered that contaminants had migrated into ditches next to McDonnell Boulevard, where they have settled only inches from the surface. There are still no signs to warn passersby or curious onlookers of this danger.

Failure to inform the public and act in a timely manner has been the hallmark of this case. At the same time, public-health officials have consistently downplayed or ignored the potential health consequences of radiation exposure. After allowing the waste to spread for more than 50 years, the federal government is now belatedly rushing to deal with the problem in a fashion comparable to its past negligence. In the process, rules have been sidestepped and decisions made without a full understanding of their implications. The powers-that-be first attempted to keep the problem a secret, after World War II, for “national-security reasons.” By the late 1970s, however, the festering pollution had become a heated public issue.

The waste itself has proven even more difficult to contain than the controversy over it.

COLDWATER CREEK, which is next to the site, flows through a large section of North St. Louis County and has acted as a convenient vehicle to transport the toxic materials. So far, radioactive contaminants are known to have hitched a ride downstream more than seven miles, according to the DOE. And the migration is continuing. Tests conducted in late 1994 show stormwater runoff at the location still exceeding acceptable radiation levels set by the agency. Drinking-water intakes for the city of St. Louis are located several miles downstream from the site, on the Mississippi River at Chain of Rocks. The radioactive migration by way of groundwater has also been confirmed but is less well understood.

For years, the DOE claimed the waste presented no danger. But the scientific community, which has been moving much more slowly than the waste, has finally concluded that no safe level of radiation exposure exists. By the time this decision was made several years ago, it was also widely accepted that one direct effect of long-term exposure to low-level radiation is cancer.

The $8.3 million cleanup along Coldwater Creek is the first stage of the long-anticipated project. The initial phase involves removing at least 6,000 cubic yards of the contaminated soil to a licensed repository for low-level radioactive waste, located in Utah. The amount is only a small fraction of the contaminated materials that may ultimately be excavated and shipped from the site. The approximate completion date: 2004.

But the entire project now stands in bureaucratic limbo. Less than a month after the DOE started working at the airport site, Congress transferred authority for the cleanup to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The change came about as a part of the latest Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, signed into law by the president in October. Under the legislation, the corps will be handed the remainder of the $5 million already allocated to the DOE for this fiscal year to shore up the small section of Coldwater Creek. The money is in addition to the $140 million appropriation for 1998 that continues funding a nationwide cleanup of low-level radioactive-waste sites. The act also stipulates that the corps must conduct a three-month assessment of the Formerly Utilized Sites Remediation Action Program (FUSRAP), the federal aegis under which the airport site falls.

For the time being, the cleanup of Coldwater Creek is expected to continue uninterrupted, according to David Leake, project manager for the corps. “Congress has made it fairly clear that they do not want the transfer to result in any delay,” says Leake. This pragmatic strategy, however, locks the corps into adopting some of the DOE’s prior policies and practices, many of which have fallen into question in the past.

R. Roger Pryor, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, says the corps isn’t carrying the same baggage as the DOE. “I feel the corps doesn’t have the past bias that nuclear waste is somehow good for you,” says Pryor. “However, changing horses in midstream is difficult.”

Even though the airport site is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Priorities List (NPL), the DOE, through a regulatory loophole, was allowed to proceed with the Coldwater Creek excavation without formulating any long-range cleanup plan for the entire site. Furthermore, the DOE’s interim plan admits the area now being dug up may have to undergo remediation again sometime in the future. In other words, the current work is at best a stopgap measure. The project may also leave some radioactive contaminants behind because the excavation doesn’t go deep enough. In addition, the DOE started working on the site before a hydrogeological study, which it commissioned, had been completed. A previous hydrogeological study, published last year, cautioned that the groundwater system underneath the site was not clearly understood. The panel of experts concurred that implementation of any excavation work would necessitate further site characterization.

Specifically, the panel, which comprised government and industry scientists, warned of the existence of large volumes of radioactive contamination in the middle of the 21.7-acre site. The location of those contaminants is uphill from the current excavation work. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to figure out
that water rolls downhill. By beginning the cleanup at the low end of the site, the DOE hoped to create a buffer that would stop or at least slow the migration of the radioactive pollutants into the creek. But by starting at this point, the department admittedly risks re-contaminating the area it has chosen to clean up. Sheet erosion from rainfall will continue to allow contaminants to move toward the creek. Groundwater will head in the same general direction. Indeed, the subterranean currents may circumvent the DOE’s efforts altogether because, according to the experts, the hydrogeological structure beneath the site pushes groundwater both north and west under McDonnell Boulevard.

“I’m delighted that they are beginning to clean up the airport site,” says Kay Drey, an environmental activist from University City. “But they’re not doing it safely.” Drey, who fought for the cleanup for years, resigned from the project’s oversight committee on Sept. 18 (see accompanying story). In her resignation letter to St. Louis County Executive George “Buzz” Westfall, she expressed disapproval of the DOE’s interim plan, citing what she considers to be inadequate precautions. Before her resignation, she had submitted a detailed eight-page critique of the DOE’s plan. To date, she has received no answers to her questions.

FROM THE MCDONNELL Boulevard bridge, the turbid waters of Coldwater Creek are visible, flowing past chunks of concrete debris and swirling around a white plastic lawn chair marooned midstream. It is a typical suburban scene, a once-pristine waterway relegated to carrying sewage. Coldwater Creek carries other pollutants, too: Jet fuel from nearby Lambert Field has found its way into the watershed, as have salt, oil and automotive antifreeze, according to a DOE assessment. Another pollutant in the surface water is trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen. No one is certain of the long-term effects of such mixed waste on the environment or human health. It is also unknown how the chemical stew affects the migration of radioactive contaminants in surface and groundwater.

In essence, the airport site is a very large experiment with few scientific controls attached.

On the basis of data provided to it by cleanup-site contractors, last year’s hydrogeological panel decided contamination levels at the site would not pose an imminent risk for the next 100 years, an arbitrary figure imposed by the DOE’s guidelines. Yet some radioactive isotopes already discovered in ground and surface water at the site will last for hundreds of thousands of years. Although it downplayed the risks over the next century, the panel nevertheless concluded it would be inappropriate to use the site for long-term storage and repeatedly stated that many questions about the hydrology of the area remain a mystery.

Seepage of radioactivity into groundwater is by no means unique to St. Louis. Last week, the DOE formally admitted that the aquifer underlying the 560-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state has been contaminated. The radioactive waste, which is moving toward the Columbia River, is the result of 40 years of plutonium production at the site. The DOE, which long denied that groundwater contamination existed at Hanford, now claims the Columbia will not be threatened for the proverbial 100 years. However, the independent scientific analysis that forced the DOE to confess to the groundwater contamination calls the DOE’s estimates on risks to the river “unreliable.”

Tom Aley, a hydrologist who sat on the panel that studied the St. Louis airport site, is sure of one thing: The waste should have never been dumped here in the first place. Similar to Hanford, the waste here is situated on top of an aquifer. “It is a very poor site for disposal of that type,” says Aley, who owns Ozark Underground Laboratory Inc. Aley lists population density, groundwater contamination and the proximity of the site to Coldwater Creek as reasons not to store radioactive waste at the airport site.

His tempered approval of the cleanup is based in part on the lack of groundwater use in the area. However, Aley concedes there is much yet to be learned. “We don’t really have a good understanding of the vertical contamination,” he says. “The waste was deposited in a very haphazard manner, which was typical of that era. That has made cleanup very difficult. Another thing is, you can never totally clean up a site. A lot of these cleanups are real bootstrap operations. You have to pull one boot up, and then you have to pull the other up.”

The emperor may have buckled his boots, but he is without clothes. In short, no plan exists as to how to proceed with the remainder of the cleanup. Indeed, according to details of the DOE’s interim action, the current $8.3 million creek cleanup may ultimately have to be redone. The DOE’s engineering evaluation/cost analysis clearly states: “Although final clean-up criteria have not been established for this site, it is anticipated that the majority of the area cleaned up by this action will not require additional effort. However, final clean-up criteria, once selected, could require additional efforts in areas excavated in this removal action.”

Although the DOE acknowledges contamination at the site extends at least 18 feet deep, its interim plan requires digging only “eight to 10 feet below the existing land surface,” according to a Federal Register notice published in September. The DOE also acknowledges that “soil contaminated with radionuclides is present below (the) water table.” If contaminated groundwater is encountered during the dig, the DOE’s interim plan calls for it to be pumped onto high ground, which means it will re-enter the aquifer or run back downhill, toward the creek.

To battle this inevitable gravitational pull, the DOE has built a berm to separate the excavation work from the rest of the site. The interim action also calls for a channel to be constructed to reroute stormwater away from the roadside ditch that drains into the creek. In 1985, the DOE constructed a gabion wall — rocks secured by a wire basket — to hold the bank from sliding into the creek. It is a porous structure that by design allows water to percolate through. Whereas the effectiveness of these measures is subject to debate, there is no argument that radioactive sediments can still move downward into the aquifer and flow northwest under McDonnell Boulevard, thereby entering the creek unimpeded.

The hydrogeological study from last year warned about this possibility. “Groundwater monitoring has shown the migration of radionuclides in the direction of groundwater flow across McDonnell Boulevard and under the formerly used ball fields property to the north,” according to the study. “This factor raises concern over potential shallow discharge of radionuclides to Coldwater Creek to the west and north and potential vertical migration to the lower aquifer system.”

Three thousand people live within a one-mile radius of the airport site, according to DOE estimates. From the airport, Coldwater Creek flows northeast for 15 miles, touching the communities of Berkeley, Hazelwood, Florissant and Black Jack before discharging into the Missouri River. The city of St. Louis drinking-water intakes at Chain of Rocks, which supply water to hundreds of thousands of people, are five miles downstream from where the Missouri joins the Mississippi.

By any standard it is a densely populated watershed. DOE guidelines for thorium and radium concentrations mandate they not exceed 5 picocuries per gram averaged over the first 15 centimeters of soil and 15 picocuries per gram in subsequent soil layers of the same thickness. Analysis conducted for DOE in 1985 indicates that soil next to Coldwater Creek is contaminated with as much as 14,000 picocuries of thorium-230 per gram. The naturally occurring background level for the same radioactive isotope amounts to 0.2 picocuries per gram.

The corresponding guideline for acceptable DOE levels of uranium-238, which is also found at the airport site, is 50 picocuries per gram. In 1981, DOE initiated a two-year groundwater-monitoring program at the site and discovered uranium-238 at concentrations up to 2,230 picocuries per gram. Other evidence shows radioactive waste is spread across the site at levels thousands of times greater than considered acceptable.

A curie is the amount of radiation emitted from one gram of radium, equal to 37 billion decays per second. A picocurie equals a trillionth of a curie. Curies are used to measure the amount of material present; they don’t indicate the amount of radiation given off or its biological hazards.

Such DOE standards ignore potential health consequences, according to a 1991 congressional study. “The present regulatory-driven approach … places far more emphasis on characterizing the contamination than on investigating health impacts and may prove ill-suited to identifying public health concerns, evaluating contamination scenarios according to their potential for adverse health effects, or establishing health-based clean-up priorities,” the Office of Technology Assessment report states.

JOHN W. GOFMAN, a professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, has long contended that there is no safe level of radiation exposure. “I concluded it’s impossible for such a level to exist given the evidence on how radiation works,” says Gofman. The term “low-level radiation” is a political term used by the nuclear industry to lull the public into accepting exposure risks, he says. Similar phrases also downplay the consequences. “The terms `tolerance level,’ `allowable level,’ `permissible dose’ — those are all phenomenal words that are supposed to tell Joe Six-Pack, `Nothing to worry about — there ain’t no harm.’ That’s why these terms came into existence,” he asserts.

The 79-year-old Gofman is in a unique position to advise on such matters because he is a physician and holds a doctorate in nuclear physical chemistry. His research at Berkeley during World War II attracted the attention of J. Robert Oppenheimer, lead scientist in the Manhattan Project. After working on the atomic bomb at Oppenheimer’s request, Gofman completed his medical studies. But in 1969, Gofman fell from grace with the atomic establishment when he challenged the “acceptable” levels of radiation exposure then allowed.

After being ostracized by the atomic establishment for years, Gofman’s scientific opinions have been widely accepted of late. In 1990, for instance, after years of debate by U.S. scientists, a report by the fifth conference on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR V) concluded that radiation effects are proportional to dose in all cases. More recently, says Gofman, “The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation said that the weight of evidence comes down on the side of no safe level. And the British National Radiological Protection Board in 1995 published a document in which they have now said that there can be no safe dose.”

Studies such as these lead Drey, the environmentalist, to question the logic of allowing further radioactive contamination to flow into Coldwater Creek. “Dilution is not the solution to pollution in reality or legally,” says Drey. “When you are dealing with materials that will continue to give off radioactive particles forever into the future, literally billions of years, you have to be very careful with this stuff.”

THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME Drey has opposed a DOE project. In 1993, she battled the department’s plans to clean up radioactive waste at nearby Weldon Spring in St. Charles County (“Rushing Water,” RFT,Jan. 6, 1993). Her vigilance then temporarily delayed that project, after she exposed the fact that the DOE was going ahead before receiving critical EPA test results.

Stephen H. McCracken, who headed the Weldon Spring cleanup, took over as St. Louis airport-site manager for the DOE earlier this year. Although the circumstances and nature of the radioactive waste may be different at the airport site, McCracken’s job switch hasn’t seemed to have affected his ability to circumvent government guidelines. If anything, the DOE official’s evasive end-runs appear to have improved over time.

Pryor, of the Coalition for the Environment, recalls that the decision was railroaded past the citizens oversight committee on which he sits. “We had hardly seen this darn thing,” says Pryor of the recommendation to proceed with work along the creek. “When we asked McCracken in September, he admitted it was just a guess,” says Pryor, referring to the point at which the DOE decided to begin excavating. The measure squeaked past the committee on a 4-3 vote. “We thought it was silly to go forward without the geological study,” says Pryor.

On Sept. 18, the day Drey resigned, McCracken signed a memorandum, which was immediately filed away. The memo cites an emergency clause that allowed him to waive the DOE’s standard 15-day public-review period for such actions. Sept. 18 also just happened to be the day DOE issued its “Flood-plain Statement of Findings” in the Federal Register. The purpose of the posting was to notify individuals and other government agencies of the pending action at the airport site so they could scrutinize the plan in advance. The notice clearly states: “DOE will endeavor to allow 15 days of public review after publication of the statement of findings before implementation of the proposed action.”

Four days later, on Sept. 22, work began at the St. Louis airport site.

Every conceivable government agency — local, state and federal — was left out of the loop. Even the DOE official who has oversight into such matters said he was unaware the emergency clause had been invoked. “I suppose you’d have to ask Steve McCracken about that,” drawled James L. Elmore, a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance officer for the DOE in Oak Ridge, Tenn. “I don’t have anything to do with that. You’d really have to ask him exactly what his total thought process was.” Despite his ignorance, Elmore’s name appears on the bottom line of the Sept. 18 Federal Register notice.

The RFT could not initially reach McCracken to explore his “thought process,” because, according to the secretary at the DOE site office, he was elk hunting in Colorado. After returning from his expedition, the DOE manager still did not return repeated calls placed to his office for a week. In his Sept. 18 waiver memo, however, McCracken wrote he had expedited the cleanup out of concern that autumn rainfall would make excavating near the creek more difficult. Come hell or high water, McCracken is expected to continue working at the site, at least during the transition period.

The airport site is on the Superfund’s NPL list, according to Dan Wall at the EPA regional headquarters in Kansas City. Because of its priority status, the agency is obliged to oversee the cleanup, he says. But it appears the contractors are more in control of the project than anybody else.

Calls placed to the DOE’s site office in St. Louis are answered by the cheerful voice of Edna, a secretary who works for Bechtel National Inc., one of the DOE’s prime cleanup contractors. She takes messages for McCracken and his assistant. In this case, she took messages for nearly two weeks, and for nearly two weeks the calls went unreturned. Finally, representatives for the DOE’s two prime contractors called back.

A secretary for a private company answers the phone at a government office, two corporate managers act as the mouthpieces for a government project, and the government official who is supposed to be in charge is elk hunting. This gives the appearance that the tail is wagging the dog. That may soon change under the new leadership of the corps. “The corps and the DOE operate somewhat differently,” says Leake. “The DOE will put very few people on a particular program and rely heavily on large national contractors to do a lot of the things that the Corps of Engineers try to do internally.”

The change in management styles will affect all of FUSRAP, which originated in 1974 under the AEC, the predecessor of the DOE. AEC established FUSRAP to deal with radioactive waste produced as a byproduct of nuclear-weapons production. Of the 46 FUSRAP sites across the country, 25 have been cleaned up, according to the DOE. Four remaining radioactive hotbeds are in the St. Louis area, with the airport site the largest.

In St. Louis and elsewhere, the DOE has relied on the expertise of Bechtel and Science Applications International Corp. to carry out its mission.

Wayne Johnson, the deputy project manager for Bechtel in St. Louis, is certain the cleanup next to Coldwater Creek is being carried out safely. “These measures have been monitored by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which has had representatives on the site routinely to look at our operations to make sure that we are not affecting the creek. In addition to that, St. Louis County, which has advised us on our plans for the work, has been out to the site,” says Johnson. “So we feel confident, and we are more than halfway done. We have not had any problems or affected the creek in any way.”

Ric Cavanagh of the St. Louis County Health Department, who chairs the citizens oversight commission, agrees with Johnson’s assessment. “I’m not a lawyer, but it is my understanding that they (the DOE) did make use of a provision in the rules to move forward. The majority of the oversight committee voted in favor of proceeding with the work,” says Cavanaugh. “We are purely advisory. We couldn’t have stopped it if we wanted to. The groundwater levels were very low at the time, and this was a very good time to get things going. (St. Louis County’s) goal was to get excavation begun and to get work begun at that site. So we were pleased to have it go from that standpoint.”

The oversight committee currently has 11 members — five from the city of St. Louis and six from St. Louis County. One seat remains vacant at this time. The board replaces an advisory task force that disbanded last year.

AT ONE TIME, workers toiled night and day to dump the radioactive waste at the airport site. The open pile rose to 20 feet above ground level, according to one DOE document. Altogether the accumulated waste at the site and elsewhere nearby is estimated to have once ranged from 283,700 to 474,000 cubic yards, according to the DOE. In additional to open dumping, Mallinckrodt workers were required to hand-pack waste in 30- or 55-gallon drums. The drums were then stacked on top of each other at the airport site. The barrels then began to leak.

In the process of storing the waste, haul routes and adjacent properties became contaminated. Then in 1966, the AEC sold most of the residues to Continental Mining and Milling Co, which promptly transported the waste to 9200 Latty Ave. in Hazelwood and then went bankrupt. The movement resulted in the contamination of more properties. Cotter Corp., a subsidiary of Commonwealth Edison, subsequently acquired the materials, with an eye toward reclaiming some of the minerals. The bulk of it ended up in Canon City, Colo., but not before one of Cotter’s subcontractors dumped thousands of tons of the waste in the West Lake landfill off Old St. Charles Rock Road in North St. Louis County.

More than 50 years after it started, the uranium-processing operation conducted at Mallinckrodt in St. Louis has forced almost $800 million in reparations on U.S. taxpayers — the cost of cleaning up the radioactive vestiges of World War II and the arms race that followed. To the victors go the spoils. It is a small part of the environmental damage wrought by the federal government and the nuclear-weapons industry over the last half-century — damage estimated to cost $200 billion to correct. What can never be measured are the lives cut short because of radiation exposure. Men have been tried for war crimes that did far less.