World War II

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 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 Band 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.

Buried History


Does radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project and Cold War still lurk near or under the dorms at Washington University?

first published in the Riverfront Times, May 27, 1998

Photo from a 1952 Wash U Alumni Bulletin shows two engineers burying radioactive waste from the cyclotron in the South 40.

 

An official Washington University photograph from 1952 shows two engineers — who donned lab coats and gas masks for the occasion — dumping radioactive waste out of galvanized steel trash cans into a hole in the ground. Other photos from the same series show the duo setting fire to the waste. The photo caption identifies the burial site as being behind then-Chancellor Arthur Holly Compton’s residence. The university published the photograph in its Alumni Bulletin to assure the public that radioactive waste from the school’s atomic cyclotron was being disposed of properly.

What may have been considered proper nuclear etiquette in the 1950s, however, is subject to question nowadays, and the answers have proven to be more than a little elusive. Indeed, nobody really even knows exactly what is buried on the South 40 of the Washington University campus, where dormitories are now located. But for decades, recurrent stories have alluded to the internment of radioactive waste at the site. Late last year (1997), after the university began building a series of new residence halls, in the southwest corner of the tract, a spokesman for the university dismissed the allegations as unfounded.

“We’ll categorically deny all of that,” says Fred Volkmann, the spokesperson. “I can assure you that everything that was there was removed, but that, at the time it was removed, it had no measurable radioactivity. I don’t think that you’ve got a story.”

Washington University alumnus Martin Walsh, however,  thinks otherwise.

“I don’t know if there is anything there or not,” says 62-year-old Walsh. “But why the hell would they run us out of there in 1955?”

In the spring semester of that year, a university administrator ordered members of his military drill group, the Pershing Rifles, to avoid the area, Walsh said. Before the edict, Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) cadets had roamed the woods near the corner of Wydown Avenue and Big Bend Boulevard on nocturnal maneuvers. When the university forced an end to these forays, Walsh worried that he and his comrades might be disciplined for lighting campfires or worse. “To be frank, we had trouble with fellows who took binoculars and wanted to look into the girls’ dorms at Fontbonne College,” says Walsh, referring to the then-exclusively women college south of the site.

Instead, the administrator warned the cadets that the site had been used to bury radioactive waste created by the cyclotron — the university’s World War II vintage atom smasher.

Walsh’s memories of the incident were jogged recently by the sight of the new dorms going up at the location. He speculates that the sinkhole, over which the new dorms have been built, is filled with 60 feet of dirt. Walsh, a civil engineer and former St. Louis building commissioner, expresses concern that excavation work could possibly have brought some of the radioactive waste back to the surface. 

Although documents eventually furnished by the university tend to support its contention that radioactive materials dumped on the campus in the past were not hazardous, nothing indicates they were ever removed, as Volkmann claims. Moreover, substantiation of the university’s position depends heavily on two former cyclotron staff members who provided, at best, sketchy recollections. Both men possessed only partial knowledge of the cyclotron’s operational history because they began their careers long after the machine had been placed in service.

The university further cast doubt upon itself by restricting access to Chancellor Compton’s files. In another instance, a relevant dissertation, which could disclose important details, has somehow been misplaced or lost by the university.

By any reasonable standard, the record of radioactive waste disposal on campus is incomplete. Nonetheless, for more than 40 years, the university has assured the public that there is no danger.  [Former] University Chancellor William H. Danforth, for example, made such a statement in a letter to local environmentalist Kay Drey in 1978.

Drey accepted the chancellor’s word then; she is less sure now.

“If the materials were so short-lived that they would have decayed in a short period of time, why were they buried in the first place?” Drey asks. “And if they were short-lived, why were they dug up decades later? What proof is there that they were dug up? Where were they sent, and when?”

A long forgotten legacy

The legacy of radioactive waste, which Walsh stumbled onto as an ROTC cadet in the mid-1950s, began long before his college days.

In September 1938, Arthur Hughes, then chairman of the physics department, began preliminary inquiries into how to expand Washington University’s role in the burgeoning field of nuclear physics. By this time, American scientists were aware that recent discoveries had advanced the knowledge necessary for Germany to build an atomic bomb. This led to a sense of urgency among researchers before the United States entered World War II.

After Hughes recommended that a cyclotron be built, the Rockefeller Foundation provided a $60,000 grant. Additional funding for the project had already been committed by the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology of Washington University Medical School. The institute was named after the founder of Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, the company that ultimately supplied the Army with the refined uranium necessary to build the atomic bomb.

During its construction, the university publicized the 80-ton, electromagnetic device as the latest medical weapon in the battle against human disease. Researchers, indeed, used the radioactive isotopes created by the cyclotron for experimental cancer therapy. From the beginning, however, the medical applications overlapped with military interests. By early 1942, only a few months after its completion, Washington University scientists had already started employing the machine for secret atomic-bomb work under a contract with the federal government’s Office of Scientific Research and Development.

Using the 50,000-watt cyclotron, a Washington University team bombarded hundreds of thousands of pounds of uranyl nitrate, which had been refined at Mallinckrodt, to create microscopic quantities of plutonium. The cyclotron staff then sent the uranium and plutonium to the University of Chicago to be separated. By this point, the specially created Manhattan District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had taken over the supervision of the atomic-bomb program, which later became known simply as the Manhattan Project.

Secrecy surrounded the entire endeavor. Scientists acquired pseudonyms; the nascent bomb became known as “the gadget”; coded log-book entries referred to uranium as “band-aid box, “gunk” or “special stuff.” The secret work at Washington University continued for the next two-and-a-half years. But another eight years would pass before the university itself openly discussed the radioactive cyclotron waste.

Finally, in October 1952, the university’s Alumni Bulletin published a photograph showing the two cyclotron engineers dumping radioactive waste on the southern part of the campus, hoping to assure the alumni and the public that radioactive waste from the cyclotron was being disposed of properly. Within a few years, however, the school changed its policy and began shipping all of its irradiated materials in special containers to an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) site in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

This decision to move future waste off campus dovetailed neatly with the university administration’s plans to build student housing in the vicinity of the radioactive burial site. When construction began in 1958 on the tract behind the chancellor’s residence, university officials tried to find out where the waste had been dumped by asking the two cyclotron engineers who had posed for the photographs. Details of those interviews are contained in internal memorandums, which the university allowed a reporter for the The Riverfront Times to read but not photocopy. The following account is based on information culled from those memos.

The late John T. Hood Sr., who ultimately became director of cyclotron operations, was one of the two engineers known to have been questioned. He and his colleague, Bradbury Phillips, were the two individuals who had earlier been featured in the Alumni Bulletin photos. Before his death in 1996, the university called on Hood to answer questions about the early disposal practices at the cyclotron facility. Hood invariably calmed concerns over the issue using his personal knowledge.

However, an Aug. 18, 1958, internal university memo indicates Hood was absent from the campus during his military service and on return could not remember exactly where the waste had been buried. According to the memo: “Mr. J.T. Hood, electrical engineer at the cyclotron, helped with some of the waste disposal work although he was in the Army during a large fraction of the interval of interest. … Mr. Hood has surveyed the terrain in the neighborhood of the burial ground and reports that it has been altered as to make the identification of the exact burial spots impossible.”

By 1958, Phillips, the other source on which the university relied, had moved to the University of Colorado. In a written response Phillips provided his recollections on the subject. He, too, prefaced his words with doubt.

“That’s a rough set of questions,” wrote Phillips. “I’ve racked my brain all day trying to recall the answers. It must be close to ten years since our first burial. As an initial date somewhere in 1949 or 1950 sticks in my head. I don’t think any burials were made later than early 1955. After that we shipped the stuff out in 50-gallon paper-board barrels.”

Phillips also expressed uncertainty on the number of burials in which he had participated, guessing that total to be between five and eight. He suggested that log-book entries be checked to verify the number of burials, but there is no mention of whether the log books were ever examined. The engineer then attempted to locate the burial sites on a rough map of the area. He stated, however, that a more accurate diagram of the burial locations had been drawn up by the cyclotron staff in the past. Investigators failed to find that diagram, according to one of the memos. When a search team uncovered a discrepancy between Phillips’ recollection and their records, they chose to accept Phillips’ version rather than their own. Investigators subsequently dug test holes and scanned the area with a Geiger counter, detecting only normal background levels of radiation.

But trying to pinpoint the exact burial sites on a 40-acre wooded tract of land proved futile.

Phillips estimated the size of the dumping ground as 50 to 70 feet in diameter. “The ground fell off to a ravine running north and south, which intersected the old creek bed,” he wrote. “Trash and dirt were filled in from the east side of this ravine. Our procedure was to bury at the foot of this hill so the next few loads would cover it. Within a week, this surface was 8 to 10 feet under the surface of the trash and dirt.” Phillips’ description is similar to what a sinkhole would look like that was being used as a landfill, which is what the university used the property for in those days.

The burial rites for the radioactive waste followed a pattern that rarely deviated. According to Phillips, the waste was dumped and then burned “so that the final volume of material never exceeded 2 cubic feet. All laboratory glass was broken. With one exception, no containers were used. The exception was a one-gallon can; its contents were poured into the hole, and the can punctured. All other waste was uncontained.”

Most of the radioactive waste was paper used to prevent surface contamination at the cyclotron facility, Phillips wrote. Included among the buried artifacts, however, were a few 8-by-10 pieces of brass. “We never buried large amounts of (radio)activity and any long-lived (materials) had been set aside to decay to low levels before burial,” wrote Phillips. Although the half-lives of the materials were allegedly determined in advance of disposal, Phillips confessed he didn’t know what exactly he was burying. “I would say the bulk of the radioactive material was unidentified,” he wrote.

Nothing in Phillips’ account alludes to the waste ever being dug up and removed as the spokesman for the university now asserts. Moreover, the cyclotron engineer’s chronology only covers the last six years that radioactive waste is known to have been disposed of on campus. Contrary to Phillips’ statement, the cyclotron began operating in early 1942, not 1945. The omission leaves a seven-year gap for which there is no apparent record.

Whereas, Phillips claimed radioactive materials were buried as few as five times in six years, another cyclotron technician’s estimates suggest that disposal may have occurred more frequently. The late Albert A. Schulke, who began working at the cyclotron during World War II, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1952 that it wasn’t unusual for the accumulated radioactive waste to fill three standard-size rubbish cans in a two-month period. Schulke’s estimates — added over a 13-year period — indicate the possibility of 234 separate waste-disposal occurrences.

Similar to Phillips’ account, Schulke vouched for the benign nature of the waste, although the 1952 news story mentions that cyclotron burial squads took the precaution of wearing respirators to keep from breathing radioactive dust. The nuclear gravediggers were also reported to have dressed in rubber boots and gloves and handled radioactive materials with long, “non-magnetic” tongs. Several years later, Schulke complained to another reporter of recurring pain in his fingers caused by radiation burns he received in 1948. The cyclotron technician, nevertheless, praised the safety of burying the waste on the South 40, an area he considered secure. “We can be sure no one is ever going to build there, and dig up the waste materials,” said Schulke.

After the war, Washington University published a booklet that boasted of its role in the production of the first atomic bombs. The work included the following statement:

“Certain investigations of a scientific nature, not yet released, were carried out for the Metallurgical Laboratory. Among these was an investigation which constituted the dissertation for the degree of Ph.D awarded to Harry W. Fulbright.”

The Metallurgical Laboratory was the code name for the secret atomic-weapons research facility at the University of Chicago, where Compton oversaw the first controlled nuclear chain reaction on Dec. 2, 1942. Although Chicago acted as the hub for the research, Washington University supplied the initial plutonium.

Fulbright’s dissertation, which would provide precise details of how early cyclotron experiments were conducted here, appears to have never been declassified. The doctoral paper is absent from the catalogue of Olin Library at Washington University. It’s missing from the physics department library on campus, too. A search of two national databases turned up nothing more than a brief citation. Fulbright, who is now an emeritus professor at the University of Rochester, says he doesn’t even have a copy.

In his written reply to an inquiry by the Riverfront Times, Fulbright wrote: “I have carefully gone through my papers without finding a copy. … In the late 1940s, while at Princeton University … I recall vaguely having received a partially declassified copy.” Fulbright further stated that the goal of his experiment at Washington University was to establish a nuclear energy scheme for plutonium 239. I think the average reader would fine it dry as sawdust.”

The subtleties of sawdust, of course, are infinitely more discernible than atomic particles. Discarded radioisotopes can come in hundreds of varieties and contaminate soil, water or air. The resulting radioactivity may decay in minutes or days or last forever.

“When uranium or plutonium undergoes fission, there are about 700 or 800 different ways that those two pieces can come into existence,” says John W. Gofman, a professor emeritus at the University of California Berkeley. Gofman, who took part in the Manhattan Project research at Berkeley, later became an outspoken critic of the nuclear power juggernaut. Gofman cites strontium 90 and cesium 137 as two common radioactive isotopes that could be created during fission. Each of these substances possesses a half-life of approximately 30 years. This means half of the radioactivity emitted from these isotopes decays within three decades. So any strontium 90 or cesium 137 created during World War II would still be emitting more than one-fourth of its original radioactivity today (1998).

But Arthur C. Wahl, a former Washington University chemistry professor, insists that low-level radioactive waste created by the cyclotron, during World War II and the postwar era, would pose no current health or environmental danger. He is less certain, however, about the exact location of the waste. “I don’t know about it,” says Wahl, who is living in retirement in Los Alamos, N.M. “I’ve been questioned about this before by environmentalists and so forth. This (the dumping of the radioactive waste on the South 40) was done before I was associated with the cyclotron, if it was done at all.”

Wahl joined the faculty after the bomb hit Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. By this time, Compton had already accepted the chancellorship, although his role as a Manhattan Project consultant would continue covertly for more than a year. In addition to Wahl, Compton recruited Joseph W. Kennedy directly from the Los Alamos laboratory, where both had worked on the atomic bomb under J. Robert Oppenheimer. Earlier in their careers, the two scientists had collaborated with Glenn T. Seaborg and Emilio Segre at the Berkeley radiation laboratory of Ernest O. Lawrence. Compton also drafted a bevy of other talented chemists from Los Alamos, including Lindsay Helmholtz, David Lipkin, Herbert Potratz and Samuel Weissman.

Arthur Holly Compton

In part through Compton’s military connections, the university began nuclear experiments financed by the Office of Naval Research in 1946. Then in 1947, the AEC contracted the university to produce isotopes not obtainable at nuclear reactors. Other research on campus involved investigating the possibility of creating nuclear-powered aircraft, warships and submarines. Meanwhile, the university constructed a radiochemistry laboratory adjacent to the cyclotron with $300,000 from an anonymous donor, according to the February 1947 issue of the Washington University Aumni Bulletin.

Besides military work, the cyclotron continued to serve medical researchers and also private corporations, including Anheuser-Busch, Phillips Petroleum, McDonnell-Douglas, Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) and General Electric.

Not surprisingly, by the time Walsh entered Washington University’s civil-engineering program in the mid-1950s, the military-industrial complex was well-ensconced on campus. No one then doubted the propriety of this menage a trois anymore than they questioned the disposal of radioactive waste on the South 40. But Walsh does remember receiving a warning from professor Kennedy, the co-discoverer of plutonium. “I had him for Chemistry 101 and Chemistry 102,” says Walsh. “He said, ‘We buried a lot of stuff (radioactive waste) up there. You guys shouldn’t be going up there.’ He told us that after a lecture, when I asked him about it.”

Within two years of issuing the caveat, Kennedy himself died of cancer.

By 1960, the federal government established the first comprehensive radiation standards. For materials that cause genetic damage, the guidelines set protective limits 100 times higher for the general public than for atomic-industry workers. Five years earlier, T.C. Carter, a British researcher, had pondered the genetic consequences of radiation exposure in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

“In my opinion, we cannot today make any useful quantitative assessment of the genetic consequences of exposure of human populations to ionizing radiations at low dosage rates; we know far too little about human population structure and the induction of mutations in man,” wrote Carter. “But we know enough to be apprehensive about genetic dangers!”

Compton included this quotation in his memoir, Atomic Quest. It appears in the chapter titled “Hope.”

 

 

 

 

 

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.

100_1341

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.