Dating back to the beginning of the Atomic Age, 2.5 million cubic yards of radioactive wastes have been dispersed through out the St. Louis and Metro-East areas. Local concerns regarding potential health and environmental risks have led several federal and state agencies to remediate contaminated sites. Interestingly, while the focus of the local community is on the clean up efforts and compensation for the area’s former atomic workers, the entire story behind the generation of these wastes seems to have been forgotten.
Between July 1942 and December 2, 1942, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in downtown St. Louis was producing a ton of pure uranium oxide a day. The magnitude of this undertaking was without equal in the uranium processing community. Mallinckrodt’s achievement was incredible. After the success of the controlled nuclear reaction on December 2, 1942 under an abandoned squash court in Chicago, Mallinckrodt focused his company’s effort on processing even more uranium – this time for nuclear weapons.
Because Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr. was the only chemist in the United States able to perfect the ether-extraction process, all the uranium produced by Mallinckrodt in these early years was used to produce a working atomic bomb.
As World War II ended and the “Cold War” began, the Mallinckrodt Company once again played a major role in nuclear weapons production as the United States and Soviet Union engaged in the nuclear arms race. In 1957, Mallinckrodt entered into a contract with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and moved his uranium processing facility from downtown St. Louis to a new facility built by the AEC at the site of a former U. S. Army TNT production facility at Weldon Spring in St. Charles County. This facility operated from 1957 to 1966. In the early 1960s some 5,000 truckloads of radioactive waste were hauled from downtown Mallinckrodt Chemical Works to an abandoned limestone quarry near the Weldon Spring plant. When Mallinckrodt closed the plant at Weldon Spring in 1966, it left behind dozens of contaminated buildings and four raffinate pits that began spreading wastes onto nearby wildlife refuges, a National Guard training facility and a local high school – all on the site of the former munitions plant property.
The absence of knowledge about potential health and environmental effects of radiation led many in the uranium processing business (including Mallinckrodt Chemical Works) to engage in careless approaches to the management and handling of radioactive materials. Radiation health standards were constantly evolving at the time Mallinckrodt employed 3,300 employees to produce more than 100,000 tons of purified uranium materials.
By 1946, the amount of wastes generated downtown led to the search for a disposal site. On January 3, 1947, the Manhattan Project condemned 21.7 acres of land just north of Lambert Airport in north St. Louis to serve as a disposal site. The St. Louis Airport Storage Site (SLAPPS) received wastes from the downtown Mallinckrodt facility, highly radioactive wastes from Lake Ontario, New York, and captured Japanese sand that contained uranium waste and residues. Much of the waste was hauled to SLAPPS by dump trucks and stored in uncovered piles. Some of it was hand packed by Mallinckrodt workers into barrels and then sent to the site. As the barrels rusted, they released their contents not only onto the site, but also into nearby Coldwater Creek. By the 1960s, various agencies were becoming concerned with the contamination.
From 1962 to 1964 the AEC tried to sell the waste material at SLAPSS. In 1966, the AEC succeeded in selling much of the material to the Continental Mining and Milling Company (CMMC). CMMC began moving some of the residues to the Hazelwood Interim Storage Site (HISS) at 9200 Latty Avenue, Hazelwood, Missouri. During transport, many properties in Hazelwood and Berkeley were contaminated by spillage. In 1969, the Cotter Corporation for reprocessing in Canon City, Colorado purchased these wastes and much of what remained at SLAPSS. Because the profit margin of recovering uranium from the waste was very low, the Cotter Corporation diluted the waste with topsoil and dumped it illegally at West Lake Landfill next to Earth City. By 1988, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which had taken over some of the functions of the old AEC, determined that West Lake had two contaminated areas with a total of about 150,000 tons of nuclear waste. Although alarmed by the site, no federal agency has ever fully accepted responsibility for the cleanup of the radioactive wastes at West Lake Landfill.
According to the US Department of Energy, limited missions related to nuclear weapons production occurred in Granite City, Madison, and East St. Louis, Illinois. Granite City Steel was under contract with Mallinckrodt Chemical Works to x-ray uranium ingots for the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1989 and 1991, radiological surveys identified residual radioactivity in several areas on the site. Site decontamination was completed in 1993. These same documents suggest that the Madison, Illinois site was used by Dow Chemical, also under contract with Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, to straighten Mallinckrodt-supplied uranium rods and develop gamma phase extrusion of uranium metal. A 1989 radiological survey indicated elevated concentrations of uranium and thorium in the area. Nuclear weapons production in these areas have resulted in the contamination of the banks of the Missouri River, the Mississippi River, numerous roadways and railroad rights-of-way, over 100 vicinity properties, a major urban stream (Cold Water Creek), and groundwater in the vicinity.
The last two decades have seen much activity by Federal and state agencies, local governments and concerned citizens over these waste sites and what to do about them. In 1974, the US Department of Energy established the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) to clean up sites not owned by the US Department of Energy, but contaminated by past federal activities either by the Department of Energy or its predecessor agencies. Some of the radioactive waste has been moved to facilities out West. Some of the hazardous materials have been buried in concrete tombs. Many sites have been decontaminated while others are in various stages of the remediation process.
The US Army Corp of Engineers, St. Louis District has undertaken several public health and environmental risk assessments. A Baseline Risk Assessment was conducted in St. Louis in 1993. The study found that if nothing were done to cleanup the various sites, the public would be exposed to unacceptable cancer and toxic risks. Unfortunately, individuals have been exposed to these risks for nearly fifty-one years prior to this assessment and cleanup is not proceeding at what many believe to be an appropriate pace.