Today I am in St. Louis, Missouri, with Bob Alvarez from the Institute for Policy Studies. We will be presenting a study of the nuclear waste from the nuclear weapons program which was illegally dumped in an unregulated landfill.
Most people in and around the St. Louis area live without the knowledge of the unique history of uranium processing and seventy-plus year legacy of radioactive waste in their own backyard, which was inherited from the race to produce the atomic bomb and will remain contaminated for billions of years.
During World War II, Mallinckrodt Chemical Company in St. Louis, Missouri, was one of three major sites where uranium was commercially refined and enormous quantities of radioactive waste were generated. By July 1942, Mallinckrodt was producing more than a ton of pure uranium oxide per day, but the process was extremely dangerous.
The first ore that Mallinckrodt processed from the Belgian Congo was extremely rich, the hottest to ever be processed in the United States, as high as 70% uranium, but also contained large amounts of thorium and radium. Later, ore would be shipped to St. Louis from Utah, Colorado, and even Canada. The Mallinckrodt plant in downtown St. Louis produced uranium between 1942 and 1957, when they moved the production to the site of a former United States Army TNT production facility at Weldon Spring in St. Charles County, Missouri, which operated until 1966.
No matter how far production processes advanced, the knowledge and tools required to handle the nuclear waste, which had been left behind and was accumulating swiftly, lagged far behind. Health standards and worker understanding of radiation was completely inadequate, if present at all. Workers had no idea what kind of project they were working on until after the bombs were dropped, or even what protons, neutrons, or radiation were for that matter. They handled radioactive materials and nuclear waste with their bare hands, which collected on their gloves, boots, and clothing – which they wore home; and due to a lack of sufficient control over dusts onsite, large amounts of uranium were discharged to the outside atmosphere.
The waste sludge of these operations contained ten times as much radium (1 Ci Ra226 per ton) as the original ore did (100 mCi Ra226 per ton). Early workers were exposed every day to levels of uranium dust which were more than 200 times modern allowable limits. Most of the processing of uranium was carried out by hand and there were no limits on radiation exposure for the workers. Scientists were concerned, they had seen what had happened to the first explorers of radiation, they had all died quickly from their research; no one knew what being exposed to these materials would do to the worker’s health.
Despite the unknowns, the United States Government never completed definitive studies of the effects of the levels of radiation allowed in the nuclear industry on humans, and after the war the government’s demand for purified uranium for nuclear weapons only grew. By 1956, all of Mallinckrodt’s plants were producing more than three times their designed capacity. In the 24 years of production, Mallinckrodt produced in excess of 100,000 tons of purified uranium materials.
In 1947, the company started working with thorium in addition to processing uranium, even though there were no instruments to measure to the radioactive materials they were working with aside from the dosimetry badges worn by Mallinckrodt employees.
St. Louis Airport Storage Site (SLAPSS) – 1946 – 1967
Once large quantities of waste materials began piling up, the Manhattan Engineering District condemned 21.7 acres of land near the Lambert Airport in north St. Louis to be used as a storage area for process waste and residues from the downtown Mallinckrodt plant. For nearly a decade, between the mid-1940s and the mid-1950s, drivers hauled nearly 18,700 tons of uranium residue to the airport dump, each year.
The site received pitchblende raffinate, radium bearing wastes, barium cake residue, Colorade raffinate residues, captured Japanese sand which contained uranium waste and residues, among other wastes. The waste was hauled in by dump trucks and stored in uncovered piles, without any consideration for potential groundwater and/or surface water contamination, exposure pathways, or other basic safety standards observed today.
Waste was often stored in 30- or 55- gallon metal drums, which were piled end-on-end over most of the site, and were not always sealed. As time passed, the thousands of barrels in which the waste was interred continued to rust and decay until the contents spilled onto the ground and contaminated the site even further. By 1965, over 120,000 tons of uranium residues and wastes had accumulated on-site.
Latty Avenue – 1966 – 1973
In 1973, radioactive waste from SLAPSS was secretly transported to the Latty Avenue site, where it was supposed to be dried and sent to the Cotter Corporation in Colorado. Instead, B&K Construction Company, among others, hauled 8,700 tons of the waste to the West Lake Landfill.
To do so, workers spread the barium sulfate waste out over the entire site, then removed both the uranium waste and the top 18 inches of contaminated topsoil, and illegally dumped them at the West Lake Landfill.
West Lake Landfill – 1973 – Present
The Atomic Energy Commission did not find out about the illegal dumping at West Lake until April of 1974, nearly a year after it was disposed of. In the 1980s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that the West Lake Landfill was a serious problem which needed to be handled.
The question at the time was whether to exhume the contaminated materials, which by that point was estimated to be over 150,000 tons, or to leave them in place. Estimates provided by the NRC showed that it would cost between 5 million and 15 million dollars for removal.
In the end, the NRC left the materials in place, and transferred ownership of the site to the Environmental Protection Agency under the Superfund program. The EPA has never opted to exhume contaminated materials once interred, no matter the circumstances surrounding the problem, and thus today – the contaminated materials still reside in an unregulated landfill.
The study conducted by Bob Alvarez shows the hazardous nature of the materials interred at the West Lake Landfill, and exposes the need for the site to be transferred to the FUSRAP program, to ensure public health and safety.
A public meeting in which Bob Alvarez will present the study and the history of the West Lake Landfill will be livestreamed tonight at 7:00 CST (8:00 EST), and can be viewed here.