The Lingering Consequences of America’s Pursuit of the Atomic Bomb on St. Louis: A Legacy of Radioactive Waste Problems

by Ryan Lee
radioactive waste problems

According to documents reviewed by The Big Big News, the federal government and nuclear bomb production companies in the St. Louis area during the mid-20th century were aware of health risks and environmental issues associated with radioactive waste, but they often disregarded them.

Decades later, the region continues to suffer from the aftermath of this negligence, even though a significant portion of the cleanup has been completed. Federal health investigators have discovered an increased risk of cancer for individuals who played in a creek contaminated with uranium waste during their childhood. Radiation concerns led to the closure of a grade school last year, while a landfill operator is spending millions to prevent underground smoldering from reaching illegally dumped nuclear waste from the 1970s.

The AP conducted an extensive examination of internal memos, inspection reports, and other documents dating back to the early 1950s. The findings reveal a lack of concern and indifference towards the risks associated with the materials used in nuclear weapons development during and after World War II.

This investigation is a collaborative effort involving The Missouri Independent, the nonprofit newsroom MuckRock, and The Big Big News. The government documents were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by external researchers and shared with these news organizations.

The documents highlight instances of poor nuclear waste management. For example, a 1966 government inspection report on a St. Louis County site revealed radioactive material that had fallen from vehicles along the roadway. Three months later, the material remained there, as the company responsible, Continental Mining and Milling Co., cited difficulties with their contractor. The company faced no penalties for their actions.

It is important to note that the AP review did not uncover evidence of criminal wrongdoing. However, it revealed numerous occasions where companies, contractors, or the government had the opportunity to address significant issues but chose not to.

Dawn Chapman, from the activist group Just Moms STL, described the St. Louis region as a “national sacrifice zone” that paid a heavy price for its involvement in the nuclear program. While acknowledging the contributions made to the country’s nuclear efforts, she emphasized the need for cleanup and federal support in the affected area.

St. Louis played a crucial role in the national nuclear bomb project, particularly in uranium processing carried out by Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. The company concentrated uranium for further refinement into weapons-grade material. Operations began shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, with nuclear waste being transported from the Mallinckrodt facility to a government-purchased site near the airport in 1946.

Another site in Weldon Spring, which produced explosives between 1941 and 1945, became contaminated with soil, sediments, and radioactive substances. In 1957, the Atomic Energy Commission established a plant in Weldon Spring, and Mallinckrodt relocated its uranium processing there. The resulting radioactive waste polluted the surrounding area, including a quarry that became a Superfund cleanup site in 1987.

Cotter Corp., a uranium processor, transported hazardous leached barium sulfate from the Latty Avenue site in Bridgeton to the West Lake Landfill in 1973. This material contained uranium residue. The cleanup of Weldon Spring has been completed, but the site remains permanently damaged and requires ongoing oversight. The government chose to build a 75-foot-tall mound covered in rock to serve as a permanent disposal cell for most of the waste.

The Army Corps of Engineers plans to remove some of the waste from the West Lake Landfill and cap the rest. Cleanup efforts in Coldwater Creek are progressing but are not expected to conclude until 2038. Taxpayers have already spent over $1 billion on cleanup, and additional funding will be required to complete the task.

The Atomic Energy Commission, historically responsible for the nation’s nuclear weapons program, was abolished in the 1970s due in part to public criticism of its handling of nuclear safety. The Department of Energy now oversees the country’s nuclear weapons and waste, while the Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for cleanup efforts at former nuclear program sites, including those in St. Louis.

Cleanup is currently the primary focus for the Army Corps, which acknowledges that the historical methods of storing, hauling, and transporting nuclear waste have contributed significantly to the challenges faced today.

Public oversight and attention were often shielded from the handling of nuclear waste, with environmental standards at the time being less stringent. The program’s secrecy allowed bad practices to persist for extended periods. Although workers received some protection, health risks were at times disregarded or dismissed.

Efforts to force cleanup and provide compensation for affected individuals have been spearheaded largely by determined women. Denise Brock, whose father worked at Mallinckrodt, founded the United Nuclear Weapons Workers in 2003 to assist her mother in obtaining compensation for her father’s illnesses. This effort ultimately led to federal compensation being made available to thousands of former workers.

Despite reassurances of safety from the government, people living near contaminated sites remain concerned and uncertain. Many who grew up in the area were unaware of the risks for decades. In 2019, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reported a slightly increased risk of bone cancer, lung cancer, and leukemia for individuals who played in Coldwater Creek as children from the 1960s to the 1990s. Those exposed to the creek daily from the 2000s onwards, during cleanup efforts, faced a small increased risk of lung cancer.

Some experts express skepticism about the extent of the risk. They argue that age is the most significant factor contributing to cancer, making it challenging to detect the influence of local radiation. Nevertheless, the government’s past mishandling of nuclear contamination has eroded trust among the population, according to nuclear expert Arjun Makhijani.

Concerns persist, even when the government assures safety. For instance, a private scientist’s study suggested radioactive contamination at Jana Elementary School along Coldwater Creek, but the Army Corps of Engineers conducted their own study and declared the school and playground safe. However, the school board decided to close the school in March due to mounting pressure from politicians.

U.S. Senator Josh Hawley referred to the news organizations’ reporting on these documents and announced his intention to introduce legislation that would provide medical bill coverage for individuals with certain illnesses connected to contamination. Nevertheless, the federal report on Coldwater Creek in 2019 stated that no method exists to link specific cancers to local radiation exposure.

The production of nuclear weapons was a significant nationwide endeavor. Similarly, cleaning up the resulting waste demands a coordinated and urgent campaign. The historian Gwendolyn Verhoff highlights the need for adequate funding and prompt action to address the cleanup efforts effectively.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about radioactive waste problems

What were the consequences of America’s pursuit of the atomic bomb in St. Louis?

The consequences of America’s pursuit of the atomic bomb in St. Louis were enduring radioactive waste problems, including health risks, environmental issues, and ongoing cleanup challenges. The region suffered from contamination, increased cancer risks for individuals exposed to uranium waste, school closures due to radiation concerns, and the illegal dumping of nuclear waste in landfills. The negligent handling of radioactive materials by the government and companies involved in nuclear bomb production contributed to the persistence of these problems.

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RadicalThinker July 13, 2023 - 6:36 am

this is a prime example of corporate greed and government negligence. they were more focused on making atomic bombs than caring for people’s health and the environment. it’s infuriating! we need stronger regulations and accountability to prevent this kind of disaster from happening again.

Jane123 July 13, 2023 - 11:22 am

omg this article is so scary and sad! i cant believe they just dumped all that waste like it was nbd. people got sick and they didnt care. its just not right. they need to clean up this mess ASAP!

Bookworm27 July 14, 2023 - 1:50 am

wow, the government totally messed up with this nuclear waste stuff. like, how could they be so careless? it’s not fair that the people living there have to suffer because of their mistakes. they better fix it and take responsibility for what they did!


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