Radiation has turned north county St. Louis into a National Sacrifice Zone. It’s way past time for the feds to act


(NOTE: For more detailed information on how the North County radiation site might affect you or your property, please visit our website, stlouisradiationlawsuits.com, or call 516-908-6901.

After decades of denial followed by years of delay, the federal government began telling the concerned residents of St. Louis’ North County suburbs a few years back that it finally had a plan to deal with America’s most shocking radiation site.

Since 2018, despite widespread skepticism, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has sought to assure a heavily populated community that contamination linked all the way back to the Manhattan Project that built World War II’s atom bombs could be dealt with through a $205 million cleanup of two sites at the West Lake Landfill, where some of the material was dumped.

There was just one problem.

As EPA prepared to finally begin the long-delayed cleanup, researchers kept finding more highly carcinogenic material like uranium and thorium-230 in more and more sites outside the designated work zone. That finding should have come as no surprise to anyone who’s read the reports of radioactive dust in homes throughout the area, or talked to activists in groups like Just Moms STL who demand a more aggressive approach, or watched a devastating HBO documentary about the crisis, Atomic Homefront.

It was just two years ago that a federal health study confirmed that people living near the St. Louis area’s other major radiation pollution zone  – the floodplain of Coldwater Creek – suffer a higher risk of bone cancer, lung cancer or leukemia because of radioactive pollution. That discovery should have sped up the federal cleanup efforts in Missouri’s largest city. Instead, they are moving backwards.

In a development that is both alarming and yet also par for the course in this pollution tragedy that has dragged on for more than 75 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced earlier this month that the cleanup of the landfill — supposed to be nearly done by now — is instead on hold, indefinitely. This after Donald Trump’s first EPA chief Scott Pruitt pledged in 2017 to make the St. Louis-area project his top priority, and then Pruitt’s successor Andrew Wheeler promised an aggressive cleanup, saying, ““We believe this decision strikes the right balance, while emphasizing the health and safety of the community.”

Now EPA admits it is flummoxed by the discovery of new radiation locations. Amazingly, this slow-motion work has occurred near a smoldering underground fire which has threatened to release more radioactivity into the air.

The EPA’s finding is hardly an unusual one. I’ve been involved in dozens of radiation cleanups, and I’ve never seen one where they didn’t find significantly more contamination than originally believed. It’s just a rule of thumb. That’s why our law firm has been urging a large contingency fund for the cleanup of North County, because the real ultimate cost is sure to eventually run into the billions.

Our law firm has been investigating radiation in St. Louis’ northern suburbs for over four years. During that time, we have taken some 738 soil samples and conducted some 8,500 tests for radioactive and harmful substances in the areas around the landfill and the nearby Coldwater Creek, which was also polluted. We have a clear-eyed view of the seriousness of the problem — so the attitude in Washington is hard to fathom.

Try to make sense of that bit of government logic: The cancer-causing radiation not far from a populated residential area is worse than we thought, so let’s stop the project while we think about what to do next. The activists from Just Moms STL are furious over the new delay, and understandably so.

“In the beginning they told us we were crazy,” Dawn Chapman, a Just Moms STL leader who lives about two miles from the landfill, told the Associated Press after the announcement. “They told us there was nothing to worry about in this site, it was no big deal. Just for once, come out and tell us the truth.”

Chapman and other activists are planning to travel to Washington within the next few weeks when Meg McCollister, who is the new EPA administrator for Region 7 which includes the St. Louis area, is expected to brief lawmakers on what she describes as “one of the most complicated landfill remedies in the history of this agency.”

Complicated? Sure. But that doesn’t excuse decades of rank dishonesty and obfuscation in dealing with an environmental catastrophe that is deeply intertwined with the story of America’s nuclear age. 

Much of the nation’s most sensitive atomic work, including the development of nuclear weapons, centered around the refining of weapons-grade uranium at St. Louis’ Mallinckrodt Chemical Works during the 1940s and ‘50s. Starting in World War II, American operatives went to great lengths to procure weapons-grade ore from the nation then known as the Belgian Congo, in the heart of Africa, and ship it to the American Heartland. 

Their success may have been great for making the atomic bombs that defeated Japan, but the highly concentrated uranium and thorium-230 embedded in the Congolese ore are some of the most carcinogenic substances discovered. (Indeed, the ore’s unique fingerprint has made it easier to trace the pollution through the years.)

Radioactive dust/particles that enter and are deposited in the lungs will bombard surrounding tissue with alpha particles 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — until the day that you die. Some of these particles — depending on the size — will enter the lymphatic system and could be deposited anywhere in the body. This is why you see so many excess cases of different types of cancer, such as lung cancer or leukemia, linked to breathing in dust from substances such as thorium-230. If the material is ingested, it can get into the bloodstream.

When America’s initial atomic projects began to wind down at the end of the 1960s, tons of remaining waste contained both high levels of radiation as well as excess uranium and other valuable minerals. The Atomic Energy Commission sold the wastes to a private firm, which were subsequently transferred Cotter Corp. Cotter was supposed to harvest those minerals and then dispose of the remaining waste at its site at Colorado. That’s not what happened. In fact, a regulatory review of Cotter found that it violated practically every safety regulation on the book at its Latty Avenue site, near Coldwater Creek. Trying to avoid paying the $2 million fee for disposal at a properly licensed site, Cotter lobbied the feds unsuccessfully for alternatives. Then, the firm mysteriously claimed the wastes had been dealt with right before its sale to the utility company that today is known as Exelon.

Cotter had in fact illegally, and without government knowledge or approval, hired a contractor to ship material to what is now the West Lake Landfill, a municipal waste site that was neither licensed nor properly trained to take dangerous radioactive materials. That contractor engaged in a practice known as landfarming that simply mixed the dangerous, milky-white radioactive wastes with dirt. The firm then delivered that mixture to the open landfill, which spread it over the top as so-called “daily cover.” Our research has also found that much of this dirt was shipped in open trucks – thus spreading dust widely – and that at least one of the vehicles flipped over. Decades later, there are also 1,000 barrels of radioactive material that Cotter simply cannot account for.

We know some of the dumping occurred at a site on Latty Avenue adjacent to Coldwater Creek, which flows through a large swath of northern suburbs on its way to the Missouri River. This is a separate area from the West Lake Landfill, but the issues are strikingly similar. Years of flooding and erosion have spread radiation throughout the creek’s watershed, even as new residential areas were developed. Approximately 10,000 properties in the Coldwater Creek watershed are affected, as well as another 6,300 parcels – many of them light-industrial – near the landfill.

In 2014, an epidemiological study of eight zip codes adjacent to either Coldwater Creek or the West Lake Landfill, conducted by the Missouri Department of Health, found elevated risks for the various types of cancer under study, including breast, prostate and kidney cancer and leukemia. Researchers estimated there were 726 more cancer cases than would be expected for such a small area. Five years later came the 2019 cancer-risk finding by the federal  Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR. Even though that study was deeply flawed in ways that underestimated the potential cancer risks, it nonetheless found an elevated likelihood of the disease for those living near Coldwater Creek. Today it’s been eight years since the first cancer report, and there’s still no plan to clean up the entire area.

Meanwhile, private investigators – including Marco Kaltofen of Boston Chemical Data, one of the nation’s top radiation hunters – consistently found that both the range and the extent of contamination in the North County area were far greater than federal regulators either knew or were willing to acknowledge.

Local residents like Robbin Dailey – now a leading activist – were told that levels of highly dangerous Thorium-230 with the same fingerprint as the Congo ore used by Mallinckrodt was discovered in their homes at some 200 times background levels. It ultimately cost about $20,000 to vacuum and clean Dailey’s entire home, including air ducts, and install HEPA air filters — and that doesn’t include dealing with the contaminated soil outside. Meanwhile, Kaltofen’s two surveys also found radioactive lead – another byproduct of the Mallinckrodt waste – in a wide area around the landfill and Coldwater Creek.

Yet over the years, federal regulators and private contractors linked to the pollution have alternately denied the problem, pointed fingers at each other, or delayed any meaningful action. In typical bureaucratic fashion, the project has been balkanized among different federal agencies, so that cleanup along the creek has been tasked to the Army Corps of Engineers while the West Lake Landfill project has fallen to EPA. Typical of this chaos is that the agencies even have different cleanup standards. EPA has adopted a cleanup goal for designated offsite properties of removing radiation until it reaches normal background levels, while the goal that the Army Corps has adopted is five times above background levels. But both agencies seem to have put more effort into convincing residents and their elected officials that there’s no health risk than toward actually solving the problem.

After learning of the private tests finding thorium-230, uranium and other substances easily traceable to the atomic project in nearby homes, both EPA and the potentially liable firms conducted their own tests that were clearly inferior. One private contractor hired by the current landfill operator, Republic Services, only tested the front entry halls of houses, which are frequently cleaned and thus least likely to show contamination.

Their reasons for trying to minimize the extent of the danger are clear: Both the government and Republic have been eager to minimize the cost of the cleanup. This strategy led to a 2008 EPA finding to merely cap the landfill and leave the wastes where they are, which was rejected by the community and the agency’s own science advisers. In recent years, the EPA has insisted it can address the problem by confining the cleanup to some removal and capping at two small areas in and around the West Lake Landfill. In recent years, the EPA’s plan has been to insist it can address the problem by confining the cleanup to some removal and some capping work at two small areas in and around the West Lake Landfill. Local advocates such as Just Moms have been eager to see this work proceed.

Now, the EPA’ has announced significant radiation findings outside its Zones 1 and 2 at the landfill makes it clear that the community activists and the experts like Kaltofen have been right all along. To anyone who’d ever been involved with a radiation investigation, the idea that decades of contamination would be limited to these two small sites was always ludicrous. 

A much more extensive effort is clearly required – even as that raises new risks because of other potentially hazardous wastes buried at or near the West Lake Landfill. The irony is that America – and its taxpayers – spent billions on the Manhattan Project and related endeavors, and the nation’s nuclear superiority was once held up as a symbol of both our know-how and our resolve. Now we need an effort on the scale of the Manhattan Project to clean up this mess of incompetence and corruption, and make St. Louis’ northern suburbs again safe for the citizens who live there. 

Our legal team is working with these families to get justice, by holding accountable some of the private contractors who’ve been involved with the landfill, or with earlier uranium mining and weapons production efforts. It’s well past time for Washington to step up to the plate and step up the pace of this critical work.

For starters, the federal government should declare the areas surrounding the landfill and Coldwater Creek as a National Sacrifice Zone, a disaster declaration  which would send a powerful message about prioritizing the needs of this community and making its residents whole. That effort must include removing all hazardous materials, as opposed to merely capping them, and moving quickly – instead of finding reason after reason for delay. As Dawn Chapman put it recently, residents deserve to finally “hear the truth about what we’ve been allowed to live next to for almost 50 years in this community.”

In the meantime, the thousands of residents of Greater St. Louis who have been affected by decades of criminal misconduct, cover-up and endless delays deserve justice. In our American system, people have only a limited time to bring forth claims. And those claims will be lost if people sit on their rights. I strongly urge you to visit our new St. Louis contamination website, stlouisradiationlawsuits.com, which identifies the impacted areas, or call this number, 516-908-6901, for more information. Help us bring this sordid episode in the history of America and the Atomic Age to a close.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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