Nuclear waste in St. Louis
July 15, 2017 4:49 PM   Subscribe

"A short version of the story: there’s a landfill, there’s a fire, there’s nuclear waste left over from the Manhattan Project. People are dying of rare cancers."
posted by Lycaste (36 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Just a short drive from Times Beach.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 5:35 PM on July 15, 2017

Ctrl-F "Geiger" - 0 results found

OK was this story supposed to be the human interest side of things? If I suspect something is giving cancer via radiation the first thing I do is lay my hands on a Geiger counter and check every god damn place the kids go looking for the radiation.
posted by Talez at 5:57 PM on July 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

That the radioactive waste is there and contaminating the surroundings does not appear to be in doubt. The EPA just says it's not dangerous enough to move faster or seek a more dramatic solution. Those affected obviously disagree.
posted by Scattercat at 6:18 PM on July 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

My step-brother used to play in coldwater creek as a child and he was diagnosed with brain cancer 4 years ago. He is in remission now, thankfully, but he's convinced he's a victim of the nuclear waste in the creek. Two of his childhood neighborhood friends have died of the same thing in the past decade.
posted by overhauser at 6:52 PM on July 15, 2017 [14 favorites]

When I got to the map of cancer cases near the creek, I had to scroll up in a double-take to make sure I was reading nonfiction. This story is chilling.
posted by sockermom at 7:25 PM on July 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

Jesus fuck humans are terrible.
posted by odinsdream at 7:27 PM on July 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

First telling everyone it was ok at Ground Zero, now this... the EPA has zero credibility left, as does most of the Government.... they really need to start fixing this.
posted by MikeWarot at 8:21 PM on July 15, 2017

This was a stunning essay. It should be front page news everywhere.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 8:34 PM on July 15, 2017 [10 favorites]

Thank you for posting this.
posted by theora55 at 8:40 PM on July 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Goddamn. Thinking about the friend who moved back there thirty years ago, and died ten years ago, way too young. And about the younger sister who lived there for several years, off and on, and all her health problems. I only lived in the area for about six months, so I'm probably OK. Probably.

posted by Halloween Jack at 9:09 PM on July 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

Yep, if you ever want the unvarnished truth, call the local or state officials. The feds- um not so much.
posted by fshgrl at 9:24 PM on July 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Here's Wikipedia's details on the West Lake Landfill and Mallinckrodt nuke waste. Until 1966, Mallinckrodt processed uranium for nuclear weapons along the Mississippi in downtown St. Louis and in Weldon Spring. Then they got into smelly pharmaceuticals.

Right next door, there's the Bridgton landfill. There's also radioactives cleanup going on out west of St. Louis.

The New York Times was reporting on this story
27 years ago. Radwaste is forever.
posted by Twang at 9:31 PM on July 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I read recently about a housing project in St. Louis, the infamous Pruitt-Igoe, where the government sprayed nerve gases off the roof to see what effect it would have on the people living there—testing it for its potential use as a weapon in war.

I'm seeing a small number of Google results from 2012, including one from the Daily Mail, with varying claims about radioactive and non-radioactive chemicals sprayed at Pruitt-Igoe, but nothing I've clicked on has mentioned nerve gases.

It certainly sounds like this area would be contaminated worse than a battlefield where depleted uranium weapons were used, but the OP article is so wide-ranging and seems to feel a need to invoke so many disparate topics to establish the legitimacy of its narrative that I'm left wondering whether I should trust all of the details it offers on the central topic.

(So, thanks for the additional links Twang.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:20 PM on July 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

I grew up in a cancer cluster, and sometimes wonder about my weird ailments, but it was nothing like the scope and scale of what the people in TFA have gone/are going through. Jeez.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:29 PM on July 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

what's erin b up to these days? cuz this is some real bullshit.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:18 PM on July 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

If I suspect something is giving cancer via radiation

Something doesn't have to give off radiation to be cancer-dangerous. Just being a heavy metal like Uranium is enough. And how is a giger counter gonna pick up alpha emitters that are part of a hunk of food?

Nuclear power - the gift that keeps on giving.
posted by rough ashlar at 12:12 AM on July 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

This wasn't nuclear power related, this was nuclear weapon related. As in, the processing was for use in weapons.

Additionally the cost to human lives for coal extraction isn't exactly peachy either. The problem isn't nuclear power, it's lack of regulation or regulatory capture.
posted by nat at 1:09 AM on July 16, 2017 [14 favorites]

Yeah, I grew up in Florissant. My father, now in hospice, had colon cancer that's now metastasized to lung cancer. After three strokes and now this, he's dying, albeit very slowly. He used to dig in that earth all the time, planting flowers, gardens, trees. He used to walk mile after dusty mile across North County every day. My grandmother had breast cancer and now has an inoperable brain tumor. My little brother is in remission from testicular cancer. He used to collect cans in the drainage ditches that sometimes ran backwards with creek water. One of my best friends grew up playing in the creek. I'm tired and it's late, but it all makes me want to cry when I list it out that way. I'm afraid, in short.

I've gone to a couple meetings about all of this. I'm in a couple of Facebook groups about it. I can't do much about it, though, besides avoid my hometown, where my mother still lives, watch my health, and hope for the best. I'm glad more people are becoming aware of this, even if it means one of my colleagues in Minneapolis regularly gives me grief about my radioactive city and exhorts me to move up north.

Moving isn't a real solution, though. Stuff like this is everywhere. My husband grew up in New Jersey, playing in another creek that turned out to be contaminated by what's now another Superfund site. His mother died fairly young of lung cancer. He's also super afraid.

I'm in New York right now, but even that's cold comfort, because the damage goes with you. And that also makes it worse for everyone else, because when you move, it makes it harder to track the effects if you're diagnosed with something. And every time I get sick or get a rash, like this weird skin discoloration in my right inner elbow, I think the worst.

If there's anything I disliked about this piece, it's that in telling it in a narrative style, sometimes the writer failed to look up the readily available details of some things, like the testing that was done at Pruitt-Igoe, or other "I guess" references. There's actually not a lot of guessing necessary for any of this. Our parents knew about a lot of this in the 1980s. What no one knew was the extent of it or how little the government did in terms of follow-up testing.

A lot of this is coming out now because a generation of students who went to my high school about 10 years ahead of me started to get all these weird, rare cancers and reproductive ailments. They noticed the pattern and they demanded testing. And then the landfill separately started to fume and burn and everyone found out just how close it all is to not only people's houses, but also a major water-supply intake for St. Louis County.

It's all depressing as fuck.
posted by limeonaire at 1:35 AM on July 16, 2017 [44 favorites]

Oh, and I guess I should add, I was also diagnosed with an endocrine disorder myself. And my mother was diagnosed with an autoimmune skin condition. So really no one in my family has come out of North County unscathed. And we know lots of other people affected. The mother of one of my best friends from elementary school died rather young this past year—of cancer, of course.
posted by limeonaire at 1:57 AM on July 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

This ultimately comes down to money. There are 1300 superfund sites, and the current funding is around a billion dollars a year, for all of them, so less than a million dollars a year, per year, per site. This is basically nothing, which is why the general response from the Feds is nothing. Trump wants to cut that by a further 25%. This would be another good thing to call your congress critter about.
posted by rockindata at 5:39 AM on July 16, 2017 [13 favorites]

This is a Pruitt-Igoe story. No mention of nerve gas.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:08 AM on July 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

See also Port Hope, Ontario. Processed uranium (reportedly including some for the Manhattan Project), dumped the waste wherever. Estimated cleanup cost: $1B+. Oh, and they're still processing uranium there. Because of course they are.

Kinda makes me wonder how many more sites there are like this that we don't know about, either because of deliberate government coverups or simply because the plants closed up shop a long time ago and have long since been forgotten.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:30 AM on July 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

"Radioactive Contamination and Citizen Science after Fukushima" in Medical Anthropology Quarterly, via an FPP earlier this year.
posted by XMLicious at 10:41 AM on July 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

There's a superfund site here in the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. (They say it's ok to swim in it, just don't touch the bottom of the river, so my partner swims there every day.) There's a superfund site where I used to live in Davis, California. These are well-off communities with lots and lots of people who pay attention to and speak up about environmental issues. Like Sys Rq, I'm pretty convinced that there are loads of superfund site candidates that are forgotten or ignored, but mainly (as my theory goes) that don't have enough community push to get them to the status of superfund.
posted by aniola at 1:31 PM on July 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

limeonaire, thanks for sharing your story, and I wish there was more to say than "this is really fucking wrong on so many levels" and "I'm sorry."

The problem isn't nuclear power, it's lack of regulation or regulatory capture.

Yeah, but given some degree of regulatory capture and lack of adequate regulation (oh and ridiculous levels of anti-science attitudes and recklessness in the current federal leadership), how can nuclear anything be done safely?

Anybody who has watched enough agencies has seen this kind of thing in other contexts; I'm not singling out nuclear. The pattern of lying about and obfuscating actual dangers has serious repercussions when the government needs to credibly be able to say something is safe, e.g., vaccinations. (Don't get me wrong, I'm very much pro-vaccination.) But yeah, nuclear also: anybody who wants people to trust in nuclear power (which given climate change, should perhaps arguably be all of us) should care about the checkered history of responsibility around its safety and even ask themselves, "what makes me think this could be done responsibly now?" In multiple threads about nuclear power, there's been this ridiculing of people for having concerns. Ugh. I better stop before I get wound up about this.
posted by salvia at 1:43 PM on July 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

This is a Pruitt-Igoe story. No mention of nerve gas.
posted by Kirth Gerson

From your link:
ST. LOUIS – Doris Spates was a baby when her father died inexplicably in 1955. She has watched four siblings die of cancer, and she survived cervical cancer.

After learning that the Army conducted secret chemical testing in her impoverished St. Louis neighborhood at the height of the Cold War, she wonders if her own government is to blame.

In the mid-1950s, and again a decade later, the Army used motorized blowers atop a low-income housing high-rise, at schools and from the backs of station wagons to send a potentially dangerous compound into the already-hazy air in predominantly black areas of St. Louis.

Local officials were told at the time that the government was testing a smoke screen that could shield St. Louis from aerial observation in case the Russians attacked.

But in 1994, the government said the tests were part of a biological weapons program and St. Louis was chosen because it bore some resemblance to Russian cities that the U.S. might attack. The material being sprayed was zinc cadmium sulfide, a fine fluorescent powder.

Now, new research is raising greater concern about the implications of those tests. St. Louis Community College-Meramec sociology professor Lisa Martino-Taylor's research has raised the possibility that the Army performed radiation testing by mixing radioactive particles with the zinc cadmium sulfide, though she concedes there is no direct proof.
As I recall from other articles, one of the objectives of these tests was to determine how well nerve gas would disperse and penetrate living spaces in the event of a US attack on the Soviet Union, but the link only mentions biological weapons.

But St. Louis was also the subject of tests using an explicitly biological agent; from a now dead PBS link:
The St Jo Program and Large Area Concept
The success of the first field tests only increased demand for more experiments. In response to an Air Force request, in 1953 the Chemical Corps created the St Jo Program and operatives staged mock anthrax attacks on St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Winnipeg. The bacteria were released from generators placed on top of cars, and local governments were told that “invisible smokescreen[s]” were being deployed to mask the city on enemy radar. The next stage was to increase dispersal patterns, dispensing particles from airplanes to find out how wide of an area they would affect. The first Large Area Concept experiment, in 1957, involved dispersing microorganisms over a swath from South Dakota to Minnesota; monitoring revealed that some of the particles eventually traveled some 1200 miles away. Further tests covered areas from Ohio to Texas and Michigan to Kansas. In the Army’s words, these experiments “proved the feasibility of covering large areas of the country with [biological weapons] agents.”

Airports and Subways
Serratia marcescens bacteria. Open-air testing continued through the 1960s, with the Special Operations Division operatives simulating even more audacious assaults. In 1965 they spread bacteria throughout Washington’s National Airport; a year later, agents dropped light bulbs filled with organisms onto the tracks in New York’s subway system. “I think it spread pretty good,” participant Wally Pannier later said, “because you had a natural aerosol developed every few minutes from every train that went past.” President Nixon’s 1969 termination of the United States offensive biological weapons program brought an end to the open-air testing, but the American public did not learn of this testing until 1977.
posted by jamjam at 2:17 PM on July 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ah, salvia, if you're not singling out nuclear, then I think we agree. Concerns are completely appropriate, but they're appropriate with any large scale operation, be it chemical production or coal extraction or any of the things that have resulted in a superfund site somewhere (or haven't, and should have).

Negative externalities are real, and there's little incentive for corporations to care. Particularly when those corporations complete regulatory capture.

It's kind of boring and a little wonky, but regulatory capture is one of the things I'm most scared of in this current administration. Partially because I've always been worried about it, and the increasing corporatization of our government (hello, Citizens fucking United) feels like the temperature has been rising for quite some time.

And honestly additionally because the regulatory capture makes it harder for us to have nice things-- vaccines, nuclear power, maybe even GMOs done in a responsible way. Couple this with the racism and classism in who is affected by the capture, and I think it's one of the biggest problems modern democracies face.
posted by nat at 2:22 PM on July 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

As I recall from other articles, one of the objectives of these tests was to determine how well nerve gas would disperse and penetrate living spaces in the event of a US attack on the Soviet Union, but the link only mentions biological weapons.

But St. Louis was also the subject of tests using an explicitly biological agent;

Nerve gases aren't biological weapons, though; they're chemical weapons. A biological weapon would be a material carrying a bacteria or a virus or something else infectious like that.
posted by XMLicious at 2:32 PM on July 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oops, sorry, re-reading it's apparent that you understand that.
posted by XMLicious at 2:33 PM on July 16, 2017

Well put, nat.
posted by salvia at 2:37 PM on July 16, 2017

Great post. Led me down a rabbit hole of learning more about the Superfund....and reading the National Priority List for site cleanup. Came in to express surprise about just how many sites there are in the Silicon Valley area (which actually isn't a surprise when I thought about how nasty semiconductor manufacturing is). But always fun to work out you lived a few blocks away from one for a while. And then I saw New Jersey's list for a comparatively much smaller state.....oh my.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 5:38 PM on July 16, 2017

Also this map of US Toxic Waste sites is pretty amazing
posted by inflatablekiwi at 5:44 PM on July 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

Nuclear power - the gift that keeps on giving.

It's fascinating that just about any criticism of nuclear power as a technology gets treated as an endorsement of other equally polluting technologies. As if one can't rationally distinguish from the other! Or that nuclear power and weapons development were ever separate goals for the United States. Or that any significantly less-polluting alternatives exist (knowledge which better, smarter countries have acquired and are implementing aggressively, more or less).

It's frustrating to see the lies over and over again, but the ones who get sickened and die generally are poor or powerless, having little or no influence in political outcomes, anyway, so saying anything against it in this country ends up being largely an exercise in futility.

In the end, for modern Americans, not living next to a toxic waste dump ends up being a matter of who you know, how much money you have, how much racial animus still dominates your local politics, etc. and so on.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 9:00 PM on July 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the map, inflatablekiwi. Now I know that my city has a Superfund site, and other family members live near one, too.

I think we could all use a picture of a puppy enjoying an ice cream cone.
posted by bryon at 1:44 AM on July 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

That map is not by any means comprehensive. It's missing at least three designated sites near me.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:12 AM on July 17, 2017

The problem with a bare list of Superfund sites is that most of them aren't presently particularly dangerous to people not directly on the property because whatever hazmat is in place is immobile, there's just nobody to take responsibility for the stuff and properly dispose of it, thus leaving it to the EPA. (There are a few really nasty sites in/near Tulsa, to pick on example, but 9/10 of the listed locations are former dry cleaners and stuff like that where there are small, but unknown, quantities of toxic materials that are reasonably well contained for the moment)

Then there are places like Tar Creek where heavy metals are literally giving 90+% of the people in a town lead poisoning. Lead poisoning bad enough to impact cognition enough that many people refused to leave. Cancer is shitty and scary, but even in clusters caused by low level leaching of Uranium and Thorium (which aren't terribly radioactive, by the way, long half life means little radiation), it doesn't have nearly the impact that piles of lead being blown about in the wind does.

Even reasonably well funded, the EPA will always disappoint people. No matter how bad a particular situation is, there is almost always something worse competing for cleanup dollars, whether that be chat piles in Oklahoma, arsenic in Arkansas, fissile materials (or dioxin) in Missouri, or a gigantic pool of acid mine drainage toxic enough to kill birds in minutes in Montana.

As a country, we have long let companies establish subsidiaries to operate mines, hazmat sites, etc, without taking long term responsibility for the environmental impacts, and we're paying for it now with a hundred slow motion tragedies all vying for money to contain the threat, all trying to get to the head of the list.
posted by wierdo at 1:43 PM on July 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

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