St. Louis burning: What killed the babies near Weldon Spring?

by @RyanSchuessler1 April 30, 2015 5:00AM ET

State health studies did little to ease residents’, activists’ concerns about potential radiation exposure in metro area

The grave of an infant who died in 2010 in the cemetery of Immaculate Conception Parish of Dardenne.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

This is part two of a three-part series investigating the effects of radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project on St. Louis and its suburbs. Part one examined the health problems experienced by those who lived near Coldwater Creek. Part three explores the potential danger of an underground landfill fire moving toward a toxic waste site.

DARDENNE PRAIRIE, Mo. — On a Saturday afternoon in late February at the Immaculate Conception Parish of Dardenne, a fresh snow was falling on the graves of more than a dozen infant-sized tombstones. The church bells tolled, signaling the beginning of Mass as parishioners walked briskly through the cold.

It was at this Roman Catholic parish where, some 15 years ago, the small congregation’s streak of infant deaths caught the attention of locals and media, both of whom drew connections to the area’s atomic history that left groundwater in the area contaminated with uranium.

But the state of Missouri said nothing was out of the ordinary. A health study published by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in 2001 determined that St. Charles County did not have a statistically significant higher rate of infant deaths. The issue largely fell away from the public’s eye, but many are still not satisfied with the answer they got all those years ago, saying the local cluster was diluted into regional statistics — a critique that has become common when it comes to the state’s health studies near St. Louis-area contaminated sites.

“It was never resolved,” said Gerry Kleba, who served as the parish’s priest in 2000 and 2001. In those two years in Dardenne Prairie, Kleba said he buried more infants than he had in his entire run as a priest.

The Weldon Spring site

Gerry Kleba has been parish priest in Dardenne Prairie for two years.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

“I found myself wondering, why was I in this affluent, well-educated part of St. Louis that seemed to experience a higher level of infant illness and death than I had ever seen in poor neighborhoods?” Kleba said.

“I’d never buried seven infants in 35 years,” he added. “Then I buried seven infants in two years.”

To Kleba, it did not seem like a coincidence that radioactive and chemical waste had seeped into the groundwater near his parish.

In the 1940s, the U.S. military acquired some 17,000 acres of land in St. Charles County, depopulating and demolishing three towns and building an explosives plant that later became a uranium processing plant. The waste was thrown into an old limestone quarry and is known to have contaminated the groundwater, according to U.S. Department of Energy data.

After the site was decommissioned, the 17,000 acres were parceled up — the military retained ownership of some, while some of it became a nature reserve. A few acres even became a high school.

The site was left untouched until 1988, when the Department of Energy began decontamination and cleanup efforts, resulting in nearly 1.5 million cubic yards of waste being stored in a 45-acre, pyramid-like “disposal cell,” now open to the public. Construction of the disposal cell was completed in 2001.

Most of the waste that had been dumped in the quarry — along with the contaminated water in it — was moved to the cell, but groundwater tests show areas are still contaminated.

Activist Kay Drey in her home office.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America
Kay Drey keeps voluminous files on nuclear waste and its effects.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

“I’m concerned about what’s still in the quarry,” said Kay Drey, an anti-nuclear activist in St. Louis who has been vocal against nuclear development since the 1970s. “The quarry is limestone, so that means it’s full of holes.”

“During the course of that investigation, it became obvious to me that there was a serious problem related to the impacted groundwater that had uranium in it,” said Daniel McKeel, a retired Washington University pathologist who was involved in investigating contamination-related health effects in St. Charles County in the early 2000s. “It had thorium in it, and that was particularly prevalent at the quarry site which is about six-tenths of a mile from part of where St. Charles County gets its drinking water.”

He added: “There was definite evidence, no doubt about it.”

The Weldon Spring Site remains under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy, which continues to conduct surface and groundwater tests throughout the area. Some samples at Department of Energy sampling wells continue to test positive for thorium and uranium, in some cases more than 15 times the maximum contamination level for public drinking water set by the EPA.

Thorium and uranium are naturally occurring radioactive metals. Uranium ore was brought from the Belgian Congo to St. Louis during World War Two to be processed in order to develop the first atomic weapons. The waste from that process — forms of thorium and uranium — were discarded throughout the region. Exposure to radioactive materials has been known to cause cancer, among other health effects, including autoimmune diseases, birth defects and infertility.

The site is just over a mile from the well fields that provide the drinking water for the entire county. The water drawn in those wells is routinely tested, but other potential pathways of exposure remained before cleanup began, including stories of young people jumping the fence and swimming in the contaminated quarry.

“I think it’s irresponsible for people to be ignoring this,” Drey said.

The disposal cell at Weldon Spring contains 1.5 million cubic yards of radioactive waste. It is open to the public.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

Inconclusive state health studies

The state conducted a study in 2001, responding to increased pressure during the string of infant deaths in Dardenne Prairie, but the data showed no statistically significant rates of infant death in the area.

The problem, critics such as McKeel and Kleba said, is that the study’s design diluted the string of infant deaths into regional data, making the amount seem statistically insignificant. Between October 1999 and October 2000, the Riverfront Times reported, seven of the eight deaths were children at Kleba’s church, all of whom lived near Dardenne Creek.

“The further you reach out, the more you dilute [the clusters,]” Kleba said, acknowledging that he is not a trained statistician.

Denise DeGarmo, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, agreed with Kleba. She has analyzed the data used in that study, and came to a similar conclusion.

“I think it was too broad,” DeGarmo said. “I don’t think they were testing in the right way.”

She added: “In my opinion, you don’t need a huge cluster. You shouldn’t have to rely on a huge cluster to investigate these instances. Period.”

Since that study, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has conducted further studies on infant deaths as well as new investigations into leukemia rates in St. Charles County. It has continuously maintained there is no statistical evidence that there are adverse health effects associated with the Weldon Spring Site.

Bob Criss, a geochemist at Washington University in St. Louis, criticized the methodology of a 2012 state study looking at leukemia rates in St. Charles County. His critique mirrored those of the studies more than 10 years prior: the sample size is too large. If there is a cancer cluster, it’s going to get lost in the data.

“You’re never going to get anything statistically relevant with that kind of study,” Criss said. “There’s no way to pinpoint anything with a broad-brushed approach like that.”

Criticism extends to other sites

The nuns of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary hold a vigil twice a month to draw attention to the presence of radioactive waste in the St. Louis area.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

It’s not just the studies of St. Charles County sites that have frustrated residents. Similar findings near other sites in St. Louis County have done little to ease the fears of current and former residents such as Jenell Wright and Angela Helbling.

Wright and Helbling used to live in North St. Louis County, where hundreds of thousands of tons of nuclear weapons waste contaminated a 20-mile long creek that flowed through residential areas before emptying into the Missouri River. In recent years, residents have come together, pointing to anecdotal evidence that suggests higher rates of cancers, infertility, and autoimmune diseases in areas adjacent to contaminated sites in St. Louis County.

But proving causation isn’t easy — it may not even be possible. Faisal Khan, Director of the St. Louis County Department of Health said the biggest challenge — from a scientific standpoint — is determining whether the higher rates of cancers such as those found in North St. Louis County are a direct result of the contamination, simply a coincidence, or potentially related to other factors.

“Establishing causation or attributing cause is a very, very difficult thing to do,” Khan said. “My message to our staff is to remain true to the science, to remain true to the scientific method, and at the same time share that information [with residents.]”

One in three people is expected to develop cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society.

Residents such as Wright and Helbling have criticized the state’s methodologies when conducting health studies near Missouri’s nuclear waste sites, just as Kleba and others criticized those in St. Charles County.

“The studies are completely uninformative,” Wright said. “From a statistical standpoint, they’re worthless.”

Data used to look at cancer rates comes from the Missouri Cancer Registry, which was legally established in 1984 and organizes data based on the ZIP code in which the patient lives at the time of the diagnosis. Many from the generation with the longest exposure to Coldwater Creek — including Wright and Helbling — grew up and moved away. If they were diagnosed elsewhere, their cancers are not included in the data set used to analyze cancer rates near contaminated sites.

“The fundamental issue that’s going on here is the residential movement,” said Diane Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University who is also from North St. Louis County. “In no case have they been able to do a study that accounts for that. I completely understand why — the data aren’t there, they’re going to have to do a whole different design. And you can’t do that with the data that currently exist.”

Data collected from death certificates can also be misleading. For example, Helbling’s mother died due to pneumonia, which was listed as the official cause of death. The brain cancer she also had at the time was not listed, and therefore the cancer may never make it into a data set looking at cancer rates based on cause of death.

Wright said the state’s results never eased residents’ fears, and many were frustrated with what they saw as inaction or denial on the part of the state.

“I think it makes us panic more because it looks like they’re trying to cover it up,” Wright said of the state and its studies.

Kay Drey in her home office.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

A change in tune

However, in an unexpected turn, a 2014 Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services study did indeed find higher rates of cancers in ZIP codes near known contaminated sites in St. Louis County, and the state promptly requested help from the Center for Disease Control to conducted further studies in the area.

Wright, Helbling, and others have expressed shock that the state health study still turned up higher rates of cancers, regardless of the exclusion of those who were exposed for many decades before moving out of the area before being diagnosed with cancer, which removes them from the state’s data set.

“In light of public concerns, the extent of past contamination, and the findings of the cancer inquiry, [the Department of Health] believes that the potential public health impacts of radiological contamination at [St. Louis sites] deserve further evaluation,” Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director Gail Vasterling wrote in a letter to the CDC.

It appears that the 2014 study has changed the state’s tune on the presence of the waste in St. Louis. A letter the state Department of Natural Resources sent to the Army Corps of Engineers after the study was released described the situation as “urgent.”

“The potential exposure and movement of contaminated materials is of grave concern to the State of Missouri,” the letter said.

The state and county are proposing in-depth studies that would take account of any methodological flaws that have turned up inconclusive results. However, Schanzenbach said such a study would take years and be very expensive.

“How much do we prioritize that [study,] versus, “let’s clean some stuff up?,” Schanzenbach said. “That’s a real conversation that people should be having.”

“I think the extent of the contamination is beyond our ability to imagine it,” said DeGarmo, who has analyzed thousands of pages of documents from the Manhattan Project. “I think it’s much greater than we even have the ability to cognitively think about. The stuff doesn’t stay stable, and nobody was taking care of it. It was sitting out in the open, it leaked into the water, it leaked into the soil, it was blowing around in the wind. If they’re still cleaning it up today, if they’re still remediating and cleaning, and cleaning, and cleaning, it just means they still don’t have a good idea of how far the stuff went.”

She added: “And I think, ultimately, that everyone in St. Louis is in some way exposed.”