The Fallout via Guernica

In St. Louis, America’s nuclear history creeps into the present, leaching into streams and bodies


Her youngest son was napping when the phone rang. Dawn was sitting on the top bunk in his bedroom folding laundry. The man on the phone introduced himself as Joe Trunko from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Joe spoke gently, slowly. He told Dawn that there is a landfill near her home, that it is an EPA Superfund site contaminated with toxic chemicals, that there has been an underground fire burning there since 2010. “These things happen sometimes in landfills,” he said. “But this one is really not good.”

Joe told Dawn that this landfill fire measures six football fields across and more than a hundred and fifty feet deep; it is in the floodplain of the Missouri River, less than two miles from the water itself, roughly twenty-seven miles upstream from where the Missouri River joins the Mississippi River before flowing out to the sea. “But to be honest, it’s not even the fire you should be worrying about,” Joe continued. “It’s the nuclear waste buried less than one thousand feet away.”

Joe explained how almost fifty thousand tons of nuclear waste left over from the Manhattan Project was dumped in the landfill illegally in 1973. He explained, so gently, that Dawn should be concerned that the fire and the waste would meet and that there would be some kind of “event.”

“Why isn’t this in the news?” Dawn asked.

“You know, Mrs. Chapman, that’s a really good question.”

As soon as she hung up the phone, Dawn picked it up again to call her husband; he thought someone must be making a mistake. “Dawn, this is the United States of America,” her husband said. “The government doesn’t just leave radioactive waste lying around.”

Dawn agreed, there must be some mistake. “They wouldn’t do that. Our government would never do that.”

She called the regional office of the EPA to ask about the status of this Superfund site, and when they returned her call, days later, they knew surprisingly little about the fire, Dawn thought. In fact, they wouldn’t even call it a fire, but kept using the term “subsurface smoldering event,” and shared almost no information about what they called the “radiologically impacted material.” They told Dawn it wasn’t dangerous, that the landfill wasn’t accessible to the public anyway. But Dawn had studied the documents Joe had emailed her after their call, so she knew there was more to the story. Joe had even called the next day to make sure she’d received all the files. That made her feel more worried than anything else. “It’s like he wanted this information to get out,” she told me. “Like he was waiting for someone to call and ask.”


Karen Nickel didn’t know much about the landfill—she’d only just learned about it a few weeks before—but she knew about the waste. Unlike Dawn, she’d grown up in North St. Louis County, and this waste had been here—making her neighbors sick—since before she was born. Karen was nine years old when her parents moved to North County in 1973 in pursuit of good schools, safe neighborhoods, and a big yard for all the children. Her father worked in the lumberyards and her mother stayed home to care for Karen and her siblings.


Karen went to a new doctor, who told her that there’s increasing consensus that lupus can be brought on by environmental triggers, including exposure to contaminants and chemicals, like cigarette smoke, silica, and mercury. In particular, he said, recent studies have shown a link between lupus and uranium exposure. That night over dinner Karen’s husband asked if she remembered a story on the news from a few months before about the creek that ran through her neighborhood. She remembered only vaguely. “Well, it was something about uranium contamination,” he said, looking up from his plate.

“And?” she said.

“And, well, maybe you should look into that.”

Karen did look into it and learned that many of her classmates and neighbors and childhood friends had died of leukemias and brain cancers and appendix cancers—rare in the general population, but, again, apparently common among those who live or had lived near the creek. It couldn’t possibly be a coincidence.


Soon after, Karen and Dawn, along with another resident, Beth Strohmeyer, officially formed Just Moms STL, an advocacy group that hosts monthly community meetings, to update their neighbors and community on the progress of their collective efforts. They learned that many of their neighbors near the landfill had developed respiratory diseases and chronic nosebleeds, and some had lost all the hair on their bodies. When they asked the EPA about these illnesses, officials refused to acknowledge any link, or entertain the possibility that the “exothermic reaction” might be causing them. Their scientists had studied the site, they kept saying, and concluded that there was nothing dangerous happening at the landfill, that there is no disaster approaching, that the landfill poses no threat.


At first, the Manhattan Project didn’t have a name; it consisted of a loose affiliation of military personnel, politicians, and scientists linked together by special government committees. Arthur Holly Compton—the Nobel-winning physicist leading the team working on fission at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago—was on one of these special committees. At that time, the idea of a self-sustaining uranium fission chain reaction was still purely theoretical. To prove it was possible, his team needed forty tons of uranium, and they needed it urgently. Rumors had been circulating that the Germans were two years ahead of the Allies in the race for the bomb. This brought Compton to St. Louis, to Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, where he convinced his old friend Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr., to enlist his chemists in the secret government project over a gentlemen’s lunch.

The uranium ore, several thousand pounds of it, arrived at Mallinckrodt in hundreds of containers of various shapes and sizes ranging from large wooden crates to one-gallon paint cans. The twenty-four workers in the new uranium division at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works labored around the clock to process the uranium. Within a month of that gentlemen’s lunch, they began sending the purified uranium back to Compton’s lab in Chicago. Within three months, they were sending a ton a day.


She asks if I’d like to see her basement. “Most people do,” she adds. We climb down a set of steep stairs and she flips a switch, illuminating an overhead fluorescent light. “LED,” she corrects me, even as I think it. Four-drawer file cabinets line two walls, all meticulously indexed and cross-indexed in an ancient oak card catalog that sits in the center of the room. Thousands of documents are housed here, and she knows exactly where to find any given report. “In St. Louis we have the oldest nuclear waste in the country,” she observes, “because we purified all of the uranium that went into the world’s first self-sustaining chain reaction.”


Thorium and uranium in particular are among the radioactive primordial nuclides, radioactive elements that have existed in their current form since before Earth was formed, since before the formation of the solar system even, and will remain radioactive and toxic to life long after humans are gone. We’re sitting back in Kay’s dining room when she pulls out a tiny booklet labeled “Nuclear Wallet Cards.” What its intended purpose is, I don’t know, but Kay flips to the back to show me the half-life of Thorium 232: fourteen billion years, a half-life so long that by the time this element is safe for human exposure, the Appalachian Mountains will have eroded away, every ocean on Earth’s surface will have evaporated, Antarctica will be free of ice, and all the rings of Saturn will have decayed. Earth’s rotation will have slowed so much that days will have become twenty-five hours long, photosynthesis will have ceased, and multicellular life will have become a physical impossibility.

Read more at The Fallout 

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