by Roland Klose, January 18, 2023
As Morice writes in “Nuked: Echoes of the Hiroshima Bomb in St. Louis,” the common thread that appeared to link these illnesses and deaths was Coldwater Creek, the 19-mile Missouri River tributary that starts at a spring-fed lake in Overland and winds through North County, including near her family’s former Florissant home.
The creek, as readers of the Post-Dispatch know, was contaminated by radioactive waste produced by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works. The St. Louis company was tasked with refining uranium ore for the wartime Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Mallinckrodt initially did the top-secret work at its Destrehan Street plant north of downtown St. Louis, storing the waste on-site. But beginning in 1946, the waste was trucked to a 21.74-acre property north of the city-owned airport in north St. Louis County, where it was piled next to Wabash Railroad tracks. In 1966, some of it was moved a half-mile away to a Latty Avenue site in Hazelwood. (In 1973, about 8,700 tons of barium sulfate waste at the Latty site — containing a low concentration of uranium — was mixed with about 39,000 tons of topsoil and dumped at West Lake Landfill, something the Post-Dispatch first reported in 1976.)
Morice pushes the story further, looking at how local government fragmentation played a role in limiting the response, how building and environmental practices at the time contributed, and how government and corporate secrecy and lies kept the public in the dark. She also takes note of the demographic changes in North County that have seen new residents moving into areas with old problems — and not being told of the potential risks.
History of radioactive waste at airport, related sites
In 2000, Post-Dispatch reporter Virginia Gilbert reported on the removal of radioactive waste at the airport. This timeline accompanied the story.
1942 • Mallinckrodt begins processing uranium to make the first atomic bomb.
1946 • U.S. government acquires a corner of airport property and begins dumping radioactive wastes there.
1948-1952 • Mallinckrodt decontaminates two plants in its north downtown facility, trucking much of the waste and debris to the airport site.
1957 • Mallinckrodt moves uranium processing from north downtown site to Weldon Spring. The company continues to take waste to the airport site.
1958-1962 • Mallinckrodt contracts with Dow Metal Products, a division of Dow Chemical Co., to straighten some uranium rods at Dow’s plant in Madison, Illinois.
1966 • Mallinckrodt stops uranium processing in the St. Louis area. The Atomic Energy Commission demolishes the buildings on the airport site and buries them, along with at least one contaminated vehicle. Continental Mining and Milling Co. buys some residues to try to recover more uranium. The company moves the waste to 9200 Latty Avenue for storage and shipment to the Cotter Corp. in Cañon City, Colorado.
1966-1969 • After foreclosure, Cotter ends up owning property and buys the rest of the residues. It dries and ships some tailings to Cañon City. Federal authorities say improper handling by Cotter pollutes north St. Louis County roads.
1973 • Cotter mixes leached barium sulfate with dirt at the Latty Avenue site and takes it to West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton. The barium sulfate had been used to recover uranium and contained uranium residue.
1974-1977 • The federal government promises to clean up nuclear pollution around the nation. Congress sets up various agencies to do the job, with the cleanup assignment eventually going to the newly created Department of Energy.
1979 • Jarboe Realty, owner of the Latty Avenue site, moves 13,000 cubic yards from the western half of the site into storage on the eastern half — now known as the Hazelwood Interim Storage Site. Jarboe builds a manufacturing facility for Futura Coatings Inc. on the western portion.
1984 • Department of Energy performs “remedial actions” at Latty Avenue, creating 14,000 cubic yards of additional waste to be stored onsite.
1986 • Department of Energy works with municipal governments of Berkeley and Hazelwood to remove 4,600 cubic yards of contaminated waste during road and drainage improvement projects and takes it to Latty Avenue.
1989 • Congress places the airport site and the Latty Avenue sites on a priority list for environmental cleanup.
1990 • The Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency reach an agreement on assigning responsibilities for cleanup of St. Louis sites.
1995 • Energy Department begins shipping radioactive wastes to a disposal facility in Utah that is run by Envirocare. First to go is 9,500 cubic yards of waste removed from the Mallinckrodt site north of downtown.
1996 • Energy Department agrees to remove wastes from the airport and related sites instead of building a storage bunker onsite.
1997 • Energy Department digs up 7,000 cubic yards of wastes on the west end of the airport site and ships it to Utah. Congress transfers cleanup duties to the Army Corps of Engineers.
1998 • The corps moves 24,000 cubic yards of waste from airport, downtown and Latty Avenue sites to Utah.
1999 • The corps moves 50,000 cubic yards of waste from the sites to Utah.
2000 • The corps continues cleanup work. Workers begin to scrape dirt from the radium pits at the airport site to ship to Utah.