Building a Mountain of Radioactive Waste
The second of a seven-part series appearing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch February 12-19th, 1989. By – Carolyn Bower, Louis J. Rose and Theresa Tighe of the Post Dispatch Staff. Pictures include those from the original story as well as others that we were able to find when relevant.
In the summer of 1966, Leo Vasquez, 13, and his friends run out and pick up the yellow dirt that falls from trucks lumbering past his family’s farmhouse north of Lambert Field. The youngsters take the dirt and swirl it in water. They are panning for gold. Every six minutes or so, a truck rumbles east on Frost Avenue headed for Latty Avenue from an airport waste dump. The boys are determined to get rich. Despite all their efforts, they wind up with nothing. Unknown to the boys, they are panning waste from uranium processing that resulted in America’s first atomic bomb. Shortly after World War II ended in 1945, representatives of the federal government were looking for a place to store radioactive waste generated at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis. They wanted a place that was accessible, free from floods and sparsely populated. The government settled on property north of Lambert Field, even though the western third of the land was in the floodplain of Coldwater Creek. The landfill was top secret. Drivers hauling waste there were not told what they were transporting. For the first three months of operation, the government didn’t even own the land. When the government filed suit to acquire the 21.7-acre property, federal and Mallinckrodt officials refused ”for security reasons” to disclose the exact nature of the waste. Officials said the residue was neither radioactive nor dangerous. At the time, information about nuclear operations was classified. The United States was trying to preserve its lead over the Soviet Union in the development of atomic weapons. For the next decade, Tom Green and four other independent truck drivers together hauled about 18,700 tons of uranium residue to the airport dump each year, Green later recalled. Green and two other drivers hauled at least 5,000 tons each a year; the other two hauled much less. Each load weighed between 8 and 9 tons. Green, a Navy veteran of World War II, worked six or seven days a week. His health and exposure to radiation were never monitored. Years passed without a vacation. His son, Mike, remembers that his father was too busy hauling the waste to come watch him play Khoury League ball. Some of the residue Green hauled was from ore that originated in the Belgian Congo. He called it pitchblende, ”the richest dirt in the world.” By the time the residue got to Green’s truck, much of the uranium was gone, leaving high concentrations of radium, another highly radioactive substance. Many times at the airport site, the pitchblende waste would stick to Green’s shoes. When a worker held a Geiger counter to measure the radioactivity in Green’s truck, the instrument’s needle ”would jump all over the place,” he told his family. In the winter when it snowed, the waste would turn into a quagmire. Green’s truck would slip and slide; sometimes he had to push it from the muck. Friends said Green never feared the radioactive material during the 12 years that he hauled it. But after he got cancer, he said the job might have cost him his life. Green died on June 8, 1979, at the age of 63. His death certificate attributes the cause to cancer of both lungs. Green smoked cigarettes for most of his life; he stopped several years before his death. The place where Green dumped the waste turned from a green and brown patchwork of farm fields into a moonlike world. A huge yellow mountain, the remnants of Colorado ore, rose from flat land on its western boundary. A chocolate brown peak, the residue of ore from around the world, stood to the east. Row after row of rusty 30-gallon and 55-gallon black drums stretched as far as the eye could see from Brown Road, now McDonnell Boulevard, to Banshee Road.
Workers from Mallinckrodt tooled around the site on bulldozers and trucks, reshaping the earth to make room for more waste, and they hand-packed radioactive residue in drums. Richard F. Schroeder, now 63,(7.11.25) said it was fun making mountains, moving them, carving out mesas and roads. ”That’s why I never minded going to work,” Schroeder said. ”Everything was so interesting.” Sometimes the workers drove their cars on top of the piles to watch the planes fly in and out of Lambert Field to the south. The mounds, perhaps 40 feet tall, were so high the workers could feel the heat from the aircraft engines. Schroeder remembers selling drums that had contained uranium ore to merchants, who would resell them. Bruno Bevolo tells about the day they buried the pickup truck. ”An AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) man came out and said the truck was too hot, don’t use it anymore, bury it,” said Bevolo, a foreman at the airport. ”We got a backhoe and dug a hole right there. They wouldn’t let anybody have it. I said, ‘That’s too bad.’ I could have used a truck.” Bevolo, now 72, said it bothered him that the trucks tracked muddy residue along McDonnell Boulevard and that when the drivers washed out the trucks, the residue overflowed into Coldwater Creek. ”I bitched like hell,” Bevolo said. ”I told them, ‘You people are messing up the creeks.’ All they kept saying was, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ ” Bevolo and Schroeder, who often play golf together now, tried to keep the radioactive material from spreading. Before dumping truckloads of waste in railroad cars headed for reprocessing plants in other cities, Schroeder would line the cars with wax paper and stuff rags in the holes. Then he’d wet the dirt to keep the dust down. ”I always hoped somewhere along the route someone would wet the stuff down again,” Schroeder said. He was never told where the material went. There wasn’t anything the workers could do about the wind that blew the powdery residue toward a cornfield that later became the Berkeley ballfields. Bevolo said: ”I saw them putting in those ballfields right next to the place. I said, ‘That’s too close.’ But they said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ ” Last year, federal officials confirmed that the ballfields contain radioactive contamination. They have said, however, that the ballfield area poses a hazard only if someone eats the dirt. The city of Berkeley closed the fields last April 19;1988 they remain closed. In the summer of 1966, the trucks were rolling again, this time hauling waste from the airport to an industrial park on Latty Avenue about a mile to the north. A Los Angeles firm, Continental Mining & Milling Co., bought the material in an effort to recover valuable minerals such as copper and cobalt. Workers for companies along Latty Avenue remember the caravan. ”The dirt would fall off the trucks,” said Skip Cothran, now 59, who drove a forklift for Wagner Electric Co. at the time. ”There was waste all over Hazelwood and Latty (avenues). Sometimes if it rained, the stuff got so thick and sticky it looked like cow manure.” Velma Vasquez, mother of one of the boys who had played with the radioactive dirt, didn’t think much about the dirt falling from the trucks. ”Nobody considered it as radioactive,” said Vasquez, now 63. But today her yard may be part of a cleanup. Last fall, Bechtel National Inc. completed drilling holes up to 100 feet into her property to see how far the contamination spread.
Less than a month after Continental Mining & Milling Co. moved the dirt, the company went bankrupt. Several years later Cotter Corp., a subsidiary of Commonwealth Edison, a utility based in Chicago, bought the residue and over the years shipped most of it to its plant in Canon City, Colo. But enough thorium, uranium and radium seeped into the ground and remained in the buildings that the property remains contaminated. Berkeley police Maj. Louis Charboneau – then a patrolman – moonlighted about 40 hours a week between 1967 and 1971 as a private security guard at the Latty site. Security officers like Charboneau wore no badges to detect exposure to radiation. Charboneau, 54, knows that scores of neighborhood children played in the sandy piles of radioactive material on Latty Avenue. But he doesn’t think the children were harmed because he thinks he has spent more time there than they did, and he thinks the radiation hasn’t affected him. Three of the children were the sons of Ceil and Jim Bogowith. With their dogs and bows and arrows and BB guns, the boys, then ages 8 to 15, played off and on from 1966 until the early 1970s around the piles of dirt and in the creek. Ceil Bogowith said she wasn’t aware that the radioactive material at Latty Avenue could be a problem until she heard environmentalists discuss the dangers at a meeting in Florissant in 1979. ”I was quite angry,” she said. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission arranged for Kenneth Bogowith and Richard O’Brien – the two boys who had played at Latty Avenue the most – to fly to Oak Ridge, Tenn., for tests. The families were told that the boys were fine. But federal officials cautioned that they were unable to determine whether the boys had inhaled radon. Radon gas, which has been linked to cancer, is present at the site. Kenneth Bogowith, now 25, joined the Navy and worked on nuclear submarines. He says he has no qualms about his health. His mother says she has come to accept the situation, but she is not happy about it. O’Brien, now 24, is not worried about his health, family members say. In the meantime, in 1973, radioactive material had secretly been trucked to Bridgeton from Latty Avenue. A St. Ann company had a contract to dry the waste at Latty Avenue and send it to Cotter Corp. in Colorado. Instead, the firm, B&K Construction Co., working with four other trucking firms, hauled 8,700 tons to West Lake landfill. It wasn’t until three years later – when an anonymous source tipped a Post-Dispatch reporter – that the unauthorized dumping came to federal attention. After 15 years, uranium, radium and thorium have seeped through the landfill to nearby property. Experts think there may be 170,000 cubic yards of contaminated material in the landfill now. No one knows for sure.
Several years ago, West Lake employees called Gilbert Schroeder, a farmer from Hazelwood, and told him that people might test for radioactive contamination on land he farms west of the landfill. Schroeder has grown soybeans there for 10 years. Soybeans grown in a contaminated area would have radiation levels higher than background radiation, but they would not endanger health, federal officials say. In the mid-1970s, Herb Thies, who has farmed in the area for decades, was trying to grow crops at the Latty Avenue site. His efforts failed. ”That land just wouldn’t grow anything,” said Thies, 58. ”I put in soybeans. I planted early in the spring, and, after May and June, there was nothing to harvest. ”The outer edges worked, but the middle – it was dead dirt. It never came out right.” Thies was allowed to farm the land because the Atomic Energy Commission had declared it clean in 1974. Two years later, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a successor to the AEC, said the Latty site remained contaminated. The Health and Safety Research Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory also found excessive radioactivity. But nobody told E. Dean Jarboe. In 1977, Jarboe, whom associates consider a shrewd businessman, paid $115,000 for 3.5 acres of property in the 9000 block of Latty Avenue. He made it headquarters for his plastic-coatings business. Three days after closing the deal on the property, Jarboe learned from federal officials that his property was contaminated. ”I watched one guy come in the door, and then two and then three, and I said, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” Jarboe, 62, recalled in an interview at his Futura Coatings office. ”About nine of them came in. We all sat down and they said, ‘You can’t use that property.’ ” The officials told him it was contaminated with radioactive waste. ”I was shocked,” continued Jarboe, who turns 63 this week ”I mean I had no idea. I wouldn’t have bought this.” Jarboe and his sons spent the next year with other workers digging up contaminated dirt and tearing out radioactive buildings. In 1980, he thought he had the perfect solution to the waste problem and the future of his business. On the theory that the government would have all the waste cleaned up and shipped away from Latty Avenue in two years, Jarboe paid about $100,000 for about seven more acres of contaminated property. Jarboe thought it was a sweet deal. The government would consolidate all the waste on the new seven-acre parcel next to his business offices. He would get $15,000 from the government to temporarily store the waste there. Once the radioactive material was gone, his business could expand. Nearly a decade later, he’s still waiting. Every morning as he walks into his office, he sees two mounds of radioactive waste looming beside his corporate headquarters. Jarboe employs 85 people in his business of supplying roof coatings, wine-tank coatings and – a new venture – plastic liners for hazardous-waste disposal sites. Sitting in his office at the site, Jarboe reflected on the problem. The government paid him $100,000 for the plastic tarps that cover the radioactive piles on his property, but that’s little consolation. ”Look, I don’t know what I’m going to get out of this except a clean piece of property,” he said, adding: ”I may not even be here when that happens. ”You can’t sue the government. I tried that in the beginning. I couldn’t find anything to sue them for. That’s what my legal staff told me. You can’t do it.” For more information about the Coldwater Creek Contamination Lawsuit, contact TorHoerman Law.