Contamination: How Weldon Springs Went from Model to Mess

 

The fourth 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.

Like an abandoned set from a science-fiction movie, the Weldon Spring complex sits behind a 6-foot wire fence off Missouri Highway 94, two miles southwest of Highway 40.

Rusting steel buildings rise from farmland taken by the government before World War II began for the production of high explosives and later used to process uranium for the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Viewed up close, the 68 buildings show their age. Miles of pipe drip rotting insulation. Steel drums, fork lifts, trucks and other equipment lie rusting in the factory yard. The buildings, equipment, thousands of drums and tons of soil are contaminated with radium, uranium, thorium, nitrates and myriad other chemicals.

It is so contaminated that federal officials require visitors to check in with a guard and, for the most part, stay in federal vehicles while at the site. No one is allowed to walk in certain areas without latex rubber boots and protective clothing.

Bright yellow and purple signs warn of radioactive contamination in and around the buildings.

Several years ago, the Army sprayed thick orange polyurethene foam on some particularly hot equipment in one of the buildings to prevent the spread of contamination.

When the Atomic Energy Commission opened the plant in 1957 to process uranium, the agency proclaimed it a showplace of technology. The complex employed about 1,000 people and attracted visitors from several countries.

One-fourth of the $57 million construction cost went for measures to protect workers from radiation.

Workers called the plant ”The Clean One.” It eliminated many of the processes at the old Mallinckrodt buildings in St. Louis that involved handling uranium by hand.

”The new plant was all automated,” said Paul P. Englert, a resident of St. Charles, who was an operator in the uranium refinery. ”With a dial you could speed up production.”

Hoppers, each holding between 5 and 10 tons of uranium, would dump their contents automatically into 10,000-gallon tanks containing acid as part of the new, improved process of purifying uranium.

From the start, the plant produced beyond its capacity in order to meet the government’s demands. Designed to process 5,000 tons of yellow uranium ore a year, the plant actually averaged 16,000 tons a year from 1958 to 1964.

Englert and other workers remember conserving every precious gram of uranium.

If the material got too hot, the lids on large pots used in one stage of the refining process would blow off, spewing puffs of orange uranium trioxide all over. The workers would wash down the spilled powder and pump the liquid back for further processing.

Even rainwater became a source of uranium. Workers recount how they would capture rain that fell on roofs where uranium dust may have collected. The water was funneled inside the plant so the uranium could be separated out.

Radioactive residue and acids were disposed of by pumping them into several outdoor ponds at the plant, called raffinate pits. Today the ponds cover 25 acres. The mucky residue is 15 feet deep in places.

Pipes were run from the pits to a sewer line. If it rained and the pits filled, any overflow would drain southeast from the plant toward the Missouri River.

Robert J. Toomey, a retired Mallinckrodt employee, remembers when strange-looking frogs began appearing on the banks of the pits.

 

The frogs had bumps on them where bumps shouldn’t have been, Toomey said, adding: ”We didn’t know if it was from the acid or what.”

Many workers didn’t worry about radiation.

Richard F. Schroeder, a retired Mallinckrodt worker, explained their feelings:

”It’s all invisible, right? It’s like standing somewhere and the wind’s blowing. You can feel the wind, but you cannot feel radiation. You don’t know what it’s doing.

”I don’t think any of us at the time worried about it,” said Schroeder, now 63. ”It was just another job.”

Englert remembers when a conveyor belt carrying a 55-gallon drum of uranium ore got jammed. When a worker reached up to get the drum loose, it tipped, spilling its contents on him.

The worker’s superiors wanted to send the man to Oak Ridge, Tenn., for tests and medical treatment, but he refused.

For many workers, the risks of accidents involving sulphuric, hydrofluoric and nitric acids used at the plant caused more anxiety than the threat of radiation. Hydrofluoric acid was a special concern. Some described it as ”fast-acting leprosy.”

Special cards were issued to workers to alert doctors about the acids used at the plant. Employees tell how friends who got acid on their fingers at work later would wake up during the night to find their hands swollen to twice their usual size.

The late Mont Mason, a health physicist at the plant, recalled in an interview last year: ”I had some people who took knives in the middle of the night and split their hands open, they hurt so bad.”

By 1963, the plant started receiving enriched uranium from Oak Ridge, and workers were warned that passing the enriched material over other enriched material could set off an explosion.

The Weldon Spring plant also worked on recovering uranium from waste material shipped from Oak Ridge.

”It came on boxcars in drums,” Englert said. ”It looked like mud. They’d dump it in tanks. It looked like someone had cleaned up a plant and sent us the old sludge.”

Empty drums that once contained uranium residue were collected near the Weldon Spring plant. Workers remember a man coming to inspect the drums. They say he took thousands of them to another site, where he had them pressed into blocks for sale to a junk dealer.

”The drums were supposed to be washed out, but you could see stuff stuck there in them,” said Bruno Bevolo, a retired Mallinckrodt worker.

Late in the summer of 1966, Mallinckrodt officials took workers aside and told them that the Weldon Spring plant was going to close. The AEC contract for processing uranium was being shifted to National Lead Co. in Fernald, Ohio.

It was a bitter blow; Mallinckrodt people had designed the process and had even helped train the people at Fernald.

Workers at Weldon Spring were incensed or heartbroken. Some of the men say they cried when they heard the news.

The workers had become a family. Now some of them would be without jobs.

Company officials say Mallinckrodt got out of the uranium business because the demand for purified uranium had decreased and the government shifted production to the newer plant at Fernald.

But most of the workers insist it was ”politics,” arguing that Ohio’s congressional delegation outmaneuvered the Missouri delegation.

The Atomic Energy Commission ordered Mallinckrodt to place the plant on standby. Mallinckrodt fulfilled its contract and ceased production by the end of 1966.

One of the last 35 men to work in the refinery at Weldon Spring was Paul Englert. ”They cleaned up real good,” he said. ”They washed down the place and wiped it with rags and everything.”

Other parts of the plant looked more like people had left in a hurry.

 

Some environmentalists in St. Charles County suggest an atomic accident might have closed the plant. But workers and company officials say that isn’t the case, and there is no indication of an atomic accident in government records.

Today, the plant is a spooky place. The roofs are falling in, and clumps of mold grow on the floor and walls. But otherwise, it is as if the workers would return tomorrow.

Coffee cups sit on tables in the cafeteria. China and glasses are piled in dishwashers in the kitchen. Hundreds of unused beakers, flasks and test tubes sit in drawers and cabinets in the laboratories. Aspirin, bandages, tongue depressors, blood pressure cups and other medical supplies sit in the infirmary, ready for use.

For 20 years after the 1966 closing, every contractor and every government agency that entered the plant was surprised at the amount of radioactive material that remained.

In 1967 and 1968, representatives of National Lead of Ohio went to the Weldon Spring plant to see what they could salvage for the plant at Fernald.

National Lead was given its pick of contaminated stainless steel pipe, valves, vessels, spare parts and other equipment. A total of 20 rail cars and one truckload of material were shipped to Fernald.

The amount of uranium oxide found after the plant closed defied all previous expectations.

When a worker removed a ventilation pipe, uranium dust began to pour out.

He got a broom and a shovel, and he alternately swept and scooped and poured the dust into barrels.

Twenty barrels of the oxide sweepings were sent to Fernald. Eventually, National Lead recovered $75,000 worth of uranium oxide from the barrels and other steel pipe and equipment.

For several months, workers for the Daniel Hamm Co., a St. Louis subcontractor that helped to load the material for National Lead, lacked protection on the job. They had no badges to measure radiation exposure, no rubber shoes, no gloves and no respirators.

In 1968, during an ill-fated Weldon Spring cleanup attempt conducted by the Army, seven truckloads and 81 rail cars of contaminated material were shipped to David Witherspoon Inc. of Knoxville, Tenn.

The Witherspoon firm planned to decontaminate the equipment to conform with the standards of the day and then reuse it.

One of the laborers collecting materials for shipment to Witherspoon was Roger L. Pryor, now business manager of Laborers Local 660 in St. Charles.

”We put pipes, electric motors, stainless steel tanks in the cars,” Pryor said. ”They weren’t clean. Some of that stuff had that yellow cake in it. All that stuff was hot. Most of it was contaminated.”

During the 1968 cleanup, the government dumped 900 truckloads of radioactively contaminated material into an old quarry, four miles south of the plant.

The quarry already contained rubble from the Army’s manufacture of high explosives – TNT and DNT – in the 1940s.

It also contained tons of radioactively contaminated rubble from Mallinckrodt’s Destrehan Street plant in St. Louis. That material included toilets, mahogany stairs, thousands of drums of thorium and residue from the uranium processed for the first atomic reaction.

During the 1960s, teen-agers had dared each other to swim in the quarry.

Over the decades, warning signs were removed from the quarry area and a chain-link fence surrounding it was torn.

People had little idea of how contaminated the Weldon Spring plant was. The federal government routinely received proposals for its use.

St. Charles County wanted to use part of the plant for a home for low-income elderly people.

The University of Missouri and Francis Howell High School each wanted the complex for classroom space. Fred T. Wilkinson, then Missouri corrections director, wanted to put a maximum-security prison there.

The groups all lost interest when they learned the extent of the contamination.

Army Corps of Engineers security guards frequently caught curious teen-agers trespassing at the plant or stealing Army gas masks and other equipment.

In 1986, employees of the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractors arrived at the plant in 1986 to start a 12-year, $400 million cleanup. Even they were surprised at the condition of the plant.

About 100 pounds of pure uranium metal were found scattered around the plant grounds and 1 ton of thorium was found in an abandoned building.

An estimated 214 tons of uranium and 129 tons of thorium remained in the pits.

Water bubbled up from broken water lines at the rate of 200,000 gallons a day. It carried uranium, thorium and radium into the August A. Busch Memorial Wildlife Area.

The leaks have since been fixed. But during heavy rain, contaminants still flow off the site into the streams and lakes of the Army Reserve and the Busch and Weldon Spring wildlife areas. The U.S. Geologic Survey has found that contamination from the pits has leaked at least 100 feet into the ground water.

In addition to all the radiological waste, there were large volumes of chemical wastes and acids.

Rodney Nelson, manager of the cleanup, said that the greatest surprise for his team was the discovery of carcinogenic nitrates from the processing of TNT and DNT during World War II.

Said Nelson of the cleanup, now expected to extend past the year 2000, ”We never expected it to be this complex.”

11 Comments Posted

  1.  I was at the weldon Springs site in 1959 I was in the us army stationed at Ft Knox we drove from Ft Knox to weldon Springs Mo, There were about 10 of us we did not know each other we blew up the Labs and support buildings, we had no idea these buildings were contaminated, the explosives we used were 55 gallon drum of gasoline and 55 gallon drum of flower another was blown up with a 55 gallon drum of gasoline and 55 gallon drum of paint in all we blew up 23 buildings this was truly a covert actionas we drove from Ft Knox to Weldon springs Mo. When Ft Leonard wood was. Located in Mo . All my records have been destroyed in a fire in 1969 in Mo, anybody else in the same boat?

    Posted by Gregoryrgabriel on Thu Nov 13 2014 4:30am

  2.  I remeber going to High school there,the lakes at Busch Wildlife were being shut down due to fish being found belly up and mutated,it’s no wonder so many of our classmates have health issues and some died at an early age… I would never want to live in that area knowing what I know. The football team was let to drink from the fire hydrants like dogs lapping up water when they were thirsty during practice…thanks coach…nice!  I wish more people were warned of the possible health issues they most likely will experience by living in that area… I think the lakes and creeks and water sources should all be tested on a daily basis if they aren’t already! 

    Posted by Francis Howell on Thu Nov 3 2016 5:37am

  3. That was a known place to check out for St. Louis metro high schools.
    I did swim across that quarry, once. Huge spooky looking carp lived down in that quarry. The would slowly come from the darkness where you couldn’t see. Water was crystal clear for 15-20 ft.

    Posted by Tavisgeorge on Sun Feb 11 2018 11:32am

  4. I worked at Mallinckrodt Weldon Springs in the Maintenance Department away from the main office building in 1964-1966 timeframe. I was 19 at the time. During that time I deleloped severe scalp Psoriasis treated by the company onsite nurses. I had also had a high badge reading and needed to repeate urine testing. Over the years since, I developed Psoriatic Arthritis, skin cancer, fibromyalgia and multitude of unexplained illnesses.
    I was married 3 times since with last names of Schmidt, Schneider and now Phillips. At the time I was hired my name was Virginia D. Heusmann.

    While working at the Weldon Springs facility, I received a stocking allowance as the contamination ate holes in stockings.

    I now am 73 with multiple disabilities. Did my exposure to this contamination we were not allowed to discuss cause any of my comorbidities?
    I moved out of the area in 1981 and recently learned of all the issues caused to the health of the workers.

    Posted by Virginia D Phillips on Wed Feb 21 2018 10:40am

    • Virginia, I am so sorry to hear about your situation. I have sent your information to our legal team. If you have any questions in the meantime, please don’t hesitate to call our office at 618-656-4400.

      Posted by Lindsey Andrews on Mon Feb 26 2018 11:44am

  5. My grandmother worked at the Weldon Springs plant in the 1940’s. She suffered from breast and ovarian cancer .
    My dad is wondering if her time there could be the reason.

    Posted by Robin Thayer on Tue Mar 20 2018 10:01pm

  6. I served in the National Guard from 1973-1975 I was trained at Weldon Springs and I am a diabetic I had prostrate cancer I have chronic kidney disease vascular abnormalities of the intestine disease of the rectum blood clothing in the lungs and legs.

    Posted by Gregory Hilke on Sun May 20 2018 5:43pm

  7. My name is Sylvia Williams. My mom lived in St Louis during that time frame. She had three children during that time. I lived there for a short time period. We had a nice home with a huge basement that would flood from time to time. My mom developed cancer twice. When she died she had renal cancer and heart disease. Two of my siblings born in St. Louis died of cancer. One had skin cancer the other had bone cancer. The third sister born in St. Louis died from hypertension and renal failure. I myself have multiple disabilities that include: fibromyalgia, lung dz, sarcoidosis and colon issues.
    I am wanting to hold those companies responsible for mishandling the storage, handling and transportation of radioactive waste from the Manhattan project

    Posted by Sylvia Williams on Wed Aug 15 2018 11:15am

  8. My father worked at Weldon Spring when I was conceived and born. His superiors were shocked that he could father a child. He was exposed and had to be decontaminated several times.
    He had brain tumors and cancers. He did not qualify for pay out because his cancers weren’t the right kind.
    I have brain tumors, birth defects and just diagnosed ovarian cancer.
    Are the lawsuits still pending?

    Posted by Jennifer Thomas on Thu Aug 30 2018 6:50pm

    • Jennifer, thank you for reaching out to TorHoerman Law. At this point, we are not accepting new clients for Coldwater Creek injuries.

      Posted by Lindsey Andrews on Fri Sep 14 2018 11:57am

  9. My family moved to the Weldon Springs area in 1961. I was 3 years old. I drank Weldon Springs water swam and played in creeks and lakes throughout Busch wildlife area. I went to school at Francis Hall from 71 to 75 . I lost a brother and sister at an early age with multiple spinal problems. I suffer daily with strange spinal defects. We deserve compensation for our miseries due to The lack of caution and mis use of dangerous materials by those companies

    Posted by Greg Duke on Sat Jun 1 2019 11:32pm

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