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 polyurethane 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 the 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 the 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 the 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, teenagers 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 teenagers 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 cleanups. 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 groundwater. 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.” Contamination: How Weldon Springs Went from Model to Mess. For more information about the Coldwater Creek Contamination Lawsuit, contact TorHoerman Law.