St. Louis, MO
Home ► Blog ► Looking Ahead Waste War Looms as Cities Grapple Over Sites, Funds
St. Louis is by no means alone in trying to figure out what to do about radioactive waste. The problem is national in scope. It pits cities, counties and states against each other in a scramble for limited federal cleanup money.
Especially stiff competition is coming right now from operating weapons plants in Fernald, Ohio; Rocky Flats, Colo.; Hanford, Wash.; and near Aiken, S.C. Safety problems at those plants are receiving intense public scrutiny.
Cost estimates for cleaning up all present and former installations connected with the nuclear-weapons industry range from $130 billion to $200 billion. The cleanup price tag for the St. Louis area’s portion now stands at $700 million.
”Everyone wants his site cleaned up,” says Mike Kosakowski, a regional official of the Environmental Protection Agency.
”There is not enough money in the bank. There is not enough engineering talent to address all the sites.”
Cleanup issues are at the forefront here 47 years after radioactive waste began piling up from the processing of uranium and other materials for the atomic bomb and the Cold War nuclear-arms race.
Over that time, virtually no progress has been made toward permanently containing radioactive materials.
To some, the problem borders on the unsolvable. Said environmental activist Kay Drey: ”There’s no good place to safely dispose of it. We may never know what to do with what we have.”
Even the federal government admits that the most up-to-date earthen storage containers would be effective for no more than 1,000 years and possibly for as few as 200 years. Critics doubt the containers would last much longer than 50 years.
Most of the nuclear waste in this area will remain radioactive for at least 4.5 billion years.
Some people view the health risks of low-level nuclear waste as less than acute. They say that to spend $700 million or more on cleanups in the area would be a misuse of money. And they contend that society’s resources could be better used on more pressing matters – perhaps educating people about the dangers of alcohol or drugs or lowering the infant mortality rate.
Said Dr. Henry Royal, director of nuclear medicine for the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology: ”My fear is that society will spend more money than it should spend dealing with low-level radioactive waste.”
But most scientists, citing health hazards, say the government must do what it can to contain the waste.
Even the Energy Department, which constantly downplays the health threats, insists that the material must be cleaned up.
Andrew Avel, an Energy Department manager at Oak Ridge, Tenn., said that although radioactive sites such as the closed-down Berkeley ball fields are not now much of a hazard, they could be if someone grew food or built houses there.
”We don’t know what will be out there in 200 to 300 years,” Avel said.
So, the Energy Department is trying to clean up the old Mallinckrodt plant in north St. Louis and various North County sites at a cost exceeding $250 million.
And it already has embarked on a 12-year, $400 million cleanup at the old uranium plant near Weldon Spring in St. Charles County.
The Energy Department won’t touch the highly radioactive West Lake landfill in North County or 40 waste-burial pits at Hematite in Jefferson County. Those sites come under the purview of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Here is a rundown of the agency’s cleanup activities in the metropolitan area:
At Impasse With The City
The Energy Department has proposed building an earthen bunker to store 925,000 cubic yards of waste on some 80 acres of land now owned by the city of St. Louis.
To make this possible, the Energy Department wants the city to deed back the 21.7-acre site where the government first buried the first nuclear waste from Mallinckrodt. The government gave the land to the city in 1973.
The Energy Department also wants the city to deed over another 60 acres of adjoining land.
Buried in the bunker would be:
About 250,000 cubic yards of contaminated material from the original airport site, off McDonnell Boulevard, north of Lambert Field.
About 211,000 cubic yards of contaminated material from Latty Avenue, including two large mounds covered with green plastic on the property of Futura Coatings Inc.
About 337,000 cubic yards of contaminated material that seeped, blew and leached from the airport storage site and Latty Avenue into nearby ditches, ballfields and Coldwater Creek.
About 127,000 cubic yards of contaminated material from the Mallinckrodt property in downtown St. Louis.
But so far, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen has refused to go along with the plan.
Mary Ross, chairman of an aldermanic committee on radioactive waste, says a history of federal secrecy and doubletalk are why the aldermen want to retain control over the site.
”If we trusted the Department of Energy, we probably would have signed a deed a long time ago,” Ross said.
Energy Department officials have threatened to pull out of the cleanup effort unless the city agrees to turn over land for a bunker.
In that event, they say, the city might wind up liable for damage claims or cleanup costs.
In Search Of A Rural Site
Alderman Ross and her colleagues are not alone in opposing the Energy Department plan.
Other local governments – including St. Louis County and several North County municipalities – have called for moving the radioactive waste out of the heavily populated area.
Their solution would be a site in rural Missouri. It is unrealistic to expect other states to accept Missouri’s waste, any more than Missouri would accept theirs.
Said Drey, the activist: ”The radioactive waste should not be located in the center of our state’s largest metropolitan area. I think all of Missouri’s radioactive waste should be consolidated in one place, and that should be in Callaway County where we already have a nuclear power plant.”
Two years ago, two state legislators from Callaway County responded to that idea by suggesting that the waste be put at Weldon Spring or in University City, where Drey lives.
Drey and others who want the waste taken away got a boost from Rep. Jack Buechner, R-Kirkwood. Buechner said Friday that he would file legislation requiring the Energy Department to examine possible sites outside the metropolitan area before requiring the city to turn over the airport land.
If a rural site could be agreed upon, the federal government probably would require the state of Missouri to share the cleanup cost.
There at least is precedent for this kind of solution.
Local officials in South Salt Lake, a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah, won a prolonged battle to have radioactive material moved 85 miles to a remote site in the state. Utah paid 10 percent and the federal government 90 percent of the cost of the two-year cleanup, which was completed last June.
Cleanup Near Weldon Spring
A truce prevails in St. Charles County as the cleanup gets under way at the old uranium processing plant on Missouri Highway 94 near Weldon Spring.
Department of Energy officials have suggested storing the waste in an earthen storage container covering anywhere from 45 to 58 acres on the site.
Although most residents welcome the cleanup, they want assurances that the Department of Energy will do it correctly. One of their greatest fears is that radioactive dust from the demolition of 68 buildings at the plant may endanger the health of 2,300 students and employees at Francis Howell High School.
The school is a half-mile downwind from the old plant. Federal officials say the work will pose no threat.
In a building moved here from Ohio at a cost of $1.5 million, federal employees, construction workers and scientists plan how to proceed. Men in moon suits conduct tests to determine the extent of the contamination.
About four miles to the south is a nine-acre quarry filled with black water and about 10,000 truckloads of radioactive debris.
The quarry is less than one-fourth mile from the well field that supplies much of St. Charles County with drinking water.
Pending the outcome of geological and hydrological tests, federal officials are leaning toward moving waste from the quarry to the earthen storage container at the old plant site.
The cleanup of the plant and the quarry originally were expected to be completed at the end of the year 2010.
But Rodney Nelson, manager of the cleanup, said proposed cuts in the project’s annual budget could double both the $400 million cost and the 12-year timetable.
That would make the cleanup of all waste in the St. Louis area – waste that began so innocently with the effort to develop the Atomic Bomb – a project of more than $1 billion.
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