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Roger Nelson, a feisty man, looks forward to bantering with students as he arrives at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles County. He is there on a mission on this third day of April 1987.
He knows that some students will express fears that they will get cancer or become sterile during the federal cleanup of radioactive contamination at an abandoned uranium processing plant half a mile away.
Nelson, a safety officer on the Weldon Spring cleanup, wants to assure them that they will be safe. His daughter, Corina, attends the school.
As his presentation begins in the school library, Nelson displays a Geiger counter that chirps continually – proof, he says, that radiation exists everywhere. Nelson tells the nearly 150 students that the chances of getting cancer from the radiation are remote.
In the audience is Mary Halliday, a homemaker who is a founder of St. Charles Countians Against Hazardous Waste. Halliday knows that scientists and doctors disagree about the danger of low-level radiation. She also knows that most scientists believe exposure to radiation increases the risk, however slightly, of cancer.
Halliday wants the high school closed or relocated during the planned $400 million cleanup. Otherwise, she plans to take her son, Jason, out of the school. She challenges Nelson’s statements.
Through the library windows, students can see the distant ruins of the sprawling Weldon Spring complex. Some buildings are so contaminated that visitors are prohibited from entering them. Mallinckrodt Chemical Works purified uranium and thorium at the plant off of Missouri Highway 94 for the federal government from 1957 through 1966.
During his talk, Nelson asks students to pass around and examine a sealed petri dish containing a uranium compound. By the time it gets back to Nelson, it has a crack in the top. And that triggers a confrontation.
Halliday and her colleagues accuse Nelson of endangering the students’ health.
Nelson says the petri dish – even with a crack in it – is completely safe. He says youngsters would have to eat the compound for it to pose any threat to their health.
A threat, real or perceived, to the health of children turns parents into instant activists.
Nowhere is that more evident than in St. Charles County. The environmental movement there was born 2,000 strong in 1982, when the U.S. Department of Energy proposed permanently storing radioactive waste from five states at the abandoned uranium processing plant just upwind from Francis Howell High School.
The federally owned site is between the August A. Busch Memorial and Weldon Spring wildlife areas, where thousands of families hike, fish and hunt.
During heavy rains, uranium dust washes off the plant grounds into both wildlife areas.
The buildings at the plant still contain uranium and thorium. Radioactive and chemical sludge fill four waste ponds on the plant grounds and a quarry, four miles to the southwest.
The quarry leaks and the ponds seep into the groundwater. The quarry is less than one-half mile from wells that supply about 63,000 St. Charles County residents with drinking water. Officials say the contamination has not reached the well field.
Nobody gave the situation much thought until July 23, 1982, when residents read in the newspaper that the Department of Energy wanted to dispose of radioactive waste from five states at the plant site.
One of those readers, Meredith Bollmeier, a mother and homemaker who lived within walking distance of the plant, swung into action.
With the help of five other mothers, a chemist and a member of the Francis Howell School Board, Bollmeier mobilized the county.
More than 2,000 residents turned out in the Francis Howell gymnasium to protest the project at a public hearing on Aug. 10. Energy Department officials say such meetings usually draw between 10 and 70 people.
Federal officials attribute the size of the crowd to the proximity of the site to the high school and people’s concern for their children.
Before reading that newspaper account, Bollmeier’s activities outside her home had been limited to a few interior- decorating consultations for friends or relatives.
Now she was an instant activist. She rapidly developed the courage to pass around petitions and hold news conferences. She learned everything she could about radioactive waste.
”I was like a mother tiger,” she said. ”I felt a threat to my family and my community. I didn’t understand what uranium and thorium were at the time, but radioactive waste – any kind of radioactive waste – seemed like bad news.”
Bollmeier began spending every free hour reading federal reports on the plant and quarry, and crawling around the wildlife area with a Geiger counter to measure radiation and a flask for taking water samples. She is now the paid executive director of St. Charles Countians Against Hazardous Waste.
But in the summer of 1982, all she was trying to do was get a crowd out to that first hearing.
”When we saw the stream of cars coming down (Highway) 94, we were ebullient,” Bollmeier recalled. ”We had collectively thrown the biggest party in town.”
The crowd jammed the gymnasium; some county residents had to be turned away. More than 40 people spoke. Not one was in favor of storing the waste at Weldon Spring.
One speaker threatened to blow up the bridges across the Missouri if the Energy Department tried to bring in the waste.
Kenneth Rothman, who was lieutenant governor at the time, said, ”This is the worst possible spot for a radioactive dump, or an atomic dump site anywhere in the state.”
The crowd cheered.
Officials of the Department of Energy said radioactive runoff was no threat to wells in the county because most wells were dug 700 feet into the earth.
The crowd moaned.
”Mine’s 175 feet,” one man shouted. ”Mine’s 200,” yelled another.
After the meeting, agency officials said the crowd was one of the most vocal and hostile they ever had encountered. Eventually, the government dropped its plan to bring in waste from five states.
Lea Keller, one of the agency’s representatives at the meeting, recalls feeling frustrated that night because the Department of Energy never had a chance to present its case.
”I looked around. I saw the banners. I heard the cheering, booing and jeering,” he said. ”I was frankly convinced nothing of value would be accomplished. The people had come to vent their frustration. So we listened, and we left.”
Keller, 60, retired two years ago. He spent 30 years working for the federal agencies charged with developing atomic energy for power and defense.
Keller said it is one of the disappointments of his career that he was unable to convince residents in the St. Louis area that the risk is minimal.
”Someone would have to camp on any of the (radioactive waste) sites in the area for 24 hours a day for 50 years to get a dose that can be statistically linked to cancer,” he said.
Bollmeier countered: ”We have studied enough federal reports to know how they present select information more protective to the Department of Energy than to the welfare of the citizens of St. Charles.”
At the heart of the fears of residents of St. Charles County is concern over childhood leukemia there.
Prodded by area mothers, state health officials took a look at a number of leukemia cases that had occurred in the county.
The state found that 13 children, ages 14 or under, in St. Charles County were diagnosed as having leukemia during a five-year period in the 1970s. That is almost twice the expected rate.
The 13 leukemia cases occurred from 1975 through 1979 – with six cases discovered in 1979 alone. Seven cases would have been normal for the five-year period. Eight of the 13 leukemia victims died.
But in July 1986, after three years of investigation, the Missouri Department of Health announced there appeared to be no evidence linking the unusually high number of leukemia cases to radiation from the old processing plant.
Members of St. Charles Countians Against Hazardous Waste questioned the methods used in the study.
John Crellin, the state epidemiologist who did the study, acknowledged there were significant gaps in the data the Energy Department gave him for radiation dose estimates.
Over the years, the St. Charles Countians became masters at questioning officials and nudging state and federal agencies into action. They are credited with bringing the radioactive waste near Weldon Spring to federal attention and pressing until the government agreed to finance a cleanup.
But it was a bit of election-year one-upsmanship that produced the federal commitment to spend money.
In 1984, Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee for president, was scoring points against Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan by attacking Reagan’s record on the environment. He would make his speeches on this topic at hazardous-waste sites.
Four days before Mondale was scheduled to tour the Weldon Spring plant, Reagan stole center stage by announcing a 10-year, $357 million cleanup of the site.
Under a revised plan, the work was scheduled to take 12 years and cost $400 million.
But because of proposed budget cuts, managers on site say that both the cost and the length of time for the cleanup could double.
In July 1986, the Department of Energy set up the first of what would eventually become an encampment of 25 house trailers onto the old plant grounds.
Rodney Nelson, a Wisconsin farm boy who grew up to be an engineer and public servant, was one of the first to arrive.
Nelson (no relation to Roger Nelson) is the on-site manager of the cleanup for the Department of Energy. Nothing in Nelson’s experience had prepared him for the suspicion he would encounter in St. Charles County.
One afternoon, Nelson asked his colleagues: ”Do people really believe that scientists and doctors in this country are in a conspiracy to keep the truth about the dangers of radiation from people?”
Press aide Martin Janowski responded that yes, some people believe that.
Later, Nelson learned the extent of people’s fears when he met a woman at a cocktail party. She told him she never opens the windows of her home lest her family be exposed to a particle of radiation from the plant.
Nelson and his family feel quite secure in their home in Lake Saint Louis, which is downwind from the plant. But he finds it hard to answer when someone asks him whether it is safe to move to St. Charles County.
”I understand radiation, and I live here,” Nelson said. ”But there are people who will tell you there is no safe level of radiation, period.”
On a personal level, Nelson has won the trust of many county residents. Still, environmentalists question whether scientists know enough about radioactive waste storage and the dangers of low-level radiation to do an adequate job.
Mary Halliday, the treasurer of St. Charles Countians Against Hazardous Waste, says she feels Nelson is sincere.
”I believe Rod Nelson and the other people cleaning up the site will do everything they can to to protect people,” she said. ”But as long as doctors and scientists disagree about the dangers of radiation, I won’t risk my child’s health by leaving him at school.”
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