On March 11, 2011, a major earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami that, in addition to killing more than 15,000 people, contributed to the disaster at the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant — the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. After watching the Fukushima disaster unfold for three weeks, I began to wonder about all things nuclear, including the Weldon Spring Site, located in a once-rural area 30 miles west of St. Louis.
According to the Department of Energy’s history of the Weldon Spring Site, the site was placed on the EPA’s National Priorities List in 1987 because of the potential for groundwater contamination to adversely affect a drinking water well field less than a mile away that served 60,000 users in the area. That same year, DOE began cleanup actions. Most of the soils were removed and deposited into a 42-acre disposal cell located on-site in the vicinity of the former feed materials plant.
What was it, exactly, that required cleaning?
According to the summary of a nine-page document published by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and known unofficially as the 2005 Weldon Spring Cancer Report, the Weldon Spring Site in St. Charles County, Mo., was contaminated during the production of 2, 4, 6 – trinitrotoluene (TNT) and 2, 4 and 2,6 Dinitrotoluene (DNT) by the U.S. Department of Army from 1941 to 1945 and from enrichment of uranium ore and thorium processing by the Atomic Energy Commission from 1958 to 1966.
Also contained in the 2005 report was a call for follow-up testing to be conducted in response to concerns that radiological and chemical contamination related to the Weldon Spring Site might be negatively impacting the health of residents in the area. Specifically, the report’s authors recommended “the Cancer Inquiry Program should continue to monitor the cancer incidence and mortality rates in Weldon Spring and its surrounding areas.”
Ever curious, I decided to find out if the “continue to monitor” recommendation had been taken to heart by MDHSS decision-makers.
Gravel-covered stairs lead to the top of the 75-foot-tall disposal cell at the Weldon Spring Site.
On March 24, 2011, I contacted the agency via email and asked if a new report was taking shape. Then-Communications Director Jacqueline Lapine responded by telling me that an update to the 2005 report would be published in December 2011.
During the next nine months, I checked with her several times on the status of the report and was told each time that it was still on schedule. Then, just after 5 o’clock Dec. 29, 2011, a message from Gena Terlizzi arrived in my mailbox. Included as an attachment to the message from Terlizzi, a woman who had only recently replaced Lapine as the agency’s communications director, was a copy of the new report, known officially as the Analysis of Leukemia Incidence and Mortality Data for St. Charles County, Weldon Spring and Surrounding Areas December 2011 (Update to April 2005 Report) and unofficially as the “Weldon Spring Update” or “2011 Weldon Spring Cancer Inquiry Report.”
I read the new report and found it contains two noteworthy statements in its “Updated Analysis” section on page two. The first appears below:
Based on updated data from the 5-zip code area, the total number of leukemia deaths and the total number of leukemia deaths in those age 65 and older appears to be significantly higher than expected (Table 4 updated) but the actual leukemia death rates in the 5-zip code area were not significantly different from the statewide leukemia death rates (Table B).
While the first noteworthy statement resembles bureaucratic doublespeak, the second statement (below) leaves one feeling perplexed:
Based on this analysis, we have concluded that there is no increased environmental risk of developing leukemia in the five ZIP-code area during 1996-2004 over that of the entire state.
Together, the two statements combine to raise at least one serious question in my mind:
Should the report’s conclusions about the total number of leukemia deaths and the total number of leukemia deaths among people 65 and older warrant concern among St. Charles County residents, especially those living within the five zip codes (63301, 63303, 63304, 63366 and 63376) targeted by the study?
With that question in my mind, I fired off another email message to MDHSS shortly after noon Central Dec. 30. In it, I asked several questions, including the two below:
MDHSS officials buried the Weldon Spring Cancer Inquiry Report near the bottom of the “Data & Statistics” page of the agency’s website.
1. Can you tell me why, in both the 2005 report and the 2011 Weldon Spring Update, MDHSS has looked only at leukemia deaths instead of deaths attributed to a wider variety of cancers? and
2. I noticed MDHSS has not posted the 2011 Weldon Spring Update on its website or issued a news release about the findings. Do you plan to issue a news release about it and/or share information contained in the 2011 Weldon Spring Update with residents who live within the five zip codes studied? If so, when and how?
Worth noting: I discovered a link to the PDF version of the 2011 report a short time after sending my questions to Terlizzi. The fact that MDHSS officials had buried it — without explanation, among a half-dozen “special reports” at the bottom of the Data & Statistics page on the MDHSS website — prompted me to let question #2 stand. SEE UPDATE #2 BELOW.
On Jan. 3 at 3:36 p.m. Central, I received the following response from Terlizzi:
We don’t have any additional information or comments aside from what’s included in the report.
Surprised by the brief response, I placed a follow-up phone call and sent a follow-up email message to Terlizzi, hoping to get some clarification. Both went unreturned.
As an Air Force public affairs officer during the 1980s and ’90s, I learned quite a bit through firsthand experience dealing with the public and the news media on serious topics, including environmental health concerns related to nuclear-capable military operations. Among the most important things I learned was that public relations strategies that involve covering up, sugarcoating or otherwise trying to hide bad news from the public never turn out well and should be avoided at all cost. Those who employ such shortsighted strategies end up facing more questions.
In the case of MDHSS, the agency’s no-comment stance caused two immediate questions to form in my mind:
Are state health agency officials trying to hide something from the public? and
Do residents living within the target zip codes deserve (1) to have the findings contained in the 2011 report shared with them in a proactive fashion and (2) to get answers to their questions about the report?
While I hope the answer to the first question is “No,” I know the answer to the second question is a resounding “YES!”
* * *
I began this piece some 1,100 words ago by mentioning the disaster at Fukushima. That event, however, wasn’t the only one to cause me to be interested in the Weldon Spring Site.
During more than ten years of living in the St. Louis area, I’ve heard many people joke about not allowing their children to drink from the water fountains at Francis Howell High School, located a stone’s throw from the Weldon Spring Site. Most recently, however, I received a phone call.
From the top of the disposal cell at the Weldon Spring Site, one can see nearby Francis Howell High School.
A few days before Halloween 2010, a 40-something mother of two who lives near the Weldon Spring Site contacted me with concerns about what she perceived to be an unusually-high number of cancer cases in her neighborhood.
During multiple conversations over six days, she told me she knew of several people who were either battling cancer or had recently died from the disease. All lived within three blocks of her home in a subdivision of approximately 150 homes, one of many new housing areas to spring up out of farmland in fast-growing St. Charles County during the 1980s and 1990s.
What concerned her most was the fact that the types of cancer involved were varied and included several types of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, lung cancer and a rare blood cancer. I took some notes, told the woman I would look into the matter and agreed not to share her name with readers if/when I published anything about the serious subject of our conversations. In reality, though, I didn’t expect our conversations to lead to anything.
Five months later, she contacted me again and told me that another of her neighbors — a child living two blocks away — had been diagnosed with cancer. In addition, she told me about several more cases of children attending schools close to her home who had died from different forms of brain cancer. I filed the information just in case.
Some might consider information provided by a nameless suburban housewife unreliable and label it “rumor” and “hearsay” — and I can’t blame them. I was skeptical myself.
Another two weeks passed, and the same woman forwarded more information to me in the form of links to two articles.
One link led me to an article published March 7, 2001, in St. Louis’ Riverfront Times, the Voice Media Group-owned alternative weekly newspaper in which one can occasionally find a well-researched, long-form investigative piece. This particular article contained several hard-to-ignore paragraphs, but none stood out more than the one below which contains the observations of a Catholic priest, Father Gerry Kleba:
Last spring, Kleba’s vow of obedience brought him to a new assignment as a senior associate pastor in the placid suburbs of St. Charles County. What he saw shocked him. “This parish has more sick and dying children than I have ever experienced in my 35 years as a priest,” he told the new social-concerns committee.
The second link led to an article published May 24, 2010, in the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald. It highlighted the story of a couple who, before moving to Nebraska, lived for four years near the Weldon Spring Site. They said they believed environmental toxins from the site were responsible for their two sons’ cases of leukemia.
While the two articles are, at a minimum, thought-provoking, they didn’t convince me of the need to write anything about the Weldon Spring Site. But I remained curious.
During the next few months, I had several off-the-record conversations with long-time residents of the area — people I thought might know something about the subject at hand. One pointed me in the direction of Fernald, Ohio, a small township 18 miles northwest of Cincinnati that was home to a “sister site” of Weldon Spring that had also operated as a feed materials plant.
The Fernald Site was the subject of a New York Times article dated July 27, 1994, that offered some interesting information, including the two tidbits below:
1. The Department of Energy settled a lawsuit in 1994 with former Fernald Site workers, guaranteeing them lifetime medical monitoring paid for by the government at an expected cost to the government of at least $20 million; and
2. In 1989, DOE reached a settlement of $78 million in a lawsuit brought against the government by 14,000 residents of Fernald who contended that their property had been contaminated by uranium.
A source familiar with both the Weldon Spring and Fernald sites told me the 1994 settlement mentioned in the Times story would serve as a precursor of sorts to federal legislation passed 11 years later that would provide up to $400,000 in payments for former nuclear workers and/or their survivors nationwide as well as lifetime medical care. Among those covered were individuals who had worked at the Weldon Spring Site.
Shortly before publishing this story, that same source told me at least two lawsuits similar to the $78 million Fernald lawsuit have been filed on behalf of citizens living near Apollo/Parks Township, Pa., about 15 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where activities similar to those conducted at Weldon Spring and Fernald took place for many years. Though I could find no evidence of any mass tort lawsuits being filed by residents living near the Weldon Spring Site, the same source tells me a group of lawyers is studying that costly possibility.
FINAL THOUGHT: I know the information shared in this piece might fray some nerves. All must know, however, that the folks at MDHSS bear responsibility for this story being published. Had they answered my straight-forward questions in the first place, I might not have felt the need to search for answers on my own; I might not have published a story at all; and I might have continued living in ignorant bliss smack in the heart of one of the targeted zip codes.
Click here to read more-recent stories about the Weldon Spring site.
UPDATE #1 1/25/12 at 2:17 p.m. Central: Talk Radio Alert: ‘The Dana Show’ Friday Afternoon.
UPDATE #2 1/27/12 at 2:12 p.m. Central: A reader pointed out to me that clicking on the link (“Weldon Spring Cancer Report Inquiry”) at the bottom of the MDHSS website’s “Data & Statistics” page results in the 2005 report being downloaded. I tried it and found the reader is right as of this moment. That being the case, state health agency officials appear to be even less transparent than I thought. They haven’t even buried the new report on their website.
FOLLOW-UP to UPDATE #1: Finished the appearance with Dana. As soon as a podcast is available, I’ll try to post a link to it here. Go to “The Dana Show” page and select the podcast labeled “1-27-12 Bob McCarty.”