Death in Venice: Following the trail of unanswered questions
Residents are concerned about mortality levels near the site of a 20-year-old radioactive waste clean-up.
Diane Ratliff, a native of Venice, Ill., remembers when the dump trucks first started lumbering up and down Meredosia Avenue in the early 1990s. She then surmised the drivers must have made a wrong turn. “Where the hell were they going?” she asked herself.
Nobody informed her or any of the residents of the neighborhood that a radioactive clean-up was taking place down the block.
That was 20 years ago, and Ratliff, a special education teacher for the East St. Louis School District, is still searching for answers as to whether exposure to radioactive waste may have affected the health of her family and neighbors. She is among a group of citizens who are now pressing the federal government for an epidemiological study of the area to determine the impact that the radioactive site may have had on public health.
In 1989, the Consolidated Aluminum Corp. (Conalco) and Dow Chemical Co. began to quietly clean up a 40-acre site adjacent to a foundry in Madison, Ill., that the two companies formerly owned. The plant and dump site are both located on the boundary between the Metro East cities of Madison and Venice. [read earlier story by clicking here]
The clean-up entailed dividing the area into a massive grid made up of hundreds of squares and then using a complicated formula to measure the contamination levels in each of them. To carry out the job, contractors constructed a laboratory, rail spur and loading station.
By the time the project ended in December 1992 more than 105,000 tons of thorium-contaminated slag had been loaded into 978 rail cars and shipped to a low-level radioactive waste facility in Utah, according to a final report prepared for the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety (IDNS), the state agency responsible for overseeing the clean-up.
The 1992 report states: “Because of the proximity of the contaminated area to a residential neighborhood, and the inconvenience that the construction activity imposed upon the neighborhood, the construction was done in a manner such that all contaminated material above natural background was removed and the area was backfilled immediately. ”
Larry Burgan, a community activist and former foundry employee, has doubts about that conclusion. “It makes it sound like they were doing the residents a favor,” says Burgan. “But they also could have been doing it quick to get it out of sight [and] out of mind.”
Earlier this summer, Burgan and Ratliff’s brother, Calvin Ratliff, canvassed the neighborhood, asking among other things whether residents had ever been informed of the safety risks posed by the radioactive waste or its removal. None of the residents with whom they spoke indicated that they had ever been contacted.
Instead, contractors appeared to have launched the first phase of the clean-up without warning.
At 8 a.m., March 5, 1990, heavy equipment operators began excavating more than 15,000 cubic feet of radioactively contaminated soil along Rogan Avenue, a neighborhood street that borders the 40-acre site. The work continued for the next two days. Contamination in this area was found from six inches to five feet below the surface, according to the final report.
To ensure compliance with state safety regulations, Conalco and Dow installed eight air-monitoring stations to measure airborne concentrations of contaminants during the clean-up, but a portable generator that powered one monitor was stolen early in the clean-up and never replaced. Despite the loss, the work continued and the final report dismissed the significance of the incomplete data.
The assessment, prepared by Roy F. Weston Inc. of Albuquerque, N.M., does stipulate, however, that one of remaining air monitors registered high concentrations of radioactivity on numerous occasions and exceeded permissible levels at least three times. But the risk to residents was deemed safe because all the radioactive contaminants were “assumed” to be Thorium 228 and not its more potent sister, Thorium 232. Moreover, concentrations of radioactive airborne contaminants were averaged out over several months to lower the estimated dosage to within established limits set by IDNS.
The history of radioactive contamination at the foundry dates back to 1957, when Dow began processing uranium for fuel rods under a subcontract with St. Louis-based Mallinckdrodt Chemical Co., which was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The plant was one of hundreds of low-priority radioactive sites nationwide identified by the federal government’s Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program in the 1990s. The subsequent government-mandated clean-up, which was overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2000, focused mainly on uranium contamination inside facility and did not include additional monitoring or remediation at the adjacent 40-acre site.
The thorium waste was the byproduct of another facet of the foundry’s operations — production of lightweight alloys used for military and aerospace applications. Between 1960 and 1973 Dow dumped millions of pounds of sludge containing 4 to 8 percent thorium behind the plant on the adjacent property. After Conalco took over the operation, the dumping continued for years, including monthly shipments of thorium waste produced at Dow facilities in Bay City and Midland, Mich.
Company guidelines also permitted up to 50 pounds of thorium sludge per month to be poured directly down the sewer. The radioactive contamination could also have been released into the environment by the plant’s several 20-foot diameter exhaust fans.
The Ratliff family has lived in the brick bungalow at Meredosia Avenue and College Street next to the foundry since 1950. Louis D. Ratliff, Diane Ratliff’s late father, built the house. He died in 1974 from brain cancer. An informal survey of a two-block stretch of Meredosia Avenue conducted earlier this year yielded anecdotal evidence of 44 cases of cancer or lung disease among longtime residents, many of whom are also now deceased.
“Before sunset there was always a cloud emanating from the plant,” says Ratliff, who attended elementary school across the street from her family home. The special education teacher now worries about spots that she says have developed on her lungs. Ratliff also worries about her siblings, whom she says have been diagnosed with sarcoidosis; a debilitating, chronic disease that commonly causes inflammation of the lungs and other organs, and in some cases can be deadly.
The clean-up of the site that was initiated 20 years ago did nothing to allay her fears. It only left unanswered questions.
“They were supposed to have examined the yards for contaminants,” says Ratliff. “But that didn’t happen.” — C.D. Stelzer (firstname.lastname@example.org)