St. Louis Airport Site/Hazelwood Interim Storage Site/St. Louis Downtown Site/Coldwater Creek
Wow! These four sites rolled into one offer a plethora of fun activities to be enjoyed in small safe doses—and the acronym proliferation alone has generated unusually high levels of fun for those who like word play. All this fun originated in 1942, at what is now called the St. Louis Downtown Site (SLDS), when Mallinckrodt Chemical Works made an agreement with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to process uranium for nuclear weapons at their downtown plant—a job that larger and far less fun companies had turned down because of safety concerns. And, surprise! The job generated nuclear waste—like, millions of tons of it—so what to do? Well, Mallinckrodt and the feds decided to spread the fun around—all in top-secret Manhattan Project fashion, of course, so didn’t tell the plant workers and truckers they were handling radioactive treasures. Starting in 1947, they transported the waste from SLDS in open trucks—spewing radioactive dust along the 13-mile route—and dumped it in open piles at the St. Louis Airport Site (SLAPS). In 1967, Continental Mine and Mill bought some of the waste (apparently a hot commodity) and trucked it to the nearby Hazelwood Interim Storage Site (HISS), where it would sit unattended in open barrels and uncovered mounds for the next several decades—all while St. Louis residents continued to enjoy the nearby parks and playgrounds and ball fields, and to generally bask unknowingly in the waste’s glow.
And then, the “where the hell can we put it” adventures began in earnest—as various companies, contractors, and government agencies (MED, AEC, FUSRAP, DOE) bought and sold and transferred the waste and also the sites. They shipped over a million cubic yards to a facility in Colorado, and to who knows where else outside of Missouri. They hauled some of the waste to the dump at the Weldon Spring uranium-processing plant (now a Superfun! site), which Malinckrodt had fired up in 1957 after SLDS got just way too hot to use. They sold 8700 tons of it to a private contractor, who was supposed to recycle it—but instead dumped it illegally in the local West Lake landfill (now a Superfun! site). And, finally, subcontractors at the HISS site—did they know about all the fun they were exposed to?—razed the storage buildings and buried them under a few inches of topsoil.
In 1989, despite such heroic cleanup efforts, a new survey found lingering radiation on the sites and in the surrounding areas, and the EPA—if shocked, shocked—finally decided to declare SLAPS and HISS official Superfun! sites. The ongoing cleanup efforts continue, even as multiple entities—DOE, FUSRAP, the City of STL—enjoy passing the properties around like a fun game of hot potato.
And finally, the river-running adventures of all this atomic waste!—as the SLAPS site, where the piles had sat for decades (the neighborhood kids slid down them for fun), just happens to be located near the headwaters of Coldwater Creek, a scenic and much-loved waterway that had long been the favorite North County summertime swim spot. The 19-mile creek meanders through an abundance of densely populated municipalities—including Bridgeton, Hazelwood, Florissant, Ferguson, Black Jack, and Spanish Lake. It flows right by many public parks and thousands of backyards, and finally empties into the Missouri River at the beautiful Fort Belle Fontaine park. In 2008, while planning a high school reunion, St. Louisans in this area asked why a striking number of alumni were ill or missing—and, with some detective work, figured out that the Creek-adjacent communities, in 8 separate zip codes, had become a cancer cluster, with an astonishing prevalence of especially rare forms. All of which, after much local agitation, the federal agencies finally acknowledged in 2018.
Despite local efforts to redraw maps (mostly for insurance purposes), and to channelize the waterway, Coldwater Creek continues to flood occasionally, and has refused to disappear. Remediation is ongoing. And the fun just keeps flowing downhill, all across North County and into the Missouri River, which in turn flows into the mighty Mississippi—just above where the city of St. Louis sources its drinking water.
(For more info from local residents on this merrily mind-blowing story, and on the not at all merry health impacts, see Just Moms STL and Coldwater Creek—Just the Facts Please. Also see 3 smashingly good documentary films—Atomic Homefront, The First Secret City, and The Safe Side of the Fence.)