This week, I’ve been consumed by the works of a pair of powerful storytellers, whose devotion to detail in chronicling their respective historical sagas is inspiring and daunting. The first is Lacy M. Johnson’s The Fallout, which covers the cover-up of the radioactive legacy of the Manhattan Project, much of which is sitting in the bottom of a poorly-controlled landfill near Earth City, Missouri, a corporate suburb on the shoulder of the Missouri River, along the western edge of St. Louis. What’s unique about this motley trove of nuclear waste is that it sits about a football field away from a separate landfill that is dealing with a subsurface smoldering event which continues to creep toward the radioactive refuse. The unanswerable question is what will happen when they collide.
However, Johnson doesn’t dwell on these hypotheticals, since the waste—a byproduct of the refinement process used by Mallinckodt back in the 1940s, when, at one point, it was churning out a ton (a literal ton) of uranium oxide every day—has gone on to poison communities wherever it has been stored. Starting with Lambert Airport in the 1940s and 50s, to a storage facility in North St. Louis County in the mid 60s, to the secretive transfer to this landfill in the early 70s, the slipshod way in which this material was stored, transferred, and buried is damnable. And at each stop, it has leaked out of barrel drums and leached its way into creeks and streams, blown onto ballfields, and mutated the chromosomes of the unfortunate and oblivious souls in its path.
The article patiently zooms in and out, so that you can meet some of the affected, some of whom are dealing with exceedingly rare diseases, while also trying to wrap your mind around the length of term surrounding our radioactive baggage:
Thorium and uranium in particular are among the radioactive primordial nuclides, radioactive elements that have existed in their current form since before Earth was formed, since before the formation of the solar system even, and will remain radioactive and toxic to life long after humans are gone. We’re sitting back in Kay’s dining room when she pulls out a tiny booklet labeled “Nuclear Wallet Cards.” What its intended purpose is, I don’t know, but Kay flips to the back to show me the half-life of Thorium 232: fourteen billion years, a half-life so long that by the time this element is safe for human exposure, the Appalachian Mountains will have eroded away, every ocean on Earth’s surface will have evaporated, Antarctica will be free of ice, and all the rings of Saturn will have decayed. Earth’s rotation will have slowed so much that days will have become twenty-five hours long, photosynthesis will have ceased, and multicellular life will have become a physical impossibility.
Reading this and seeing the cancer cluster it’s caused, my mind kept retreating back to The Lost Scrapbook, and the scenes in Isaura as the evidence mounts that its beloved hometown corporation, Ozark, has poisoned the groundwater with C56, which was one of the demonic toxins manufactured by Hooker Chemical for over twenty years. Readers of Evan Dara’s work tend to pull up the parallels to Love Canal, which was Hooker’s most notorious nightmare, but the C56 story played out in Montague, Michigan:
Warren Dobson, who had worked in the C56 operation, said Hooker employees had routinely dumped 55 gallon drums of C56 wastes on the ground, that some wastes had been poured from the drums directly onto the soil and killed the trees in an area called “Dead Lake,” that C56 vapors and liquids were routinely allowed to escape from the plant and employees were instructed to say it was “steam,” and that a supervisor once told him: “This isn’t a chocolate factory. We’ve got to make money.” Dobson said he had to tell the story because it was his “duty” as a Christian.
Incredibly, the state did not bother to check the barrels until six months later. When Department of Natural Resources agents found them in March, 1978, the company, according to one state official, “shrugged its shoulders. They said you people knew about this. It’s been here since the 1950s.”
It took several months for the full weight of the contamination to become clear. There was a 15 to 20 acre dumpsite filled with 15 years worth of drummed C56 waste. There was another 15-acre sludge lagoon where three million gallons of contaminated sediment had been dumped. More than 102 chemical compounds were eventually isolated in the waste-“a complete spectrum,” said the DNR’s Jim Truchan, “of all the worst chemicals we’ve got to deal with from the standpoint of environmental contamination.” The state tests showed that the entire plume of groundwater underneath the plant was severely contaminated and moving south, through the backyards of Blueberry Ridge, to White Lake.
Dara drew from dozens of similar examples, and knits Montague into the patchwork of afflicted communities listed on pages 474-475. The commonalities between these stories and the tale that Johnson tells are clear and frustratingly repetitive. The forces that spur cities and towns to court companies using tax breaks and regulatory relief are rooted in the now, yet they are sometimes left with problems that become too large to solve. In the case of St. Louis, the race for the atomic bomb during World War II placed blinders on the decision-makers, all of whom are now gone, immune from prosecution except by history for the disastrous decisions that will have to monitored and managed until the end of time.
Which brings me to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, which found its way into my phone over the July 4th holiday. The current episode (he only releases a handful each year), entitled The Destroyer of Worlds, is a six-hour tour de force, offering a sweeping survey beginning with the early days of the atomic bomb and its use by “the haberdasher from Independence, Missouri,” up through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the standoff between Kennedy and Khrushchev. It serves as a baleful counterpoint to the long-term perspective of Johnson’s story, since you’re listening to men (almost entirely men) make decisions and operate under the condition that tomorrow may never come. Who cares if Thorium’s deadly half-life is 14 billion years if armageddon ends the human experiment next Thursday?
It is a heart-racing account which dwells on the stress that each president has had to deal with, laced with questions about whether we’re evolutionarily capable of adequately pondering the imponderable and consistently choosing to avoid annihilation. How can one make a decision about the fate of the world in 6 minutes?
As the brilliant songwriter Scott Miller once sang, “Decisions made too fast/Seem to be the ones that last.” While Carlin shows us how close we’ve come to not being here, Johnson lays out the price that people are paying for our collective refusal to come to terms with what’s been left behind in the process.
…I had Matthew tell the internist in his own words about the headaches he was having, how they seemed to float around the top of his head and also behind his forehead, and how they would get so bad that they made him nauseous, and about how his eyes sometimes felt like they were burning…and then, as Matthew was dressing, the Doctor asked me to come into his office; and there he told me that he couldn’t find any evident source for the disorders, so he was referring us to a specialist, a neurologist; and immediately, you know, immediately I said Well, you hear what they’re saying; I mean do you think this could have anything to do with the water?; and the Doctor, sitting in his own office, the Doctor said that he didn’t really know; so I said Well, don’t you have any opinion, any idea?; and the Doctor, sitting there in his own office, I mean a medical doctor in his own place, he said that he wasn’t terribly inclined to take risks with lawsuits, so he wouldn’t say so even if he knew—
The Lost Scrapbook, p. 423