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Atomic weapons waste site begins to draw tourists
WELDON SPRING, Mo. -- It is perhaps Missouri's oddest tourist site -- a seven-story high tomb of radioactive waste and an interpretive center detailing the history of a place where Cold War bomb materials were born.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Energy officially welcomed the public to what was a 16-year Superfund cleanup site near the Missouri River in St. Charles County, right beside the Katy Trail biking path and near the August Busch Wildlife Area.
Visitors can walk atop the mountainous site that covers 45 acres and stores 1.5 million cubic yards of waste material. A six-mile biking trail along the cell is scheduled to open in a few months.
The Department of Energy is opening its arms wider to the public at Weldon Spring than at any of its other hazardous waste cleanup sites across the country, officials said. If the experiment works, the government may grant greater access in the future to other defunct Energy Department properties, like the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons complex in Colorado.
"You don't tell people they're safe by putting a fence around something. Fences communicate a very negative barrier," said Pam Thompson, the Department of Energy's project manager at Weldon Spring.
Many people who checked out the new facilities Monday said they couldn't wait to use them.
"I think it's great, the bike trail especially. People will love that," said Will Kennon, a surveyor who has worked at the site for 10 years.
Others were disturbed by the idea of inviting people to play near a cache of radioactive waste.
The Rev. Gerald J. Kleba, a Catholic priest and critic of the cleanup, called it ludicrous. At best, it's turning a known health hazard into a recreational site, he said.
Some St. Charles County residents and environmental activists believe the waste could be responsible for a recent cluster of infant deaths and illnesses. A study by the Missouri Health Department did not find a connection.
The mother of one of the children who died, Ann Bachmann, said she didn't like the notion of welcoming the public to the site, which she considers unsafe. More than 200 people signed a petition she circulated this spring criticizing the plan as unnecessary and dangerous.
Department of Energy officials insist the site is safe. Contaminated soil and materials are capped beneath eight feet of clay, sand and rock. The clay liner contains radon, a radioactive gas that forms as a breakdown product of radium. Uranium runoff within the waste cell is captured in a sump and disposed at a St. Louis sewer plant, officials said.
Weldon's unique combination of a museum, bike trail and public access to the waste cell represents a turnaround from the Department of Energy's tradition of secrecy, said Art Kleinrath, manager of the department's long-term surveillance program in Grand Junction, Colo.
On Monday, more than 200 people explored the $1 million, 9,000-square-foot interpretive center, housed in a building once used to check workers for radioactivity. Exhibits explain the site's history, including how the towns of Toonerville, Howell and Hamburg were eradicated when the U.S. Army built the Weldon Spring Ordnance Works during World War II.
Meredith Hunter, one of the original citizen activists who formed St. Charles Countians Against Hazardous Waste 20 years ago, visited the site Monday and pronounced it satisfactory.
"I'm real proud," she said.
State Sen. Ted House, D-St. Charles, praised Hunter and other citizens like her who insisted that the Energy Department make the site as clean and safe as possible.
Energy Department officials said the new public facilities will serve as a memorial to the nation's defense.
"It does give you a place, a striking place, to talk about the history of the Cold War," Kleinrath said.