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Metro East residents also push for federal radioactive waste exposure compensation

A bald Black man gestures toward an industrial site.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
Calvin Ratliff points toward smokestacks near a chemical processing facility last week just outside his childhood home in Venice.

This story is a collaboration between St. Louis Public Radio and the Belleville News-Democrat.

Along the border of Venice and Madison in the Metro East, a 1.4 million-square-foot factory and a former 40-acre dump site sit next to several blocks of homes.

From the late 1950s to early '60s, the factory — owned by Dow Chemical Co. at the time — performed work with uranium and thorium that was used in the nation’s nuclear weapons program. It also used thorium for commercial purposes for most of its history.

It wasn’t until 2007, however, that cleanup of the resulting millions of pounds of radioactive waste was finished.

“This is the largest radioactive waste site in the state of Illinois — and no one knows it,” said Larry Burgan, who worked at the site from 1989 to 2003 when it was owned by Spectrulite Consortium Inc.

Burgan and Calvin Ratliff, who worked at the facility before Burgan and whose childhood home sits directly adjacent to it, separated by a fence, are among a group pushing for federal compensation of residents who have developed diseases they say are a result of their exposure to the radioactive contamination.

The Ratliff family house sits in the far-left front of the photo and in the background a heavy metal chemical facility stands on Tuesday, June 11, 2024, in Venice, Ill.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
The Ratliff family house, far left, stands in Venice in front of the former Venice uranium site, now a heavy metal chemical facility.

An informal survey they conducted over several years starting in 2009 found 368 cancer cases among residents in a six-block radius of the site. No government agency appears to have formally documented the cancer rates or health outcomes of residents in the community surrounding the plant.

While a related federal program has paid more than $64.5 million to 383 former employees of this facility and another just north in Granite City, area residents have never been eligible for government compensation.

Between the two facilities, more than 500 cases of cancer were confirmed to be more than likely caused by workers’ exposure to radiation, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

“These certain cancers were identical to a lot of the cancers that the people in the community have,” Ratliff said. “Now, why would a fence make a difference?”

Venice and Madison are not alone in the push to get compensation from the federal government for residents’ health issues.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act has paid more than $2.65 billion for 41,000 claims since it was created in 1990. That compensation has gone specifically to former uranium workers in western states and residents who lived downwind of a test site.

But in recent months, federal legislators, led by U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., have been pushing to expand RECA’s coverage to include other “downwinders,” as well as communities near facilities where radioactive material was processed, stored and dumped.

Senator Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, speaks to reporters outside the Senate chambers on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. House Republicans sent articles of impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to the Senate.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, speaks to reporters outside the Senate chambers in April at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Federal legislators, led by Hawley, have been pushing to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include other “downwinders.”

The U.S. Senate passed a bill to reauthorize and expand RECA in a bipartisan 69-30 vote in March, but that effort failed to gain traction in the House. The bill included 21 Missouri ZIP codes in and around St. Louis.

U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, wants to add Venice, much of Madison and small portions of Granite City to the legislation after hearing about the plight of residents from Burgan, Ratliff and longtime Venice Mayor Tyrone Echols. Budzinski’s district includes these communities in the 62060 ZIP code.

“We really think that this reauthorization is an opportunity for us to really right some of the wrongs and the impacts of our past and the current effects for what they look like for our communities,” Budzinski said. “Including Madison, Venice and Granite City is going to be really important to get my support.”

RECA expired June 7, however, and the reauthorization the Senate passed got caught in the political fray of the House of Representatives, as some Republicans expressed resistance to expanding the act due to the potential costs.

Legislators on both sides of the Mississippi River recently mobilized a different route to get people across the St. Louis metro area compensation. A bipartisan group, including Budzinski and Missouri House members, submitted an amendment of the annual defense spending bill — with the 62060 ZIP code and many others — to the House Rules Committee. The committee rejected the amendment last week, however, leaving residents again waiting for government aid.

St. Louis-area advocates are still urging Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., to bring Hawley’s bill passed by the Senate for a vote in the House.

A photo taken by the Mallinckrodt-St. Louis Sites Task Force Working Group in 1960 of deteriorating steel drums containing radioactive residues near Coldwater Creek.
Kay Drey Mallinckrodt Collection, 1943-2006
State Historical Society of Missouri
A photo taken by the Mallinckrodt-St. Louis Sites Task Force Working Group in 1960 of deteriorating steel drums containing radioactive residues near Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County

History of the site

Just like in St. Louis and St. Charles counties, Metro East facilities processed radioactive elements for Mallinckrodt Chemical Works on behalf of the federal Atomic Energy Commission.

From 1957 through 1960, the Venice-Madison site machine-shaped uranium metal and straightened uranium rods for nuclear weapons. It also produced thorium-alloyed magnesium for many decades. Some of that magnesium was sold to the commission in the late 1950s, but it wasn’t until the late 2000s that the government acknowledged having used it.

The work with radioactive elements left two buildings with leftover radioactive contamination, government records show. Dust, perched mostly out of sight of workers on the buildings' rafters, contained both uranium and thorium.

After Dow, Consolidated Aluminum Corp. owned the 10 buildings from 1969 to 1986. By the late 1980s, Spectrulite Consortium had acquired the facility.

From 1989 to 1992, Dow and Consolidated Aluminum paid for the cleanup of more than 105,000 tons, or 210 million pounds, of thorium-contaminated material from the 40-acre parcel to the east of the facility, according to the cleanup report.

Another survey around the same time found “elevated concentrations” of the two radioactive metals inside the factory.

The federal government identified the location as needing remediation in 1992 for the uranium-laced dust, according to records. At the time, the Energy Department initially concluded thorium was used just for commercial purposes and not to build atomic weapons — meaning it didn’t need to be cleaned up by the government.

The Army Corps of Engineers later removed 60,000 pounds of radioactive dust from the industrial site — but not until 2000. In all, the removal from overhead surfaces, like window ledges, trusses and beams, took 12 days.

By 2003, Spectrulite declared bankruptcy. Magnesium Elektron North America, part of the England-based Luxfer Group, is now the site tenant. A representative of Luxfer declined to comment.

The Pangea Group of St. Louis, an engineering and surveying firm, finished its cleanup of the thorium-contaminated dust on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers and Spectrulite in 2007.

In 2021, a Brooklyn, New York-based company, Grand Landmark, purchased the facility from Cherokee Properties for $10 million, according to Madison County property records.

Larry Burgan shows off a photo of him in the 1980s working with his feet perched upon a uranium processing machine on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
Larry Burgan shows a 1980s photo of him working at the Venice site with his feet perched upon a uranium processing machine while speaking to reporters at Jerry’s Cafe in Granite City.

Burgan and Ratliff's health

At 42 years old, Burgan thought he was perfectly healthy. But by the time he left Spectrulite in 2003, his health took a turn for the worse. He thought he was going to die.

He said he was losing a concerning amount of weight. He found himself struggling to breathe. His eyesight worsened, and his teeth started to fall out.

Burgan later found out, after combing large amounts of government documents, that he worked in the most contaminated part of the factory. The proximity also left him with radiation burns.

Larry Burgan displays chemical burns on his arms that he said he received while working in a uranium processing facility decades ago on Wednesday, May 22, 2024. “It never healed,” he said, “That’s the kind of stuff we worked around every day.”
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
Larry Burgan displays chemical burns on his arms that he said he received while working in a Venice processing facility decades ago on May 22. “It never healed,” he said, “That’s the kind of stuff we worked around every day.”

“It looked like someone had taken handfuls of concrete and slapped them on his skin,” said Penni Livingston, the first lawyer who worked on behalf of Burgan and other former workers. “I never saw anything like that in my life.”

But Burgan’s health later rebounded. Even though he worked in that facility for 14 years, and he said radioactive-contaminated dust fell on him regularly, he’s never contracted cancer.

“For some reason, I’ve been blessed because, perhaps, helping everybody else has been my reward not to develop cancer,” Burgan said. “I’d like to think that. But at the same time, I’m realistic. It’s only a matter of time because of where I worked and how long and what I was exposed to.”

His children and grandchildren haven’t been as fortunate.

His daughter and daughter-in-law have lost pregnancies at six months. Two grandchildren were born with health complications or birth defects and died as babies, he said.

“It’s not in my sister’s or any other part of my family or any other part of my wife’s family. It’s only ours,” Burgan said. “The only common denominator is me bringing home this radioactive dust to [my wife] and my children for all those years.”

Burgan hasn’t been eligible for the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, the government program for workers, because he’s never been diagnosed with cancer or an equivalent illness.

Ratliff has also never been eligible under that program to receive compensation.

He worked at the factory for 10 years, and his doctors diagnosed him with cancer in 2017. Under the workers program, a scientific test must determine a resident’s cancer has a 50% chance of being caused by radiation exposure. Ratliff’s test did not.

“I fall in the category of with a lot of other people who, yeah, worked over there and have fallen between the cracks,” he said.

Calvin Ratliff stands with his sisters Dianne and Patricia in the backyard of his Venice, Ill. home on June 10, 2024. In the background, smoke stacks from a nearby chemical processing facility are visible.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
Calvin Ratliff stands alongside sisters Dianne and Patricia last week in the backyard of his Venice home.

Ratliff and his siblings, some of whom still live next to the factory, have thyroid issues and low white blood cell counts, they said.

While Ratliff’s cancer is lessening, if it comes back, he could get tested again to qualify for the workers program.

Other former workers in the Metro East have been more successful.

At the former Dow site in Venice and Madison, 170 workers have received $25.46 million in compensation and $5.89 million in medical care through the separate program. Just north in Granite City, former employees of General Steel Industries received $31.78 million in compensation and $1.38 million in medical care, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Ratliff and Burgan keep a list of former employees to connect them to organizations, like Cold War Patriots and CNS Cares, that can help navigate complex governmental programs. The group also meets every couple of months in Granite City to receive basic medical care and stay in contact.

Larry Burgan shows documentation on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
Larry Burgan shows documents of where he used to work at the Venice uranium processing site.

'We'll keep going'

The two have spent the better part of the past 20 years researching and documenting their community’s struggles. While the sickest former employees of the factory have been compensated, the residents haven’t been eligible. Therefore, there’s more work to be done, they said.

When they first started their surveying, two area women told them about their children. A 6-year-old developed leukemia, and an 8-year-old had a tumor on his liver.

“It has been frustrating, but then I hear stories from the community,” Ratliff said. “The voices, yeah, it gives me strength. So, until we succeed, we’ll keep going.”

Echols, the mayor of Venice for 41 years, said he thinks it would be in the federal government’s interest to compensate the many residents for their illnesses.

In his eyes, communities of color have had a “rough enough time in this world.” Taking care of this problem could build their trust in the federal government, he said.

“It’s amazing thinking about governmental entities and some of the things they did in times of war,” Echols said. “Some of it may be understandable. I guess your back’s up against the wall. You do what you have to do and suffer with the effects afterwards. But they should be aware that they’re responsible. Step up to the plate and do the right thing.”

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Kelly Smits is the education and environment reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.