Prettying Up the Manhattan Project

Denise Brock in front of the memorial tribute to Mallinckrodt’s uranium workers.




Activist Denise Brock, who singlehandedly made it possible for more than 6,500 St. Louis uranium workers (or their widows) to receive $200 million in compensation, now has horrific (unrelated) medical issues herself. On her first trip to the ER, dizzied but still in pain despite the morphine the ambulance paramedics gave her, she sat, vomiting often, for five hours in the waiting room—only to be sent home with a diagnosis of flu. When her daughter took her to a different ER, that doctor checked the electronic record and said he knew she was only there to get more drugs. By the time she made it to a third ER the next day, an undiagnosed bowel obstruction had necrosed, and she had sepsis. More than three feet of bowel had to be removed, and she was left with something called short gut syndrome. She cannot hold anything down, and she is weaker and thinner by the day.

Right after she received the diagnosis, her phone rang. Did she want to come pick up the memorial tribute to the Mallinckrodt uranium workers, or should the staff at the Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center just pitch it?

Stunned, she answered in a dull haze; only the next day did the full import hit her. Weldon Spring, where the Manhattan Project uranium processing moved after World War II, had opened a shiny new interpretive center in late April. Apparently they had decided there was no place for the memorial, a tall silver arch that local ironworkers built to commemorate all the St. Louis workers sickened or killed by uranium poisoning.

Brock thought back to those years of tireless—no, that is not right, it was exhausting—work. First, helping her mother through the massive, tedious, obfuscating process to claim recompense after Denise’s father died of lung, brain, and liver cancer. He had processed uranium at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works from 1945 until 1958. When months passed with no action, Brock dug in—and learned that not a single Mallinckrodt claim had ever been paid. So she fought to establish a Special Exposure Cohort. This would expedite medical coverage and financial payments for anyone who worked at that site between 1942 and 1957 and became ill—or to their surviving spouse.

In 2005, Brock succeeded. Those who had worked at the site between 1942 and 1948 and now had any of 22 cancers would not have to jump the hurdle of reconstructing their radiation dose. As founder of United Nuclear Weapons Workers, Brock testified before Congress on their behalf. As their ombudsman at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, she continues to counsel families across the nation; when she goes to the Mayo Clinic this summer, she will have her phone and laptop nearby.

All told, more than $21 billion in medical bills and compensation has been paid to energy employees suffering from occupational illnesses or their surviving family members. As she assimilated the news from Weldon Spring, Brock set aside her own medical problems and thought about those families. She thought about the hours the ironworkers spent creating that arch as a tribute to the Mallinckrodt workers. About the book that listed every worker by name, the display that told their history, the information for people who might be eligible for free medical care and monetary compensation. About the other states where people had petitioned after learning about Missouri’s precedent-setting Special Exposure Cohort.

Sen. Kit Bond congratulating Denise Brock at the memorial’s installation. Fr. Gerry Kleba looks on.

She called Tony West, who had directed an award-winning documentary, The Safe Side of the Fence, about the toxic site. He was appalled but not surprised: “I did a lot of my research out there, and I heard their tours. They always avoided that material. I guess they figured this was a good time to get rid of the memorial altogether,” he says dryly.

When neither Brock nor West could get a clear answer, I went through media channels. “None of the exhibits from the former interpretive center matched the layout and design of new interpretive center,” responded a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Energy’s aptly named office of legacy management. The story of the legislation Brock secured has been “streamlined and captured in an audiovisual treatment at an interactive AV kiosk.” As for the plaque “in memory of Ms. Brockman’s parents and mentioning Ms. Brockman’s dedication to EEOICPA,” the spokeswoman continues, “we are recreating the plaque and having it installed on a new park bench on the Weldon Spring grounds.”

“I hope they at least spell her name right on the plaque,” West snaps. “A park bench? They have a wall in the new center dedicated to women who fought for the environment—including one who fought for the Love Canal families in New York. No Kay Drey [the St. Louis activist who first drew attention to nuclear waste contamination]. No Denise Brock.”

In the AV kiosk, the relevant slide is titled “Why Mallinckrodt Succeeds.” It focuses on the talents of the workforce, then makes brief mention of the Special Exposure Cohort that made Mallinckrodt workers automatically eligible for compensation. “Please contact the Front Desk for more information” is at the bottom.

So instead of a memorial paying tribute, photographs, the workers’ history, and timeline entries about the fight to compensate them, all of that in plain sight to any visitor, there are now seven and a half lines in a quick slide and some brochures on the front desk rack.

“The people who suffered and died at the uranium plant were as integral to the war effort as the people who went ashore at Iwo Jima,” Father Gerry Kleba says angrily. He knows Brock’s work well; he began pressing for answers about the site’s toxins after burying seven babies and young children in his first year at a Weldon Spring parish. Kleba brought a lot of attention to the contamination, and he is interviewed at length in West’s documentary.

This painful little chapter in history might seem a trifle: that era is over; most of the survivors have been compensated; the waste is neatly tucked into that giant container. But there is a postscript to the site’s response: “Please Note: We’ve had former workers come to the interpretive center seeking help with EEOICPA claims, and we’ve gladly given them brochures, so we know having the information available is important.”

There is also a line in the latest five-year review of the site, noting that for its groundwater, “the current monitoring well network may not be adequate,” and there is need for additional monitoring “to further delineate the uranium plume.”

This is a legacy that never ends.

The memorial is big, its arch about seven feet tall, and its display cabinet “might not fit their little color scheme,” West says. But the new interpretive center is 25,000 square feet, interpreting a mound of toxic waste the size of 54 football fields. Is there no room anywhere?

Maybe, but it does not fit the new tone: lots of interesting facts about World War II, emphasis on the amazing environmental remediation, a lovely hiking trail and prairie walk plus steps families can climb to see a panoramic view, not to mention educational programs like “Tips and Tricks for Winter Backyard Birding.”

When the shock wore off, Brock called back, indignant. Now the team has decided to place a book of the uranium workers’ names on a stand and add a textual plate of some sort to the wall. (No big arch, though.)

“Let’s call this what it is,” Brock says when I read her the response. “They’re pissed off because Tony’s documentary went all the way to Berlin, and in it, Fr. Gerry asks, ‘Why would you take your kids to the top of an atomic pile?’”


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.