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Feb 08

A Look Back with the County Executive: Weldon Spring

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 2:55 PM by County Executive

The history of the land in Weldon Spring south of Interstate 64 is both interesting and controversial. Today, this scenic area of the county features a research park full of businesses, a valued conservation area and one of our largest school districts. It is also deeply rooted in our nation’s defense and energy industries, and the longtime focus of public health concerns. As with all opportunities to look back, important lessons abound.

After the fall of France in June 1940, Congress passed a defense appropriation larger than the entire cost of World War I. As a result, the country not only surpassed 1929 levels of production in 1941, but exceeded those levels by 30 percent. Work began on the Weldon Spring ordnance plant in January 1941 and was completed in 10 months. Twenty-seven cemeteries, including an Indian burial ground, were fenced; the villages of Howell, Hamburg and Toonerville were evacuated; 13 miles of railroad track was laid and 50 miles of road was built; a major pipeline was relocated; and five deep wells were sunk to produce 17 million gallons of water a day. The project consumed 8.5 million board feet of lumber; 1,500 tons of structural steel; and 40,000 cubic yards of concrete. Francis Howell High School had to move to the new Central Elementary School building in 1942.1  The Weldon Spring ordnance plant, operated by the Atlas Powder Company, opened two months before Pearl Harbor. It became the largest producer of TNT in the country, eventually producing 880 tons per day, and became known locally as the “TNT Plant.” It was only a small part of an unprecedented mobilization for war.  

The Corps of Engineers had contracted in October 1940 with R. Newton McDowell to represent the government in securing options on approximately 700 parcels of land in the Hamburg-Howell area for the construction of the ordnance plant. Years later, C. Fred Hollenbeck commented, “Although a letter from the land optioner for the U.S. War Department stated, ‘You will be treated in a fair manner,’ the arrogance of the agents was like that of a conquering army. The agents who took the land acted as if they were some favorite cousin of the U.S. government. They acted as if those who refused to option land were unpatriotic.”2  Under the options, landowners paid a five percent commission to McDowell, in addition to the cost of clearing title. Options were obtained from 270 landowners, of which all but one was accepted by the government. The first purchases took place in December 1940, with some landowners paid as much as $92 per acre. As the government began paying, people held auction sales and moved off the land. At that point, the War Department began to question whether McDowell had paid too much for some of the land and whether his commission was too high. The federal government exercised its options on only 121 parcels and filed condemnation suits on the 146 parcels where the options were too high, and on another three because no options had been granted. While the United States Attorney filed a lawsuit to determine whether there had been criminal fraud, some landowners had already sold their livestock and used the proceeds to make down payments on new farms, assuming the remainder of the money would be forthcoming. In some instances, the delay reduced families to poverty.

Although the war department discontinued payments to McDowell a month later, it was estimated that he made more than $50,000 in commissions. While the government expected to acquire the site for about $1 million, exercising the options would have cost $3 million. The government alleged fraud on the part of McDowell, and argued that the options violated statutory prohibitions on “costs-plus-a-percentage-of-cost” contracts.4  Forty-five landowners retained attorney Samuel M. Watson to represent them. According to Calvin Castlio, “Sam Watson expressed the opinion that the contract[s] held [are] legal and binding and would finally be so decided... He said we had to be prepared to go all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States if necessary.”5  In February 1945, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-3 decision, in favor of the former landowners from the TNT area. Justice Reed, writing for the majority, explained that the arrangement was not a cost-plus-a-percentage-of-cost contract.

After the war, safety experts decontaminated the TNT plant at Weldon Spring and converted it to civilian use. Since future uses would not require the vast expanse of land that surrounded the plant, the federal government offered 18,000 acres for sale. The government denied an application by the St. Charles County Court to acquire the TNT area. The Missouri Conservation Commission did receive permission to purchase 7,000 acres for $250,750 in April 1947. The payment included a $70,000 gift from Alice Busch in honor of her late husband, August A. Busch, who had worked for decades trying to establish a wildlife refuge in St. Charles County.  The area, set aside as a game refuge and recreational area, was named the August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area, or Busch Wildlife Area. The government also transferred approximately 7,900 acres in December 1948 to the University of Missouri, with the right to repossess the land in the event of a national emergency. As a condition of the transfer, the university had to utilize the property for research and educational purposes for 20 years.6   

The TNT area was considered as a possible site for the proposed United States Air Force Academy, when the choice was delayed by the Korean conflict. After the Atomic Energy Commission approved construction of a $33 million uranium processing plant at the former TNT plant in Weldon Spring, the project employed more than 2,000 at the peak of construction in 1955. Mallinckrodt Chemical Works operated the plant, which employed 1,500 permanent personnel by May 1957, to process uranium ore concentrates and a small amount of thorium.7  The County Court purchased the Weldon Spring water plant in 1971 and contracted with Missouri Cities Water Company to extend water services to certain western areas of St. Charles County.     

The greatest federal involvement in St. Charles County continued to be the clean-up of the former uranium processing plant at Weldon Spring. Concerns about possible contamination were a potential threat to residential growth in the area, and new residents were demanding the federal government clean up the site. At the prompting of environmental groups, Congress created a superfund in 1981 that was expected to spend over a billion dollars a year to clean up toxic waste sites. Waste that had been generated at the Weldon Spring plant between 1958 and 1966 was stored in four open-air lagoons called raffinate pits. Uranium residue had also been stored in a quarry on the site. When the Department of Energy (DOE) proposed the dumping of additional radioactive material on the site in 1982, the Francis Howell school board passed a resolution against the proposal. Local, state and federal elected officials, including Senator Thomas Eagleton, requested public hearings on the proposal. Opposition mounted when the DOE announced its intention to make the site a permanent storage area, and 2,000 people attended a meeting in the Francis Howell gymnasium. The DOE agreed to do an environmental impact statement prior and materials were brought to the site. Allegations were made that the pits were leaking and possibly contaminating the nearby well fields. After the Missouri Department of Health began sampling private drinking water in the summer of 1983, high uranium concentrations were found in several wells, confirming that radioactive material was migrating off-site. The DOE assured officials that the situation would not be a threat for decades, by which time it would be corrected, and a study by the State Department of Health found cancer deaths in the area less than expected over the previous ten years. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Governor Kenneth Rothman, who owned a farm near Femme Osage Creek, called for a more in-depth cancer study in 1983.8  

Residents and interest groups pushed for a federal clean-up of the former uranium processing plant at Weldon Spring. The DOE took control of the site in 1985 and began an extensive clean-up. While the Bush administration budget cuts threatened to delay the completion of the project in 1989, the federal budget the next year contained $27.3 million for the clean-up. The DOE and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed construction of a facility for disposal of 800,000 cubic yards of hazardous waste at a cost of $187 million in 1992. The DOE released the first 541,000 gallons of treated water from the quarry into the Missouri River the following year. The plan called for a 72-acre watertight “disposal cell,” and an incinerator to clean up contamination from manufacturing on the site. By the time workers capped the cell in 2001, it contained 1.5 million cubic yards of hazardous waste.9  Today, the site is part of the Weldon Springs Interpretive Center, where visitors can learn about the history and cleanup, as well as view and climb to the top of the disposal cell.   

[1] Cosmos-Monitor, October 1, 1941; Edna McElhiney Olson, Historical Articles, Vol. I, 180.
[2]  Journal, June 17, 1979.
[3]  Cosmos-Monitor, October 30, 1940, December 25, 1940 and August 13, 1941. 
[4] Ibid. August 13, 1941.  Congress received a report from a committee in 1936 outlining the exorbitant profits made under cost plus contracts by munitions makers during WWI, and Congress had passed legislation banning them from government procurement. Muschany v. United States, 324 U.S. 49, 65 S. Ct. 442, 89 L. Ed. 744, at 16.
[5] Daniel T. Brown, Small Glories, 468.
[6] Ibid., March 20, 1946, May 14, 1947 and December 1, 1948.
[7] Burnett, St. Louis at War, 158-160; Cosmos-Monitor, January 21, 1951 and May 26, 1957.  
[8] Ibid. “Year in Review: A Look at the Events of 1982,” January 2, 1983, Ibid., June 28, 1983.
[9] Journal, January 2, 1994.