Nuclear Waste Adventure Trail
Weldon Spring, Missouri
The largest explosives factory in America once stood on land just south of Weldon Spring, Missouri. Ten years later, the same property was occupied by a plant that refined uranium for Cold War nuclear bombs. The site was abandoned in the late 1960s. Twenty years later, when the EPA showed up, what they found was a big, filthy mess.
What do you do with 1.48 million cubic yards of PCBs, mercury, asbestos, TNT, radioactive uranium and radium, and contaminated sludge and rubble? Rather than haul it west into a desert, the Weldon Spring management team hit upon a novel solution: they would entomb it right where it was, inside a man-made mini-mountain.
Today, you can climb it as a tourist attraction.
The Weldon Spring Site Remedial Action Project Disposal Cell -- its official name -- covers 54 acres. We call it the "Nuclear Waste Adventure Trail." From the air, it looks like a huge, white, trapezoidal spaceship that has landed on the surrounding green grasslands. A single stairway and path leads to its summit, the highest accessible point in St. Charles County, according to its brochure.
We were told that the hilltop is a popular spot for birdwatchers and amateur astronomers, and its easy to envision its charms on a misty dawn or a starry night. But at noon, on a hot day, traversing the hill is like walking the surface of a rocky, alien planet inhospitable to earthly life -- which, in fact, is the point. The people who built the Disposal Cell wanted nothing to grow on it, ever, so that what's buried inside it would never be disturbed.
An adjacent visitor center offers a closer look at the cell and its contents. A cross-section of the hill, showing its thick protective layers of clay, liners, sand, gravel, and rock "rip-rap," extends from floor to ceiling. Touch-me displays help visitors become intimately familiar with the membranous "geosynthetic" lining that envelopes whatever's in the cell like a giant trash bag. You're never clearly shown exactly what it is that's entombed beneath your feet, but displays of vintage Geiger counters and gas masks suggest that it has never been considered safe.
Pat and Jack Dubro, a married couple and former security guards at the site, were staffing the center on the day that we visited. "He worked 11 years out here and he's fine," said Pat of Jack, who added that some visitors are too scared to climb the cell. "They say, 'Am I gonna glow when I leave?'" said Jack, wiggling his hands for effect. "You can see five counties from the top," added Pat, eager to allay any fears. "It's a lovely view."
Indeed, after hundreds of millions of dollars and 15 years of cleanup, this little patch of Missouri is in better shape -- with nature trails, wildlife areas, and prairie grasslands -- than it's been since the early 18th century. That, of course, only makes the Disposal Cell even more of an alien aberration, and more of an attraction.
And if you can't visit soon, there's no need to rush -- the cell is designed to remain exactly the way it is for a thousand years.