Army Corps finds more radioactive contamination along Coldwater Creek

Jun 24, 2015

Updated 6/24/15 after the Corps open house - Area residents packed into a room at the Hazelwood Civic Center last night to find out the bad news about radioactive contamination in North St. Louis County.

At the open house, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed it has found radioactive contamination at three new sites along Coldwater Creek.

They are in St. Cin Park in Hazelwood, Duchesne Park in Florissant, and a property of the St. Louis Archdiocese behind St. Ferdinand cemetery, also in Hazelwood. All the contaminated areas are subject to flooding from the creek.

Michelle Seeger questions Army Corps health physicist Jonathan Rankins while her sister Julie Pinkston looks on. Seeger grew up near Coldwater Creek and has Stage IV cancer.
Credit Credit Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio

Army Corps health physicist Jonathan Rankins characterized the contamination levels as "low," and said they do not pose a risk to people walking or playing in the parks. “The St. Cin Park for example, the contamination is not on the surface,” Rankins said. “There is clean soil on top of the contamination.”

Rankins said the radioactive soil is between one and four feet below the surface at all three sites.

But he said the contaminated material will need to be removed. “The levels of thorium 230, in every one of these areas, exceeded the clean-up goal, or remedial goal, by a factor of two to four,” Rankins said. "We found a few elevated spots within that subset that are as high as 400 picocuries per gram." The level of thorium 230 triggering a clean-up by the Corps is 15 picocuries per gram of subsurface soil.

Rankins said the Corps has also been testing residential properties, and has found only one — next to Hazelwood Avenue — that was contaminated. But he doesn’t rule out finding more backyard contamination in the future.

Remediation work will begin at St. Cin Park in early July, followed by Duchesne Park and then the Archdiocese property starting in November. Although the areas will be fenced off and posted with warning signs during the clean-ups, the Corps will not take any action to keep people out of the contaminated areas before excavation begins.

This U.S. Army Corps of Engineers map shows current and future areas of sampling. The three areas recently found to have radioactive contamination are shown in black on the left side of the map.
Credit Credit Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio

Bob Terry was among the crowd at the Corps’ open house on Wednesday evening. “I grew up on the banks of Coldwater Creek,” Terry said.

Terry said he has lost several family members to cancer and has two forms of the disease himself. He said growing up, brain tumors were “rampant” in his neighborhood. “As a kid I thought they were normal,” Terry said. “Now I know that they’re not.”

Terry said he wants Congress to provide the St. Louis Corps with more funding. “I think the more they get, the more they’ll be able to do,” Terry said. “And I also think there needs to be a bigger sense of urgency, because people are dying.”

Like Terry, Michelle Seeger grew up in Florissant near Coldwater Creek. She has stage four cancer.

Seeger called Wednesday evening’s open house a waste of time. "It's just go to the next booth Michelle, I can't answer that question Michelle, we'll let you know Michelle, we're testing Michelle,” Seeger said. “We found stuff but it doesn't hurt people. I'm just frustrated."

Seeger said the Corps needs to do more to educate the public about the risks of radioactive waste — and move faster to clean it up.

"It's too late for me. I have cancer. It's incurable," Seeger said.

But she said she hopes it's not too late for children growing up near Coldwater Creek now.

Read our preview of the meeting, below:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has found more radioactive contamination along Coldwater Creek.

The Corps recently collected more than 4,000 samples along a 3.4-mile stretch of creek north of Lambert airport, between Frost Avenue and St. Denis Bridge.

That includes a mostly residential area north of Interstate 270.

The Army Corps' latest round of sampling along Coldwater Creek stretched from Frost Avenue north to St. Denis Bridge (both marked in red). The creek, which flows from south to north, is visible as a faint blue line.
Credit Mapbox, OpenStreetMap

Corps spokesperson Mike Petersen said some radioactive contamination was found in the creek's floodplain, but he would not confirm whether any homes were affected.

"We're dealing with mainly low levels of contamination along the creek," Petersen said. "We haven't had anything that raised any red flags or alarms, but we want to make sure that the public understands what we're doing, where we're doing it, and who they can talk to, to get answers."

The public will be able to get those answers at an open house on Wednesday evening, where Petersen said representatives of the Corps will be on hand to tell people about which areas are contaminated.

"We'll have folks talking about where we're working in the area along Coldwater Creek, what we've found, what our upcoming activities in the area are going to be, and any other information including basic radiation information from a health physicist," Petersen said.

Petersen said area residents can expect to see more clean-up work along the creek in the near future.

In Jan. 2014, an online survey had collected 1,242 reports of cancer from current and former residents of the neighborhoods around Coldwater Creek in North St. Louis County.
Credit Coldwater Creek Facts PowerPoint presentation

In September 2014, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources sent a letter to the Pentagon in Washington, asking the Army to prioritize funding for its cleanup of radioactive waste sites in St. Louis, citing residential areas along Coldwater Creek as of particular concern. "Utility and road crews frequently dig into these soils. Children play on them. We believe that rapid and complete remediation is needed to address this concern," the letter stated.

The Army finally responded seven months later. In that response letter, Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy did not commit to any additional funding. Instead she urged Missouri's DNR to share its concerns with the Army Corps' St. Louis District team, which is responsible for the Coldwater Creek clean-up.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis County Department of Public Health has started preliminary work on a study of cancer cases among current and former residents of the neighborhoods along the creek. According to Faisal Khan, the department's director, his staff will start recruiting study participants by early December.

Wednesday's open house with the Army Corps will run from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Hazelwood Civic Center at 8969 Dunn Road.

Follow Veronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience