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Health, Science, Environment

Army Corps Updates Public On Cleanup Of Radioactive North County Creek

Jenell Wright (front row, in blue) and Meagan Beckermann (second row, in light blue) were among the crowd of more than 100 that gathered to listen to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio

Updated 1/29/15 after the meeting

More than a hundred people packed into a room at the Hazelwood Civic Center East Thursday night to hear the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers talk about its cleanup of St. Louis radioactive waste sites.

The meeting began with a presentation by Gerald Allen, the Corps' acting project manager for the St. Louis Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). Allen gave an overview of testing and remediation at all the contaminated sites, including downtown St. Louis and north St. Louis County. He and other Corps staff then fielded questions from the audience, in a wide-ranging session lasting almost 45 minutes.

Most of the questions focused on radioactive contamination along Coldwater Creek.

Meagan Beckermann grew up near the creek in Florissant and now lives in Bridgeton near another radioactive waste site, the West Lake Landfill.

Her main concern was about kids playing in the creek.

“I think there should be signs warning of the radioactive contamination in the creek so that the kids that do play in there still today are not exposed, just like their parents were 40 years ago,” Beckermann said.

Jon Rankins, a health physicist with the St. Louis Army Corps of Engineers, fields questions from the audience, as FUSRAP oversight committee member Kat Logan Smith takes notes.
Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio

Jon Rankins, a health physicist with the St. Louis Corps, said there is no immediate risk to residents living along the creek, or to workers in the area.

But he admitted that long-term exposure to radioactive contamination along the creek does pose a health risk. "There is definitely a long-term threat," Rankins said. "That’s why you’ll see us removing contamination in the future."

Removing contaminated soil from all the Corps' north St. Louis County sites could take until at least 2020.

So why not put up warning signs or protective fencing in the meantime?

"It’s not a simple answer," Rankins said. "Because there are so many different properties and property types and property owners. And doing a temporary institutional control like a sign or a fence is a legal action on property."

Rankins said the Corps' 2005 Record of Decision established the risk levels that would warrant "temporary controls" like warning signs. "The exposure and the risk isn’t there that would warrant that type of control," Rankins said.

But Rankins said the Corps would consider putting up signs in the future ― if testing showed they were needed.

St. Louis County health department director Dr. Faisal Khan (right) introduces his new chronic disease team: lead epidemiologist Rich DeClue, epidemiology specialist Brigette Davis, and biostatistician Lara Dalidowitz (right to left).
Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio

You can read a two-page fact sheet summarizing the 2005 ROD, here.

Newly-appointed St. Louis County health department director Faisal Khan also spoke at the meeting. He introduced three recently-hired epidemiologists who will be devoted to assessing chronic diseases in the county ― including those potentially caused by exposure to radioactive contamination in Coldwater Creek.

"You can be assured," Khan said, " that we will do whatever we can with the resources we have to help you."

Read our preview of the meeting, below:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will update the public Thursday night about its ongoing cleanup of legacy radioactive waste sites in and around St. Louis.

Current and former residents of those neighborhoods have formed a Facebook group and documented high numbers of certain cancers, autoimmune diseases and other health problems.

And last fall, a state health department study reinforced their concerns.

Members of the citizen’s group that organized the meeting want to know what they can do to speed up the process, particularly in North County residential areas near Coldwater Creek.

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.
Coldwater Creek Facts PowerPoint presentation

Coldwater Creek and other sites in the St. Louis area were contaminated with radioactive waste from the development of atomic weapons here in the 40s and 50s. The Corps has been testing and cleaning up those sites since the mid-90s.

According to Mike Petersen, the chief of public affairs for the Corps' St. Louis District, the cleanup program has removed more than a million cubic yards of radioactive soil, completing remediation at sites near the St. Louis airport and in Madison Co., Ill.

"Remediation involves excavating all the contaminated soils, putting them on sealed rail cars that are moved to approved storage facilities out west," Petersen said. The Corps uses covered trucks to transport the radioactive dirt to the rail cars, and in some cases even builds new rail lines to contaminated sites.

But so far, all those cleanup efforts have focused only on industrial areas.

Jenell Wright grew up near Coldwater Creek and wants to know when cleanup will start there. She said the Corps' timeline keeps getting longer.

"We the citizens are very concerned," Wright said. "We would like to see the creek remediated in a faster fashion, and we would like to learn what can we do to help effect that change, in order to make sure the area’s safer for all of the residents."

On this map from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' 2005 Record of Decision, the red line outlines the properties comprising the Corps' North St. Louis County cleanup sites.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District

Mike Petersen said the Corps has already started testing for radioactive contamination in the upstream portion of Coldwater Creek, between Frost and Pershall Roads, just south of 270. "They’ll wrap that up and move on to sample from Pershall down to St. Denis Bridge," Petersen said. "That will all be complete within the next three months or so."

After that, sampling will continue north along the creek to New Halls Ferry Road. "That’ll be another four to five months, depending on what we find," Petersen said.

But Petersen could not say when the Corps would begin removing any contaminated soil from neighborhoods around Coldwater Creek ― or when the entire cleanup process might be completed.

"It’s very hard to say how long remediation will take until we’ve completed sampling in an area," Petersen said. "Once we can see where the contamination is located, the full extent of it, then we come up with a remediation plan to address it in the best possible way."

Petersen added that the pace of the cleanup also depends on how much money the program gets each year.

Four months ago, 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.

According to MDNR spokesperson Gena Terlizzi, the Corps has yet to respond.

Thursday's community meeting is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. in the Hazelwood Civic Center East at 8969 Dunn Road. Representatives of the St. Louis Army Corps of Engineers and the St. Louis County Health Department have committed to attend and take questions from the public.

Follow Veronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience

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