DOE and Army Corps accused of negligence over St. Louis radioactive waste
By Bob Mayberry
Last year the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declined to test for radioactive contamination inside the Jane Elementary School in northern St. Louis, in spite of considerable community pressure to do so. Outside testing eventually revealed levels of contamination 22 times higher than background levels in the playground, and 12 times higher than average inside the gymnasium. The school was closed and local lawmakers persuaded the Corps to conduct new tests.
But it was not until early this year that the Department of Energy (DOE) finally requested permission to test for contamination along Coldwater Creek, and even then only at one site, the historic Fort Belle Fontaine, the first U.S. military installation west of the Missouri River. Meanwhile, reports of disease and incidences of cancer at several sites along the creek continue to surface, and residents complain that federal agencies do not communicate about the dangers in the area.
Jane Elementary School sits adjacent to Coldwater Creek, which runs 19 miles between the St. Louis airport and the Missouri River. In 2014, state health officials reported higher incidences of rare cancers associated with low-dose radioactive exposure in areas adjacent to the creek. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended residents avoid getting into or playing near the creek, and in 2019 the federal Department of Health and Human Services released a report concluding that “Radiological contamination in and around Coldwater Creek … could have increased the risk of some types of cancer in people who played or lived there.”
In early March, the Missouri House of Representatives heard testimony about compensation for St. Louis area residents exposed to radioactive waste. State Representative Tricia Byrnes accused the DOE of negligence for failing to remove “the considerable amount of waste around the region.”
The problems began during World War II when the Mallinckrodt Chemical Company began to secretly process uranium ore north of downtown St. Louis as part of the Manhattan Project. Radioactive byproducts were first stored on the St. Louis airport’s northern edge, adjacent to Coldwater Creek, then later trucked to sites further east along the creek, including a site near where the Jane Elementary School now sits. Mallinckrodt officials dismissed the dangers of radioactive waste in a 1946 statement to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, claiming the waste materials “were not radioactive and not dangerous.”
Though processing of uranium by Mallinckrodt Co. ended in 1957, radioactive and chemical waste materials continued to be shipped to and from sites in and around St. Louis. Between 1957 and 1966, uranium ore was processed near Weldon Spring, west of Coldwater Creek along the Missouri River. Approximately 1.5 million cubic yards of radioactive and chemical waste were piled 75 feet high along Route 94 South, near another St. Louis public school. In 1973, nearly 8,700 tons of barium sulfate waste from the Coldwater Creek area was mixed with 40,000 tons of topsoil and shipped to a landfill in Weldon Spring. Residents claim not to have been notified about any of these dangerous practices.
— St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mar 20, 2023
— Bob Mayberry is a retired English and Theater professor at Calif. State Univ. – Channel Islands.