Homes near St. Louis County creek are being tested after radioactive contamination found in yards

FILE - Coldwater Creek flows Friday, April 7, 2023, in Florissant, Mo. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is testing soil beneath a few homes in St. Louis County to determine if the houses are sitting atop nuclear contamination. The homes are near Coldwater Creek, which was contaminated with nuclear material in the 1960s. Activists have long said that homes near the creek should be tested. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
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Associated Press

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A federal agency is examining soil beneath homes in a small suburban St. Louis subdivision to determine if residents are living atop Cold War era nuclear contamination. But activists say the testing needs to be far more widespread.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is taking soil samples at six properties in Florissant, Missouri, that sit near Coldwater Creek, a meandering waterway contaminated after nuclear waste was dumped there in the 1960s. The decision was made to look beneath the homes after contamination was found in the homes’ backyards, but not the front yards, Jeremy Idleman of the Corps’ St. Louis office said Tuesday.

Preliminary results could be available by the end of the week, Idleman said. If contamination is discovered beneath the homes, they will be remediated. But Idleman declined to speculate on what that would involve or if the homes might have to be demolished.

Corps officials do not believe any other homes in the area need to be tested, Idleman said. Activists with Just Moms STL, a group that for decades has advocated on behalf of people living near nuclear waste sites in the St Louis region, disagree.

“There’s so many homes on the banks of this creek, for miles,” Karen Nickel, co-founder of Just Moms STL, said Tuesday. “What about the rest of those homes? I don’t think we can say that we trust the Army Corps anymore.”

A news release from the Corps of Engineers said that when the Cades Cove subdivision was being built, a portion of the creek was covered in fill dirt. The Corps said the current testing will determine if that fill dirt is contaminated. The homes were built more than 30 years ago.

“We are deeply invested in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the residents,” Phil Moser, St. Louis District program manager for the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, said in the news release. “Every step we take is grounded in rigorous research, precise data, and evidence-based remediation decisions.”

Uranium processing in the St. Louis area played a pivotal role in developing the nuclear weapons that helped bring an end to World War II and provided a key defense during the Cold War. But eight decades later, the region is still dealing with contamination at several sites.

Nuclear waste stored near Lambert Airport made its way into Coldwater Creek in the 1960s. Many people in that area believe the contamination is responsible for cancers and other illnesses, though experts say connecting radiation exposure to illness is difficult.

In 2022, a Florissant grade school closed amid worries that contamination from the creek got onto the playground and inside the building.

In July, an investigation published by The Associated Press, The Missouri Independent and MuckRock showed that the federal government and companies responsible for nuclear bomb production and atomic waste storage sites in the St. Louis area were aware of health risks, spills, improperly stored contaminants and other problems but often ignored them.

Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, and U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, a St. Louis Democrat, have pushed for compensation for people whose illnesses are tied to radiation exposure. The Senate is expected to vote this week on the compensation plan.

Hawley, in a letter Tuesday to Corps of Engineers leaders, said homes along the creek should have been tested years ago.

“Residents are rightly horrified by the possibility that their homes are built atop radioactive waste — waste which should never have been there in the first place,” Hawley wrote, noting that the Corps assumed jurisdiction of the Coldwater Creek area in 1997. “Why has it taken so long for you to disclose this risk?”

Dawn Chapman, who co-founded Just Moms STL with Nickel, will be Hawley’s guest at President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech Thursday.