‘It’s heartbreaking:’ Government document revelations on radioactive waste prompt reaction

Published: Jul. 12, 2023 at 7:37 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) -- Newly released documents raise new concerns about the risks posed to the community from radioactive waste created by the Manhattan Project and the nation’s subsequent nuclear weapons program.

The two founding members of the community advocacy group Just Moms STL obtained 15,000 pages of government documents dating back to 1942 when Mallinckrodt Chemical Works began processing uranium in downtown St. Louis for the first atomic bombs. Group members say the documents show the extent of contamination was greater than the community ever knew, and that the information was kept secret.

“No one cared about us. They allowed it to happen. Our lives weren’t worth saving,” said Karen Nickel of Just Moms STL.

A document from Mallinckrodt Chemical Works dated August 11, 1949, addressed the problem of barrels of waste that were stored near Lambert St. Louis International Airport, which was leaking into Coldwater Creek. The memo stated that it would be too dangerous for workers to seal the barrels in other containers, so the contamination of the creek was allowed to continue.

“They’ve known for a while, they knew much earlier, much earlier. And so, they’ve had 73 years to protect the community and not once have they,” said Dawn Chapman of Just Moms STL.

A document dated March 12, 1953, contained information on contaminated waste spilling on roadways while being trucked from downtown St. Louis. There was a “greater contamination of the area than had been originally estimated.”

Christen Commuso grew up in north St. Louis County playing in and around Coldwater Creek.

“Really what it does is it puts a dark shadow on things that you thought were these really great memories. You all of a sudden start to realize what was really going on and behind the scenes here and was I being exposed at this point,” she said.

In 1997 the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers was placed in charge of cleaning up contaminated areas, including sites Downtown, by the airport, in Hazelwood and along Coldwater Creek. Removal of radioactive material buried in the banks of the river is expected to run until 2038.

U.S. Senator from Missouri Josh Hawley sponsored legislation to clean up Jana Elementary School, which is located near Coldwater Creek, after one test concluded it was contaminated. The legislation was passed by the Senate. He said today that he plans to propose new legislation calling for a much wider federal cleanup.

“It’s an absolute disgrace and another example of the federal government not telling the truth to the people of St. Louis,” said Hawley.

Nickel and Chapman said they would like to see a medical monitoring program for those who currently or formerly lived near contaminated sites, and compensation for those who developed radiation-related health concerns or lost a loved one to them.