FLORISSANT — Enoch Cole and his wife moved here from Kirkwood a few years ago because their hard-earned money went farther. They bought a nice, spacious house at the end of a cul-de-sac perched above Coldwater Creek.
The waterway snakes 19 miles through north St. Louis County, from around St. Louis Lambert International Airport to the Missouri River. In 1806, Capt. William Clark mentioned the confluence in journals as a final stop in an epic journey.
That’s why he was surprised one day in 2019 to see a white van and truck parked by the creek, in a low-lying grassy area that he doesn’t own. Five people in bright orange vests had a table set up.
“I thought it was a class or something,” said Cole, 67.
Or a body.
The team told Cole they were doing “some testing.” They gave him a “Dear Neighbor” letter from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District that was so specific it didn’t make sense. The letter said the sampling was part of the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, or FUSRAP, “to further characterize Coldwater Creek and associated flood plain properties.”
After he read it, Cole went to his computer. He concluded it had something to do with World War II and an issue of contamination getting into the creek. He wondered what the results of the testing were and eventually forgot about it until a reporter recently knocked on the door.
In the past 30 years, North County has gone through a significant population shift, with older white residents moving out and African Americans moving in. As the neighborhoods shift, many people don’t know about the ongoing cleanup of Coldwater Creek from radioactive contaminants left from the development of the nation’s first atomic weapons.
In 2021, the Army Corps of Engineers budget for the project was $34.55 million, up from $20 million in 2019. So far, more than 29,000 dirt samples have been taken to pinpoint remediation of the creek that is expected to ramp up in the next couple years.
Though funding has increased, and about 100 people are working on the project each day, the completion date has been pushed back to 2038. Several recommendations from federal public health officials aren’t being followed.
Making a mess
The St. Louis region played an enormous role supplying U.S. forces with firepower during World War II. In St. Charles County, 17,000 acres of farmland were snapped up by eminent domain to make TNT for torpedoes and other bombs. A plant in the 4800 block of Goodfellow Boulevard in St. Louis produced ammunition and artillery projectiles.
And on the Mississippi riverfront, north of Downtown St. Louis, Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. processed massive amounts of uranium ore for the development of atomic weapons from 1942 to 1957. Tons of byproduct with residual radioactive material were shipped to a location on the northern border of the airport, next to Coldwater Creek, to be stored.
For years, the toxic waste sat there, mainly in barrels, in the 100 block of James S. McDonnell Boulevard. By the mid-1960s, Continental Mining and Milling Co. purchased much of the material. They trucked it about a mile away, to an industrial area in the 9200 block of Latty Avenue, which also borders Coldwater Creek. The material was dried there before it was shipped to Canon City, Colorado. Some of it was also eventually buried at West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton.
Unbeknownst to the new residents, many of them had followed the path of the radioactive waste trucked from north St. Louis to North County, before President Richard Nixon created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The residents were drawn by brand-new homes, in new school districts and neighborhoods, some with views of the countryside.
Considering 1996 to 2011, the state found cases of leukemia were “statistically significantly higher” than the rate for the rest of Missouri, as were cases of breast, colon, prostrate, kidney and bladder cancers, according to the report. Among children, 17 and younger, cases of brain and other nervous system cancers were “significantly” higher than expected in the 63043 ZIP code. Oddly, thyroid cancer, which is more easily linked to ionizing radiation exposure, was significantly lower in the region.
There was enough concern in 2019 that the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, weighed in with a 252-page report.
ATSDR, which addresses community public health concerns nationwide, concluded that people like Farrell who lived or played “in and around” Coldwater Creek between the 1960s and 1990s could have increased risk of getting lung cancer, bone cancer or leukemia from radiological contamination that was around prior to remediation of the original storage areas beside the airport and on Latty Avenue.
Moser said they are designing the plan to remediate the rest of the creek. If there aren’t delays from other road and bridge projects, he said, they want to start cleaning up the creek within the next two years. They will begin near the airport, work their way downstream toward the confluence, removing contamination identified by testing. The original storage location beside the airport will continue to be used as a load-out facility for shipping the contaminated dirt out of the area by covered rail cars. It’s currently being sent to a waste management company in Idaho.
“There were no records,” said Behlmann. “Nobody talked about or knew about any kind of contamination at that time.”
One supplier he named has since died. In hindsight, Behlmann said, nobody is going to put an ad in the paper that says: “Anybody who has bought topsoil from North County since 1960, please notify us.”
In 2016, Nasalroad said he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He’d awakened one morning with a knot on his neck. Within a week, he said, it had grown to the size of an orange. The growth and half his thyroid were removed. He continues to monitor it.
He said he didn’t tell his doctor that he lived next to Coldwater Creek, though ASTDR recommends doing so. Nasalroad, who said he also grew up playing in the creek, doesn’t think the location of his home puts him at risk for cancer. As far as he understood it, the main contamination was way up stream, by the airport.
Christi Oster Evans grew up on the other side of the creek, surrounded by what is now Florissant Golf Club. As a kid, she said, she would hop over the creek to see friends who lived on the other side, sometimes to get to school. Now she’s 58 and lives in Eureka. She’s a vegan. Until recently, she said, she was walking 3 to 5 miles a day, and managing a salon. Then a large mass popped up on her abdomen. She was diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and is undergoing chemotherapy.
She said she told her doctor about spending much of her childhood near Coldwater Creek, from 1965 to 1983. The main storage sites of radioactive waste beside the airport and around Latty Avenue hadn’t been remediated by then. Contamination in and around the creek could have been on the surface. She said her doctor was not familiar with the environmental saga.