Nuclear contamination testing planned at St. Louis-area park

Is park radioactive?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to test for radioactive contamination at a suburban St. Louis park that sits along a notoriously toxic creek, a Corps official said Tuesday.

The Corps of Engineers is seeking permission from St. Louis County to test soil and water at Fort Belle Fontaine Park, a popular spot for hikers with high bluffs and panoramic views. The park sits about three miles from where the Missouri River flows into the Mississippi River.

Coldwater Creek runs through the park. The notoriously contaminated creek has been a headache for decades, since radioactive waste got into the waterway in the 1950s. Residents who lived along the creek as children in the 1960s and later have blamed illnesses, including rare cancers, on playing in the creek.

“We were never, as kids, supposed to go down there, but of course we did,” said Kim Visintine, a member of the Coldwater Creek Group, which advocates for testing and cleanup.

A division of the Corps of Engineers known as the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, or FUSRAP, is responsible for cleanup of contamination along the creek. Jon Rankins, senior health physicist for FUSRAP, said the effort at the park is part of a plan to test all properties within the Coldwater Creek floodplain.

“We don’t anticipate finding contamination due to the elevated topography, and have not found contamination in the immediate vicinity of the park," Rankins said in a statement.

Still, testing was welcomed by local activist groups. Visintine noted that the park is far removed from the residential areas where children played in the creek.

“It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere,” she said.

Coldwater Creek was contaminated with radioactive waste generated when Mallinckrodt Chemical processed uranium in the 1940s and 1950s for atomic weapons. The waste was initially stored at Lambert Airport, near the creek, then later trucked to an industrial area that also borders the creek.

The site near the airport has largely been cleaned up but remediation of the creek itself won’t be finished until 2038, Corps officials have said. Meanwhile, The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016 urged people to stay away from Coldwater Creek.

Last year, Jana Elementary School in the town of Florissant was closed after testing by a private company found contamination on the kindergarten playground and inside the building. The private study was funded by lawyers whose clients are suing over radioactive contamination in Coldwater Creek, which runs near the school.

The results prompted the Corps of Engineers to conduct its own investigation. The agency found no contamination inside the school or in multiple soil samples on the outside, and a third round of testing also found no harmful levels of radioactive material. Still, the school remains closed.

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