FOIA unearths documents showing government downplayed risks of radioactive wastes at Coldwater Creek in Missouri

There’s a scene in “Oppenheimer,” a recent movie about the making of the atomic bomb, when a woman hanging up laundry outside is warned to take in the sheets. The laundry outside might get contaminated with the impending explosion of the first atomic bomb.

Karen Nichol of North St. Louis County notes that the mothers and residents downwind of the Nevada atomic test site at least got warned about dangerous radioactivity from the atomic bomb development. Not so in St. Louis.

“St. Louis moms did not get any kind of warning about uranium waste processing for the bomb,” said Karen Nichol of Just Moms St. Louis.   “They knew nothing about the careless, reckless, disregard to human life from the federal government that went into the making of the bomb here.

“So many moms to this day still aren’t getting the warning,” added Nichol. “There are people that have gone to great lengths to make sure St. Louis had no warning. There are also still no signs warning kids to stay out of the radioactive Coldwater Creek.”

The dirty legacy of the atomic bomb development in St. Louis can be found at several sites: Coldwater Creek, near Lambert International Airport, at the West Lake Landfill in the Bridgeton area, and across the Missouri River at Weldon Spring.

“These sites are the same in that they are all contaminated by radioactive nuclear weapons waste from the Manhattan Project,” explained Dawn Chapman of Just Moms St. Louis. “The U.S. Department of Energy is responsible for every single bit of it at every site, and unfortunately, the DOE mishandled the wastes at every site.

“The DOE deliberately kept the magnitude of contamination, as well as exposure to residents, a secret in order to keep the public and elected officials from demanding an immediate clean up,” said Chapman. “Different locations became contaminated in different years, but the waste behaved the same at all of them. Subject to the elements, radioactivity moved around and people were exposed.”

According to Just Moms, the burial site at Weldon Spring poses the additional risk with a large segment of St. Charles County residents still on well water. Well fields sit close to the site. Each site has a groundwater plume.

Waiting for justice

Chapman and Nickel, who head “Just Moms St. Louis,” say they know in their bones that the Manhattan Project to make the atomic bomb poisoned people in St. Louis. They are still waiting for recognition of a catastrophic  problem and for justice after a decade of activism.

They believe as many as 80,000 people in the St. Louis area have been sickened by exposure to radioactive materials from the atomic bomb program. They founded “Just Moms St. Louis” in the spring of 2014 to make citizens aware of the toxic waste left in St. Louis from the Manhattan Project.

Another mission is to urge a clean-up of the deadly material dating from World War II. Chapman and Nickel said their effort to educate about the contamination, and to get it cleaned up, would not be possible without the previous work of St. Louisan Kay Drey who has crusaded for half a century to expose the health dangers of the radioactive waste.

“We’ve learned so much from reading the 15,000 documents we obtained from a huge FOIA request made by Kay Drey,” said Nickel. “These documents tell the entire story of how the radioactive waste became so widespread and the amount of cover up done.

“We have been able to increase awareness of the problem in the medical field,” said Nickel. “Doctors are paying attention now. We’ve spent a lot of time in universities working with students. They graduate and take so much of what they’ve learned and apply it in their fields in some way.

Chapman and Nickel contributed information for the HBO documentary, “Atomic Homefront,”  which educated people across America. They said the documentary pulls the entire story together – from uranium processing at Mallinckrodt Chemical, to north county contamination, to  radioactivity at West Lake Landfill. 

This past summer a joint investigation by the Missouri Independent, MuckRock and the Associated Press found that the federal government had systematically  downplayed the risk of the radioactive wastes.

The news organizations “combed through thousands of pages of previously-unreleased government records that show radioactive waste was known to pose a threat to people living near Coldwater Creek as early as 1949. But federal officials repeatedly wrote potential risks off as ‘slight,’ ‘minimal’ or ‘low-level’”

Oppenheimer effect

St. Louis residents joined the rest of the nation this summer in flocking to see the movie, “Oppenheimer,” a film about the making of the atomic bomb. Radioactive fallout from the terrible weapon descended over an area 250 miles by 200 miles in New Mexico.  

The movie brought renewed attention to residents in the American Southwest downwind from the blast. Many are members of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, a group that feels they were poisoned by the explosion.

In the case of the radioactivity that contaminated New Mexico, Lily Adams, senior outreach coordinator for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said it’s a big part of the story of the price many Americans paid for the making of the bomb. She told the Associated Press that the atomic bomb movie story needs a follow-up.

“The human cost of Oppenheimer’s Trinity Test, and all nuclear weapons activities, is a crucial part of the conversation around the U.S. nuclear legacy,” said Adams. “We have to reckon with this human cost to fully understand Oppenheimer’s legacy and the harm caused by nuclear weapons.”

In processing uranium and developing nuclear weapons, Adams said the U.S government effectively “poisoned its own people, many of whom are still waiting for recognition and justice.”

Chapman and Nickel said they are rooting for members of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium in their renewed efforts to get environmental justice. She said residents of St. Louis are also seeking environmental justice.

“It feels like St Louis has been a national sacrifice zone,” said Nickel. “Secrets aren’t meant to be broken here. The testing sites are in history books, there are so many movies that include those sites, they are always talked about.  

“But St. Louis processed the very first teaspoon of uranium that went into those bombs,” said Nickel. “There wouldn’t be testing sites, if it weren’t for St. Louis. People were harmed downwind from testing sites, and it’s something that’s talked about.

“Citizens of St. Louis also are sick and dying,” stressed Nickel. “So much of our population has no idea why,” said Nickel. “People here just think it’s normal to get thyroid cancers, or to have so many auto-immune diseases.” 

Glimmer of hope?

Recent events make Just Moms St. Louis feel they might actually be getting closer to justice – and a cleanup, with a mitigation of contaminants at West Lake and Coldwater Creek. Chapman and Nickel feel hopeful, because:

First, newly-found federal documents show U.S. officials knew that dangerous material was being spread in the north St. Louis area. This information increases culpability and responsibility for mitigating the atomic mess.

Second, the U.S. Senate voted this July by 61-37 in favor of expanding a federal radiation exposure survivor program to include eastern Missouri residents. In September, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, and U.S Rep. Ben Luján, D-New Mexico, rallied with Just Moms St. Louis and radiation victims at the U.S. Capitol to advance legislation on their behalf.

Third, within the U.S. House, Congresswomen Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and Cori Bush, R-St. Louis, have become involved with environmental justice issues over radioactive contamination.

“It’s always encouraging when both political sides work together,” said Nichol. “This must be a bipartisan issue and about protecting people. There should be no reason for anyone not to be on the same page.

“We are very sure we have rolled the rock to the top of the mountain now,” said Nichol. “With President Biden and Energy Secretary Granholm, we feel it’s going to take more nudging, but we are confident we will get there.”

Chapman and Nichol concede that even with all decision-makers on board, it will take years to clean up the sites, to decide where the radioactive contaminants should be taken, to devise a program to address continuing liability and health concerns.

Removing the waste

“The waste needs to go,” said Nickel. “We can argue all day that there is no safe place to store this waste, but when it comes to St. Louis and the locations where this waste is sitting, the fact remains, there is a much safer place, away from people.”

One thing is for certain, according to Chapman, radioactive exposures even at low levels are more dangerous than previously thought. The evidence is available in the medical data in north county.  

“Releasing even a little radioactivity into the environment can cause generational harm and the thought of it happening to any community, state or nation in the world breaks our hearts,” said Chapman.

“The threat isn’t just for those living now, but to their children and their grandchildren who might not even be born yet.,” said Chapman. “Finding and cleaning up these wastes is very difficult once they have been allowed to disperse.”

Chapman said she hopes to see a day when a memorial is built in north St. Louis County marking a successful clean-up as well as the sacrifice of area residents because of the atomic age.

“There should be a memorial, but I would prefer it be designed and run by the local community, not by the U.S. Department of Energy,” said Chapman. “The DOE can pay for the building and the upkeep, but let those of us who have been harmed tell the real story.

“There is an ‘Interpretive Center’ out at the Weldon Spring waste site now paid for and run by the Department of Energy. It is nothing more than a taxpayer-funded gaslighting museum and does not tell the true story of what has actually happened,” she said.

“We will have to wait and see what sort of clean-up we are able to get in north county, but whatever is put together, it should be a reminder to everyone that lives were lost due to lies, cover-up, and deceitful narratives deliberately spun by the Department of Energy,” said Chapman. “It should have the same feel as Jefferson Barracks or one of the war memorials in Washington, D.C.”

Don Corrigan is former editor-in-chief and co-publisher of the Webster-Kirkwood Times, South County Times and West End Word newspapers in St. Louis. He is a professor emeritus in the School of Communications at Webster University in St. Louis.

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