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US Army Corps of Engineers does 1st sit-down interview since Jana Elementary radioactive concerns

U.S. Army Corps testing at Jana Elementary found no harmful radiation, but people in the area tell the I-Team they're still worried.

ST. LOUIS — There are new concerns from many families in north St. Louis County. They told our I-Team they’re afraid they’ve been exposed to exceedingly high levels of radiation compared to other areas of St. Louis.

The I-Team’s Paula Vasan spoke Thursday, Dec. 8 with those responsible for the cleanup: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It was the corps' first sit-down interview since a recent study commissioned by a law firm found high levels of radioactive waste at Jana Elementary School in Florissant, closing it down. 

Later testing by the U.S. Army Corps found no harmful radiation, but people in the area tell the I-Team they're still worried and are not convinced the area is as safe as it could be.

“Would you say that you were wrong about certain things?” Vasan asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Oh, of course," said Robin Parks, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program technical lead. "We were wrong about contamination being limited to the sediments in the creek bed."

For decades, the water that flows in Coldwater Creek has carried something dangerous: radioactive contamination. It's the result of improper storage of nuclear waste during World War II. Cleanup and criticism fell on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

READ: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers risk assessment of Coldwater Creek

“We were just not aware the flooding mechanism was going to redistribute the contamination from the creek to the adjacent areas," Parks said.

“Given the fact that you've been wrong before, do you understand people's concerns?” Vasan asked.

“Of course," Parks said.

“Would you send your children to Jana Elementary?” Vasan asked.

“Yes, I would," said Phil Moser, FUSRAP manager.

It’s no consolation for parents like Dawn Chapman. She believes cleanup has been too slow.

“Why, after decades, are we still fighting the same battle? And why are we allowing people to be exposed to the maximum risk when other communities get a much better, safer cleanup?” Chapman asked. 

It’s up to the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies to decide how much contamination will be cleaned up. Part of that is figuring out how many people could be at risk of getting cancer from that contamination, according to the EPA, citing The National Contingency Plan.

WATCH: Extended interview with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

There's a sliding scale. The least amount of protection that can be legally chosen is about one person in 10,000. The most protection is about one in a million. north St. Louis County got the lowest end of the scale. 

READ: Coldwater Creek sampling timeline

Federal officials have said they’re limited by environmental factors. They said they can’t clean to a lower risk level in north St. Louis County and other areas due to the presence of natural radiation in the environment. They said the range they work within is within a level that protects human health, but U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) calls it unacceptable. 

“Well, we know that we're talking about environmental racism," Bush said. “It needs to be cleaned up immediately."

“Our decisions are specifically driven by where the highest possibility for human contact is," U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Moser said.

Right now, that’s parts of north St. Louis County. 

"So the low level contamination that we have been finding is predominantly low level and below the surface and it is inside the creek in and of itself," Moser said.

The U.S. Army Corps has said radioactive contamination in north St. Louis County “does not pose an immediate risk” in its “current configuration.”

Environmental experts have argued that’s an impossible promise, especially with the evidence: A CDC report in 2019 estimated that long-term exposure to Coldwater Creek “could have increased the risk of developing lung cancer, bone cancer or leukemia.”

“The state recognizes this zip code right here is having an almost 300% increase in childhood brain cancer," said Chapman, referring to her area of Maryland Heights.

Lisa Cox, a spokesperson with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said the data is largely based on single-digit numbers.

“Sometimes the numbers can be statistically significant while not having significance in public health," Cox said.

Latest research available from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services continues to concern residents like Chapman. Its 2014 report shows 8 zip codes in north St. Louis County, the majority of them along Coldwater Creek, had “statistically significantly higher” rates of cancer.

The 8 zip codes are: 63031, 63033, 63034, 63042, 63134, 63138, 63043 and 63044.

Chapman said the risk impacts her family.

“My daughter had a concussion a few weeks ago. and we went to the E.R. and it's in her file that we live next to Westlake…” she said. “And he said, because of where you live and the history that your family, we do not want to do any scans unless we absolutely have to because it all accumulates and increases the risk.”

 She said it's led to a lifetime of worry. 

“Why has this been a problem for so long?” Vasan asked.

“We've been in this area for 25 years, and it's an extensive project. North County in and of itself is over 2,000 acres," Moser said. “We're here to see that process through, and it does take some time.” 

Officials with the U.S. Army Corps tell us this is a problem they inherited, correcting a mistake from decades ago. As for Jana Elementary, the corps is planning on cleaning up the school in summer 2023.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created this website to share information specifically for the Jana Elementary School site.

We asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about how risk levels for radiation exposure are determined. In an email, EPA spokesperson Ben Washburn told us: 

Sites with releases of hazardous substances, which include radionuclides, are subject to the requirements in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, also known as the Superfund law), and the implementing regulations established in the National Contingency Plan (NCP). These regulations define acceptable exposure levels for carcinogens, which include radionuclides, as a concentration level that represents an excess lifetime cancer risk to an individual of between 1 in 10,000 (1 x 10-4) and 1 in 1,000,000 (1 x 10-6). This is known as the acceptable risk range. 

All Superfund remedies must achieve residual risks generally within this range to be considered protective of human health… Remediation goals for Superfund sites are established on a site-specific basis in a Record of Decision through a process that considers nine criteria. In accordance with CERCLA, all remedies must be protective of human health and the environment, which means the remedy must generally achieve risks within the acceptable risk range, as previously noted. 

EPA is the lead agency for the West Lake Landfill, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the lead agency for the North County FUSRAP Sites, which include Coldwater Creek. Both sites have Records of Decision that established remediation goals in accordance with CERCLA. In both cases, the agencies selected cleanup goals are protective of human health and the environment. 

With regard to Jana Elementary, USACE provided EPA with the sampling plans for the work they recently completed inside Jana Elementary and the surrounding school grounds. EPA is confident that the USACE investigation will allow the agencies to determine whether a CERCLA cleanup action is warranted at the school. USACE recently published preliminary results indicating no presence of radioactive material above the expected range of background levels in and around the school building. USACE also stated that the sampling data demonstrate that surface and subsurface soil are far below – less than 10% on average – the cleanup goals in the Record of Decision for the north St. Louis County FUSRAP Sites. EPA will review the final reports from USACE when they are available.

Christen Commuso, community outreach specialist for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, told us in an email: 

What guarantee can the Corps give the community that the contaminated soil — wherever it may be — will remain undisturbed or in its 'current configuration' while it awaits cleanup? Even more so if there's a chance they don't know where all the contamination is; as we just learned that soil from Jana Elementary may have been moved to Hazelwood Central High School to build up the football field. 

While not yet confirmed, it tells of the larger issue we're facing in St. Louis. And, sadly, some of this eyewitness knowledge may soon be lost to history, if it hasn't been already.

As of Dec. 13, the Hazelwood School Board in north St. Louis County is petitioning the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to test all school buildings in the district for radioactive waste. They want state and federal officials to find ways to pay for it.

A spokesperson with the Hazelwood School District said a formal request for radioactive testing throughout the school district is coming soon. 

Response from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding requests for more widespread testing in the Hazelwood School District: 

“To date, the St. Louis District has not received a formal request from the HSD Board of Education for USACE FUSRAP to test all HSD properties for radioactive contamination. We continue to conduct testing for radiological materials along Coldwater Creek and its associated floodplain using proven collection and laboratory methods to ensure any contaminated materials found to exceed the cleanup standard are addressed.

If evidence is presented for a need to expand sampling and testing, USACE FUSRAP will take the appropriate actions. It is one of our foremost priorities to provide this community in which we live and work with accurate, reliable and scientifically sound data with which to make informed and educated decisions, especially those that concern the safety and well-being of its children.” 

Got a tip or a concern? Call or text 5 On Your Side's Senior Investigative Reporter Paula Vasan at 314-250-9560. Email her at pvasan@ksdk.com. 

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