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Missouri statewide candidates decry inaction on St. Louis area nuclear waste

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Missouri statewide candidates decry inaction on St. Louis area nuclear waste

Jun 13, 2024 | 11:10 am ET
By Clara Bates
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Missouri statewide candidates decry inaction on St. Louis area nuclear waste
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Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who is running for governor, speaks at a press event about St. Louis area nuclear waste Wednesday, June 12, 2024 in Florissant. (Clara Bates/Missouri Independent)

Several Republican candidates for Missouri statewide office on Wednesday evening urged stronger state and federal action to clean up St. Louis-area radioactive waste and compensate victims.

Parts of the St. Louis area have been contaminated for 75 years with radioactive waste left over from the effort to build the world’s first atomic bomb during World War II. 

Secretary of state Jay Ashcroft, who is running for governor, Will Scharf, who is running for attorney general and House Speaker Dean Plocher, who is running for secretary of state, attended the news conference outside the Florissant Municipal Court building. They spoke alongside advocates, victims and legislators representing the region.

The press conference preceded an annual update from the Army Corps of Engineers on cleanup efforts at the downtown site, Coldwater Creek, St. Louis Lambert International Airport and Latty Avenue.

And it came as the fight in Washington, D.C. to extend compensation to St. Louis-area residents continues, because the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act failed to get a reauthorization vote in the House and expired Friday.

“Let me tell you, I understand that most people that go to Washington D.C. are not exactly profiles in courage, but if you can’t stand up to stop little kids from getting incurable diseases because of radioactive waste that is left in the ground, there’s something wrong with you,” Ashcroft said. 

“And you know, if it’s not a problem, why don’t we have 10, 20 representatives, 10, 20 senators, come and wade through Coldwater Creek and talk about it?” 

Scharf said he’d been calling members of Congress and urging them to reauthorize RECA with St. Louis area victims included.

“The region has paid enough,” Scharf said, “and it’s time for the games to end and for the people who have been harmed to finally receive the compensation they deserve.”

Missouri statewide candidates decry inaction on St. Louis area nuclear waste
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers workers work on cleanup of Coldwater Creek, the St. Louis County site contaminated by radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project (courtesy of U.S. Army slide deck).

Plocher said he was there to support Rep. Tricia Byrnes, R-Wentzville, who has been an advocate for compensation and cleanup of the waste and has “brought so much light to something I was completely unaware of.”

“…It’s astounding the cover up, the lack of transparency from the federal government that has befallen this community, all in the name of protecting our national sovereignty to create weapons to help defend us in the war,” he said. “So it’s about time somebody does something about it.”

Byrnes organized the press event. 

 “I do not want to make this about politics,” she said when asked if she has endorsed the candidates who participated in the news conference. 

Byrnes grew up in the area and, as a teen, swam in a quarry she didn’t know was contaminated in Weldon Spring.

The news conference was a last-minute decision and she reached out to the people “who have helped champion it,” including Rep. Chantelle Nickson-Clark, D-Florissant, she said.

In an interview with The Independent, Scharf, who was policy director for former Gov. Eric Greitens, said he first met advocates who work on the radioactive waste issue in 2016.

“I’d like to see a much more vigorous investigation and potentially a lawsuit against the Department of Energy,” Scharf said.  “I want to use every legal tool at my disposal as attorney general to fight for justice for the victims of this region.”

Ashcroft told The Independent he’d been “trying to raise awareness and get the state involved” for years.

If elected, he said, “the governor can help move policy,” pushing for more money in a statewide testing fund, and working with the Missouri congressional delegation to “push the feds to do more work with Congress.” 

“And the last thing the federal government wants is publicity about it. They buried it through multiple ways for 75 years. And one thing that I know I can do, even as Secretary of State is, I can be public about it. I can force them to face the issue.”

Plocher pointed out he didn’t mention his campaign in the news conference and told The Independent he hadn’t come as someone “running for office today. I’m here to be the speaker of the House,” and said he wanted to help Byrnes and Nickson-Clark. 

“The two of them have been working tirelessly,” he added.

‘People are still dying’

Missouri statewide candidates decry inaction on St. Louis area nuclear waste
Representative Chantelle Nickson-Clark, D-Florissant, speaks at a June 12, 2024 press event on nuclear waste in the St. Louis area, surrounded by Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres and Rep. Tricia Byrnes, R-Wentzville. Will Scharf stands on the far right (Clara Bates/Missouri Independent).

Around 80-90 people attended the annual community meeting held at the Florissant Municipal Courts Building Wednesday night. 

The Corps of Engineers has authority, through the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, over the downtown, Coldwater Creek, airport and Latty Avenue sites. Cleanup of the West Lake landfill is being overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

After World War II, waste from the downtown site was trucked to St. Louis County, sometimes spilling along the way, and dumped at the airport. Decaying barrels released radioactive waste into Coldwater Creek, and despite acknowledging the risk of contamination, the private company that produced the waste thought it was too dangerous for workers to put the material in new barrels.

Eventually, the waste was sold to another private company and moved to a property on Latty Avenue, also adjacent to Coldwater Creek. The material was stored in the open where it continued to contaminate the creek. 

Missouri statewide candidates decry inaction on St. Louis area nuclear waste
St. Louis area residents affected by nuclear waste listen as the Army Corps of Engineers presents at a community meeting June 12, 2024. (Clara Bates/Missouri Independent)

At the meeting, several residents expressed frustration with the government’s progress in cleaning up the sites and a lack of communication.

Ray Hartmann, a Democrat running for Congress in the 2nd District, said he had been to a similar meeting in 2013.

“What reason do these people have to believe you that this is going to be different than it was in 2013?” Hartmann asked.

Col. Andy Pannier, commander of the Corps’ St. Louis District said the agency is trying to make its  actions match its words and see “constant, continuous progress.”

At another point, Pannier added that “There is no property that can wait till tomorrow or the next day or the next day,” which was met with applause.

“There’s only so many we can work on at any given time. And so we try to prioritize that…we try to prioritize the areas that would have the highest risk for potential exposure to the public to be first and then move to the next and the next,” he added.

Pannier said “the timeline that we’re working off of is completion by 2038.”

The Corps has promised signs warning of the contamination but they haven’t been installed, said Deborah Bowles, who said she grew up in Florissant and has come to Corps meetings for years.

“It’s just not hard on our mental health,” she said. “It takes a lot out of us physically to come and try to advocate for this.”

Cleanup is a “huge process…but does it take this long to get signage out?” she asked, adding that people who move to the area may not know the risks.

Pannier said “I know this is absolutely an area of concern for many of you and so I will sit with my team and figure out how we got to what you saw versus what you’re asking.”

Nickson-Clark also raised the issue of sign placement at the news conference.

“People are still dying, children are becoming diagnosed with rare cancers…Where are the signs?” Nickson-Clark said. “This community is still walking, playing in Coldwater Creek. Families are still being affected by Coldwater Creek.”