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St. Louis County members want Congress to expand federal compensation for radiation exposure

Communities are asking for more transparency from the government and an expansion of the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
Radiation zone
Posted at 9:13 PM, May 16, 2024

In the 1940s the U.S. was in a race to build the first nuclear weapons, setting up testing sites and plants across the country.

At the same time, another race was on to fulfill the American dream — and families building homes and lives never knew those two worlds would eventually collide.

"Unbeknownst to my parents, they had no idea that they were raising their children in a neighborhood that had been contaminated by radioactive waste," Karen Nickel, co-founder of Just Moms STL, told Scripps News.

Nickel grew up in north St. Louis County.

In the early 1940s downtown St. Louis was home to a Manhattan Project initiative that processed uranium.

The nuclear waste from that project, conducted by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, eventually seeped through its barrels, contaminating nearby Coldwater Creek.

"Life began in these areas where the Creek would flood up into, and still does to this day every year, up into people's homes, into their basements, into their backyards," said Nickel.

A 2019 report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, found children or adults who lived or played around Coldwater creek from the 60s to the 90s may have been exposed to radiological contaminants that could have increased the risk of developing lung cancer, bone cancer, or leukemia.

More recent exposure showed a slight risk for increased chances of lung cancer.

Today, Nickel says she suffers from lupus — and she's not alone.

"15 people on my street alone had died of rare cancers in their 40s and 50s already," she said.

A 2023 investigation from the Associated Press, Muck Rock and the Missouri Independent shows federal officials knew about a potential threat from radioactive waste as far back as 1949, but didn't alert residents for decades.

Resident Ashley Bernaugh says she's been fighting for transparency for years, filing a FOIA request to learn more.

"That's when we found out for the very first time that radioactive waste had made its way all the way down to the Creek and was on the banks of Coldwater Creek right by Jana Elementary in multiple hotspot forms," she said.

A report and analysis from the Army Corp of Engineers maintains the soil around the school is safe from a radiological standpoint. But the school has since closed its doors.

The residents of St. Louis say they aren't alone in the battle for answers.

"We'd play in puddles of water. We ate fresh fruits and vegetables, got our milk from the local dairy, never knowing that all that time a silent poison was coursing through our bodies," said Mary Dickson.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan.

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DIckson, a journalist and Utah native, has been researching the impacts of nuclear testing on her community for decades.

Dickson was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in her 20s. Her sister died from lupus complications.

"Before she died, she and I had counted in our childhood neighborhood 54 people who got cancer, autoimmune diseases, tumors, who had miscarriages," said Dickson.

Others who believe they were impacted by similar nuclear initiatives gathered in D.C. for prayer and action. They're hoping to urge Congress to extend and expand the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which offers compensation to people in parts of some Western states, but didn't include other areas advocates say have been impacted like parts of Utah, Missouri or uranium miners and community members of the Navajo Nation. Legislation has already passed the Senate.

"It was the uranium miners who went into those mines with no protective gear and mined uranium, went home covered with dust, ate their lunches in that dust and took it home," said Dickson.

"RECA passed with wide bipartisan support out of the Senate. And so that Senate bill now just sits on Speaker Johnson's desk and it hasn't moved at all since March," said Bernaugh.

Advocates say they're hopeful and want to see it passed soon, since the current legislation is set to expire in early June.

"When they say it costs too much, I say, well, if you think nuclear weapons should be a part of our defense, part of that cost is taking care of the people they harmed," said Dickson.