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EPA To Test Popular Bridgeton Baseball Fields For Radiation

Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio

Updated 5/9/14 after EPA press conference:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will soon begin testing a popular athletic complex in Bridgeton for radiation.

Radiation screening at the Bridgeton Municipal Athletic Complex (BMAC) is scheduled to begin the week of May 19.

In a written statement released on Wednesday, EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks said the planned testing was prompted by a need to resolve “public concerns generated by residents using donated radiation detection equipment.”

Brooks was referring to the donation of a radiation detector to Maryland Heights mother and citizen activist Dawn Chapman. An attorney who is suing West Lake Landfill owner Republic Services gave her the $16,000 detector.

Credit Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio
Dawn Chapman and her four-year-old son, Quinn, outside Bridgeton City Hall before Friday's EPA press conference.

Chapman and other area residents are concerned that radioactive material at the West Lake Landfill may have contaminated surrounding neighborhoods.

After receiving the detector, Chapman did her own testing. She said she detected an “unusual spike” in radiation in a drainage ditch at the Bridgeton athletic complex.

The ball fields are less than a mile down Taussig Road from the landfill.

Chapman and her non-profit group, Just Moms STL, also helped raise several thousand dollars to have soil samples collected from the ball fields analyzed for radioactivity by a laboratory in Massachusetts. The group made those results public on Wednesday. In a press release, Just Moms STL said one sample had “an abnormal concentration of radioactive lead” (210Pb) and that several other samples were also “well above background” in terms of their radiation levels.

St. Louis Public Radio's call to the Massachusetts lab was returned by Chicago-based nuclear industry blogger Lucas Hixson, who collected the soil samples. Hixson and nuclear policy analyst Robert Alvarez have been working with Chapman and Just Moms STL to test sites around the West Lake Landfill for radiation. Hixson said the soil samples would be sent to another lab for further analysis and characterization, and to determine whether any of the detected radioactivity exceeds regulatory safety levels.

Credit Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio
Area residents listen to EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks and Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers during a press conference on Friday.

Chapman said she and others were still trying to raise the funds to pay for that more detailed analysis.

During a conference call with news reporters Wednesday afternoon, the director of public affairs for EPA Region 7, Curtis Carey, said his agency does not believe Chapman’s testing “provides a sound basis” for the community to make decisions about the safety of the ball fields.

“We don’t know if that equipment was calibrated, if the operator was trained, if appropriate protocols were followed,” Carey said.

A baseball tournament scheduled to take place in Bridgeton this past weekend was moved due to concern over potential contamination.

Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers called that and other game cancelations “unfortunate.” He said fears of contamination were based on “unsubstantiated data.” He said he hoped that after the EPA testing “these fears can be put to rest.”

Credit Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio
West Lake Landfill Superfund Site On-Scene Coordinator James Johnson demonstrates EPA's Rapid Assessment Tool (RAT). The EPA will use it to scan the Bridgeton athletic complex for gamma radiation.

The EPA will start by screening the athletic complex for gamma radiation. If that preliminary assessment detects elevated levels of radiation anywhere on the ball fields, soil samples will be collected from those sites and tested for radium-226 and thorium-230.

At a press conference on Friday, EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks said it would take at least a week to complete the testing, and then another 30 to 45 days after that to get the final results.

That means the earliest the EPA would release results to the public is in late June.

Brooks said children can continue playing at BMAC in the meantime. "There is no credible scientific information that would justify this agency in directing the city to change the uses at BMAC, or should justify the city itself in changing those uses," Brooks said.

"You always hope that you don't find anything. But at the same time, I think this community just really wants to know the truth." -Dawn Chapman

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources did limited radiation testing at BMAC a year ago (see samples 8A and 8B in Fig. 1 on p.4 of this report), but that testing was intended to look for contaminated dust blowing off the West Lake Landfill, not for contaminated soil.

Brooks said testing conducted in the vicinity of the athletic complex by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the early 2000s also did not find evidence of radioactive contamination.

But he confirmed that this would be the first time that the ball fields themselves would undergo a complete scan.

Dawn Chapman said the community has been asking the EPA to run its own tests, and she’s thrilled that’s finally going to happen.

“We’re expecting them to do a thorough, complete test of these fields," Chapman said. "You always hope that you don’t find anything. But at the same time, I think this community just really wants to know the truth."

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter@KWMUScience

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