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Floodwaters from record rain not radioactive — but deadly for some in Missouri as many roads close

This photo of Coldwater Creek flooding was taken from the Dunn Road bridge on Monday.
Paul A. Huddleston
This photo of Coldwater Creek flooding was taken from the Dunn Road bridge on Monday.

Update 2:30 Dec. 29 with guard activated - Floodwater from Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County is not radioactive, but it could still pose a health risk.

That’s according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is testing and cleaning up contaminated yards and parks along the creek.

The Corps has already removed the radioactive waste that was dumped decades ago near the St. Louis airport, then contaminated Coldwater Creek through flooding and erosion. According to the Corps, its testing has not turned up any radioactive contamination in the creek since 1998.

Corps health physicist Jon Rankins said the radioactive soil the Corps is finding in residential and commercial areas near the creek is from flooding that happened years ago and that all the contamination is now buried underground. "All the stuff we’re finding now has some type of cover material on it, whether it be vegetation, or soil, asphalt, concrete, etc.," Rankins said. "It’s not going to be going anywhere."

Rankins said people with contaminated properties whose basements have flooded from Coldwater Creek following this week's heavy rains can contact the Corps at 314-260-3905 to request testing inside their homes, but he does not expect to find any radioactive contamination from the creek there.

At St. Cin Park, where the Corps has been excavating radioactive soil, Rankins said most of the clean-up has already been completed and only a few small areas of contamination remain. "Those impacted surfaces have been covered with a geofabric and plastic," Rankins said. "And we use sandbags to hold them in place."


Rankins emphasized that the water and sediments from the Coldwater Creek are not contaminated with radioactive waste.

But St. Louis County health department director Faisal Khan said all floodwater poses a health risk. He said people should avoid contacting it and keep children and pets from playing in it. "That’s because floodwater can contain multiple kinds of debris, or can have a mixture of sewage in it," Khan said. "And that can lead to potentially life-threatening gastrointestinal illness, as well as skin irritation, or if ingested cause multiple illnesses.”

Khan said anyone cleaning up a basement back-up should wear a mask, along with rubber boots and gloves. He said people should use bleach but be careful not to get it on their skin or to inhale its fumes.

Roads: ‘A mess’

The record rainfall forced the Missouri Department of Transportation to close 285 roads statewide. In the St. Louis area, that included stretches of interstate that rarely, if ever flood.

Officials shut down Interstate 70 at Bryan Road in both directions early Sunday afternoon after Dardenne Creek rushed out of its banks. Both eastbound and westbound lanes had re-opened by Monday afternoon.

The Transportation Management Center in Chestefield
Credit Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
The Transportation Management Center in Chestefield

St. Louis district maintenance engineer Mark Croarkin said the department is also keeping an eye on the Meramec River in Valley Park, which may cover Interstate 44 at 141 in Valley Park for the first time since 1982.

“141 probably isn’t the biggest deal,” Croarkin said. If 44 closes, that will be more challenging. The challenge with that is if it covers 44, it will likely cover Route 30 next to the Meramec as well. So your only two parallel routes that are divided highway will both close together.”

MoDOT has also closed the southbound lanes of US 67, cutting off easy access to the St. Louis area for residents of Alton, Ill. That could be closed through the weekend. Croarkin said the department is evaluating whether it can run both directions in the northbound lanes.

He said everyone is also anxiously watching the temperatures.

“I’ve had two different forecasters tell me that it should dry up before it gets into the 20s here,” Croarkin said. “It would be difficult to get around some of these areas, and it would take longer to get open.

Other closures of note

  • MoDOT is monitoring Route 47 at the Missouri River, near the Warren County towns of Marthasville and Dutzow.
  • Route 79 is closed in both directions at the Lincoln-St. Charles County line, near Old Monroe. MoDOT said the Cuivre River breached a levee
  • One lane of eastbound Interstate 44 remains closed at Route 5 in Lebanon, Mo.
  • Westbound Interstate 44 remains closed at Route 63 in Rolla, Mo.

States of Emergency

Gov. Jay Nixon’s state of emergency call on Sunday night was followed by Mayor Francis Slay doing the same for the city on Monday.

According to a press release, “The declaration activates the City's Emergency Operations Center to coordinate response among City departments and services, along with outside partner agencies, such as MSD, Ameren, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the United Way.”

The Mississippi River is expected to crest at 44.8 feet later this week. While calls have been issued for sandbagging aid, the governor said he was not calling out the Missouri National Guard: “In order to call up the guard, we would need a security measure or some sort of longer-term flood fight or recovery … at this particular point we’re hopeful that by staying ahead of this, that we can beef up the levees downstream from St. Louis.”

On Tuesday, as word went out to evacuate West Alton, Nixon did activate the guard. His statement said, “These citizen soldiers will provide much-needed support to state and local first responders, many of whom have spent the last several days working around the clock responding to record rainfall and flooding.”

As of Monday afternoon 10 people across the state had died in accidents attributed to the flooding. At least two others had died by Tuesday afternoon.

The Red Cross has shelters at

  • 1900 Pontoon Rd., Granite City.
  • First Baptist Church of Arnold, 2012 Missouri State Rd.
  • St. Robert Community Center, 11 J.H. Williamson Dr.
  • Tri-County Senior Center, 800 W. Union St., Pacific.

Marshall Griffin contributed to this report.


Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.