After decades of controversy about the dangers of the West Lake and Bridgeton Landfill and nearby Coldwater Creek, the Post-Dispatch set out to ask the nation’s experts to assess the dangers of radioactivity at the site.
Reporter Jacob Barker says he was surprised by what he was told. The nation’s nuclear experts said that the danger had been exaggerated – a finding published in a May 15 story.
Environmental advocates were surprised too – and mad.
by Don Corrigan
When Dawn Chapman and other members of Just Moms St. Louis read a front page story titled, “Misplaced Fear,” they immediately went to social media to express their upset with the piece.
They were not happy with the finding of the article that perceptions of radiation risks in the area of West Lake and the Bridgeton Landfill may be exaggerated. The article also examined risks from Coldwater Creek radiation contamination dating back to the role of St. Louis in the production of atomic weapons.
“This downplays every second that not only this group has done to educate people (on the atomic legacy in St. Louis), but that the Coldwater Creek Group has done – meticulously counting every cancer and illness that your loved ones and you have ever reported,” declared Chapman on a Facebook post.
“There are so many facts and one-sided quotes and arguments used in this article that it is nearly impossible to count,” added Chapman. “I urge anyone who has lost a loved one or has suffered an illness to please call the Post and let them know what you think!”
The Post-Dispatch did get some blowback after the radiation risk story, but the editors and reporter Jacob Barker stand by their story. Barker said he was actually surprised himself by the responses from the experts he consulted for the story and who ratcheted down the risk.
“There’s tons of data on West Lake and concentrations of radionuclides that have been found in West Lake,” said Barker. “But until now, no one in local media has really tried to quantify the risk that these quantities pose.
“Because radiation has been so intensely studied, that’s doable. KMOV did do a story last year that talked to a local radiologist, one who I didn’t talk to for my article. That story was also criticized by the Moms group and other residents and activists after the doctor said he saw little risk from the radiological contamination,” Barker added.
Barker noted that when he brought the data tables to Dr. Sasa Mutic, the director of radiation oncology physics at Washington University, he was surprised by the doctor’s observations.
“Because the interpretation – we initially got – challenged our preconceived notions, we spent six months finding other scientists and doctors who know radiation,” said Barker. “All of the other scientists who reviewed the data said pretty much the same thing.”
Barker said the Post-Dispatch wanted to stay away from advocacy groups like Beyond Nuclear and stick to scientists for the article. He said if someone who works with radiation, and who isn’t part of a group with an agenda, comes to the paper with a different interpretation of the data, the Post-Dispatch will publish a follow-up
“As for the risk from the burning Bridgeton landfill, we did not deal with that in this article,” Barker noted. “This was focused solely on radiological hazards, although we did mention the measurable toxins emitted from the Bridgeton landfill.”
Setback For Moms
Chapman called the story a major setback for her group. She said Moms St. Louis has been working tirelessly to get a situation addressed in which an underground fire in the Bridgeton landfill is moving closer to the radioactive materials dumped in the nearby West Lake waste depository. The “fire” – officially called an underground smoldering event – involves chemical combustion with no visible flame or smoke.
Some scientists have suggested that a barrier be fashioned and placed between the two waste areas in order to keep them isolated. Chapman said she fears the Post article will set back months of effort to get Congress and the Missouri legislature, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to act to protect residents from a dangerous situation.
Chapman said the Post-Dispatch article diminishes the threat from exposure to radioactivity and makes irrelevant comparisons on risk. She said readers could not be blamed if they scratch their heads and ask what all the fuss is about with West Lake and the Moms St. Louis group.
“We have a fire that’s been burning for years in the Bridgeton landfill that is several football fields wide,” said Chapman. “These fires are not easy to deal with and this one is getting closer to an area where radioactive contaminants and anything and everything was dumped.
“Residents need a guarantee that this fire will never hit the radioactive waste,” said Chapman. “The heat from the fire constitutes a ‘heat front’ that precedes the fire. EPA said it does not want the heat front to reach the radioactive waste at West Lake, never mind the actual fire involved.”
No Safe Threshold
Chapman said she is floored by assertions in the Post-Dispatch article that suggest that “groundwater contamination levels beneath the landfill are low enough that someone would have to drink more than 1,000 gallons to be exposed to as much radiation as the average American gets annually from radon.”
According to Chapman, there are plenty of scientists who question whether there is any absolutely safe threshold for exposure to radiation, because exposures can be cumulative and humans exhibit varying degrees of sensitivity to exposure. She added that effects on fetal and embryo organs are especially of concern.
“I have to be honest, I took the better part of a day to read the Post story over and over again and it felt like a betrayal. It felt like a hit job,” said Chapman. “They seemed to go across the country to find critics to say what they (the Post-Dispatch) wanted to say about this issue from the beginning.
“As for me and Karen Nickel (co-founder of Moms St. Louis), we will not be going on the record anymore with the Post. They have their stance,” said Chapman. “We know where they stand. We don’t have time to sit and debate about whether there is a problem with the radioactivity. We have to put our energy into working with EPA and the federal authorities who can do something about the fire and the radioactive contamination.”
Barker said he hopes the Moms group will not put an embargo on dealing with the Post-Dispatch.
“We have diligently followed the situation with near weekly articles and always strive to be accurate,” Barker said. “The Moms group brings a valuable perspective to the efforts to find a solution at West Lake.
“If they have concerns that the experts we spoke with downplayed the risk, I invite them, or anyone, for that matter, to let us know about a scientist who isn’t from an anti-nuclear advocacy group with a different interpretation,” Barker added.
Barker said the paper will continue to cover the Bridgeton and West Lake landfills closely because “it is a major issue that is hurting the livelihood and threatening the health of many area residents. Just because some experts say the risk has been blown out of proportion doesn’t mean there is no risk, and radiation is only one of the problems at the two landfills.”
(To hear an interview with Moms St. Louis with the writer of this article, go to environmentalecho.com).
Don Corrigan is editor of the Webster-Kirkwood Times, a professor at Webster University and author of outdoor and environmental books. His work has been recognized by the Society of Environmental Journalists and Great Rivers Environmental Law Center. An earlier story on the Post-Dispatch coverage of the West Lake issue was published in the GJR last fall. http://gatewayjr.org/2015/11/04/media-cover-and-uncover-environmental-problems-in-st-louis/
One of the primary donors to the Journalism Review is Kay Drey, who has long been outspoken about dangers of the West Lake landfill.