Activists draw national attention and EPA response to the atomic city

America won the race for the atomic bomb against the Axis powers in World War II. America also won the race for nuclear superiority against the Soviet Union in the Cold War that followed. America won these apocalyptic battles, but the Midwest metropolis of St. Louis paid the price.

St. Louis paid the price because it’s where uranium from the Congo was processed for making atomic bombs. It paid the price because government and industry officials were irresponsible in how they disposed of the radioactive waste from that processing. The deadly waste ended up in the city’s suburbs, in neighborhood streams and in a giant landfill in north St. Louis County.

“We have paid dearly,” said Dawn Chapman of Just MomsSTL. “We paid dearly and will continue to pay even after the last spoonful is cleaned up. The way this radioactive waste harms people, it gets passed down from one generation to the next through their DNA. It will go on and on.

“St. Louis did pay the ultimate price, and that needs to be recognized by the federal government and local officials,” said Chapman. “Officials like St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson have to be willing to join together with us and amplify our voices. That is what we are asking them to do, and from where we are sitting, it isn’t asking too much.”

For decades, the cost of cleaning up all the radioactive contamination has been deemed too steep. The cost of recognizing the problem has been deemed too much. National, state and local officials have played down dangers and balked at the price tag of relocating affected residents and addressing the contamination.

Only now – after years of tears, diseases and deaths – does it seem that there is an acknowledgement of the full extent of the human damage that began when uranium ore came to St. Louis. And only now does there seem to be a realization of how costly the cleanup of much of the radioactive contamination will be.

The price tag for addressing the West Lake landfill problem by itself is enormous. The estimate for simply capping the mound of debris is set at $95 million. Costs for full excavation of the debris with off-site disposal climbs to $700 million or more.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials announced on Feb. 1 that they will initiate a remedy called “Excavation Plus.” The plan calls for digging up the waste linked to the Manhattan Project to a depth of 16 feet and removing it. The five-year task calls for installing a cover system for long-term protection. Price tag for this partial removal is $236 million.

Just Moms St. Louis   

Activists like Chapman and Karen Nickel and their Just MomsSTL can take a lot of credit for efforts to get the EPA and other officials to finally recognize the problem. But they will tell you that the mound of radioactive material has reached a crisis stage so that it simply cannot be ignored anymore.

At least three documentary films produced in the last five years, with the cooperation of Just Moms, have dramatized the catastrophic nature of what’s buried in the St. Louis region. One of those catastrophic scenarios involves a years-long underground chemical reaction   in an adjacent Bridgeton garbage dump that is creeping closer and closer to the West Lake radioactive material.

Some scientists argue that if the chemical reaction – usually referred to as a fire – comes into contact with the debris, a radioactive plume of smoke or steam could further endanger residents miles downwind. Emergency officials in the nearby Pattonville Fire Protection District have been preparing residents and school districts for a worst-case situation: evacuation due to a nuclear fallout event.

“There are really too many worst case scenarios to list,” said Chapman. “Starting with this fire or another fire hitting the radioactive waste, or an earthquake allowing the radioactive waste to fall into two water aquifers beneath the site.

“Floods could carry this waste into  the Missouri River and into our drinking water,” Chapman continued. “This site is threatened by every element known to mankind. And these are things that will eventually happen at this site. You simply cannot find a more vulnerable site on this planet for waste that will remain dangerous for millions of years.”

An estimated 47,000 tons of radioactive waste and contaminated soil were dumped in the West Lake landfill. Experts argue that the material may be layered under 25 or 50 or even 100 feet of garbage. Nearby residents are asking: What is an excavation of just 16 feet of this nasty layer cake actually going to accomplish?

Of course, not all of the thorium and radium products from the uranium processing made it into the landfill. Some of it is at a site east of Lambert Airport runways. Some of the deadly material found its way into Coldwater Creek, where nearby residents have suffered rare cancers, reproductive disorders, skin diseases and autoimmune deficiencies.

   A Creek & West Lake

Some activists and experts think that the radioactive issues involved with the West Lake Landfill and the Coldwater Creek contamination should be kept separate. The range of sites involve different geography and a varied history of contamination.

“We refuse to fall into the trap of playing the game of whose site is worse,” said Nickel of Just Moms. “What West Lake Landfill does do is create the ability for the entire region to be contaminated through airborne particles should the fire reach the radioactive waste.

“The truth is that until the last shovel full of this waste is removed from both areas, the region remains at risk,” she continued. “The landfill fire helps people realize and think about all the issues surrounding this waste and what can go wrong. It’s also an example of how dragging your feet and passing these issues on down the road leads to damaged health and looming emergency situations that could have been avoided.”

Both Chapman and Nickel can talk about damaged health from a personal standpoint. Nickel grew up near Coldwater Creek and has been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, lupus and fibromyalgia. Chapman’s family has three special-needs children and her husband has  been dealing with an autoimmune disorder.

“It’s the same source of material, whether it is Coldwater Creek or West Lake Landfill,” said Chapman. “But, Cold Water Creek already has a record of decisions to clean up their waste. We do not at West Lake. So they are further along in this process than we are.

“Also, having cleaned up the main sources in Cold Water Creek, they are now tracking the mode of transport and where else the waste ended up. We will eventually get there.

“The issue with West Lake is it has sat out longer and we haven’t had an agency willing to do proper testing and historical research needed to truly track where it has gone off site,” said Chapman. “It’s our belief with West Lake, and sites all over this nation, that there is no place where this radioactive waste has sat and not harmed people. It does exactly what it was created to do – and that is sicken and kill people. And it’s very good at it.”

EPA Plan: Mixed Reactions

The “Excavation Plus” for partial removal of the material at West Lake has received mixed reactions. The Missouri Congressional Delegation has been generally positive with both U.S. Senators, Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt, issuing favorable responses.

In contrast, Steve Stenger, St. Louis County Executive, said the EPA’s decision is a disappointment. He said the seriousness of the health issues in the area mandate a complete excavation and total removal of the radioactive waste from North County.

Longtime anti-nuclear activist Kay Drey said the EPA decision is not an answer to a long-term problem. Her sentiments were echoed by environmental organizations such as the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, which insisted that all St. Louis area residents deserve – and should demand – a full cleanup of the radioactivity.

“Our position as Just MomsSTL is that we are glad EPA has decided this waste requires action,” said Chapman. “We acknowledge that more needs to be removed than has been indicated.

“EPA also needs to protect any material that stays behind from the current and a future fire, floods, and groundwater contact,” Chapman noted. “We will continue to push EPA to remove  residents who live closest who wish to be relocated. We have asked that all work be done under a covered structure, which EPA has design plans for in their proposal. We are asking that waste be taken to a licensed storage facility once it is removed.”

One response to the EPA plan that has irked Just MomsSTL came from St. Louis Mayor Krewson. They described her comments as ill-informed and said that she needs to acknowledge that West Lake and the Coldwater Creek contamination are not just problems for St. Louis County.

Krewson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that there is concern about the city-owned Lambert Airport, which is close to the site. She said EPA and cleanup contractors must address “bird mitigation” to make sure uncovered garbage in any cleanup at the landfill does not attract birds that could interfere with aircraft using the major passenger airport for St. Louis.

“It’s unfortunate Mayor Krewson has not been involved, attended public meetings, or met with elected officials closer to this situation,” said Chapman. “Had she done so, she would know that the birds are not an issue. There are detailed plans about bird mitigation as well as comments by EPA’s top scientists stating they are confident this can be mitigated.

“There is also a detailed plan for an on-site negative pressure building that can be put on top of the area they are going to dig in,” Chapman continued. “These documents and comments are public and are on our website as well as our Facebook page. I would urge Mayor Krewson to do some due diligence. I question who she is getting her information from, since it clearly appears to mirror the corporations’ scare tactics and attempts to keep the radioactive threat in our community.”

Help For Just Moms

Nickel and Chapman feel that the EPA decision in February was a victory of sorts, but they are not exactly breathing a sigh of relief. They are not letting their guard down and they hope more people will enlist in the fight for a safer environment.

Just MomsSTL has high praise for activists, politicians, labor leaders, school officials, clergy and filmmakers who have put energy in the battle against what they view as a neglected, decades-old,  slow-killing, environmental disaster.

Nickel and Chapman said that neighborhood activists are particularly inspiring. They have made phone calls to politicians and government agencies in between chemotherapy treatments and visits to their doctors. Managing family life is squeezed in between all this activity.

“It is hard to understand what it is like to fight this fight everyday and to live in it,” said Chapman. “Lois Gibbs from the Love Canal chemical disaster has visited us and she has been very supportive. From her fight over Love Canal, she knows what it’s like to fix your kids breakfast at the kitchen table, all the while sitting across from them on the phone with elected officials and agencies.

“We never really get a break,” said Chapman. “We don’t get to push in our chair in at an office, turn out all the lights, drive home and call it a day. For us, home is where this battle is fought.”

Nickel and Chapman also have kind words for activist Kay Drey, whom they describe as their “Radioactive God Mother.” Drey, who has been involved in the anti-nuclear fight for decades, often remarks that the atomic age is more than 70 years old, but experts are still not sure what to do with the first cup of radioactive waste products.

“Kay has been steadfast and she has instilled courage and resilience for those of us who are relatively new to this fight,” said Chapman. “She knows better than anyone the risks of leaving this waste where it currently sits. She also has seen people succumb to exposure to it over the decades she has been involved, so she knows what this fight takes out of you.”

Chapman also has words of praise for the filmmakers who have produced documentaries about the battles over the St. Louis nuclear legacy. She said the recently-released HBO film, “Atomic Homefront,” has had members of Just MomsSTL slammed with phone calls from all over they country – calls from people who are angry and who want to help.

“Our anger is at an all time high, and so is theirs, because we have failed as a country to address this issue from decades ago,” said Chapman. “Those who are just finding out about it are outraged. How can you not be when you see that this issue has been essentially buried and ignored by those in power?

“Going back to Mayor Krewson, where has she been? The fact that her concern would be about birds over the people who live in St. Louis, and their drinking water – the intake is downstream from West Lake Landfill for all of North County and the City of St. Louis – makes this a regional issue. And the fire gives this material the potential to spread via airborne particulates. This issue is one big ticking time bomb. St. Louis needs to step up and lead by example. The Manhattan Project started here, and it needs to end here.”

Political Impact

Chapman and Nickel said it’s time for politicians to stop saying they “are working behind the scenes” on the waste issue. With the films and EPA announcement, the issue is out front and center before the public. They’re confident St. Louis area residents will cross party lines in 2018 to vote for the most responsive candidates on a regional radioactive issue.

“It’s important for people to understand that even if there was no radioactive waste at this site, it would still be a Superfund Site due to all the chemicals and hazardous waste that was dumped there,” said Chapman. “The dump is an unlined limestone quarry, so it’s basically like Swiss cheese. The ground water comes and in and mixes with all the waste.

“We have documents and permits from the State of Missouri showing dumping of herbicides and pesticides, jet fuel, lead paint, shock waste and more,” said Chapman. “Back then, it was not illegal to dump all this, because there were no regulations. But, you did have to have a permit to dump, so it can be tracked.”

Just MomsSTL has great respect for the politicians who have been active on the radioactive waste and dumping issues up to now.  Moms said powerful corporations put pressure on these politicians and give money in election campaigns to defeat them.

Chapman and Nickel noted the new advertisements by the giant waste hauler, Republic Services, with its new ad campaign entitled, “We’ll Handle It From Here.” They said it would be much better if millions of dollars in advertising were actually devoted to handling waste site problems.

“Republic Services owns the radioactive site and is one of the companies financially responsible for cleaning it up,” Chapman explained. “They’re not responsible for the entire price tag. There are others involved such as Exelon, which pays on behalf of Cotter Corporation, as well as the costs for EPA and the Department of Energy.

“Corporations are not human beings  – they answer to their shareholders, so they will do what they can to minimize their portion of the cleanup bill, however they can do that,” said Chapman. “We try to remember this, because they always are spending money on advertising, lobbyists, elections and creating front groups.”

Just Moms STL said they’ve heard first-hand how difficult it is for elected officials to advocate on the issue of West Lake cleanup. They said the stakes are especially high at the state level, where “lots of campaign cash is being thrown around behind the scenes” in order to keep publicity about the radioactive legacy of St. Louis tamped down.

Chapman and Nickel said those who speak out against the handling of West Lake are subject to aggressive tactics involving paid public relations. They said they have been personally targeted in Op-Eds on a national level, as well as locally. They said the ads and negative publicity have not been effective in shutting down critics.

“We have encountered some very brave and selfless individuals who serve in Jeff City and on local school boards and city councils,” said Chapman. “It never ceases to amaze us the lengths some individuals will go to protect others – even at the potential expense to their own political careers.

“From these elected officials to our local first responders, teachers, school superintendents, local hospitals, the St. Ann Business Association, Rock Road Report Facebook Page and more, we are forever grateful,” said Chapman. “This truly is a grass-roots effort to clean up the radioactive legacy of St.Louis – and that is why it’s finally having some success.”