Media cover – and uncover – environmental problems in St. Louis

Twenty years ago, the Society of Environmental Journalists chose St. Louis for its 1996 Convention. St. Louis had study trips galore for its 700 writers: dioxin at Times Beach, atomic waste at Weldon Spring, river ecosystem degradation at the Confluence.

Two decades later, St. Louis can add some new field trips for environmental writers, from abandoned lead smelters south of the city to invasive Asian carp in its rivers to a smoldering landfill in Bridgeton that is too close for comfort to a radioactive dump.

Short-staffed local news media cannot begin to cover all the hazardous waste issues and environmental problems that plague the region. Residents directly affected by the environmental hazards complain that they get precious little print, and even less local TV coverage of their problems.

Then there’s the state legislature, which not only avoids addressing Missouri’s environmental maladies, but actually proposes legislation to shield companies from liability for many of the dangerous messes they’ve created. And a dearth of coverage of the legislature shields it from public scrutiny for such perfidy.

Occasionally, outside media swoop in to check up on what concoctions the Gateway City has brewing in its polluted streams, abandoned quarries and industrial wasteland areas.

In 2013, Rolling Stone took a good look at the underground landfill fire in Bridgeton. Rolling Stone writer Steven Hsieh spent time at the landfill as well as at the nearby location of 8,700 tons of nuclear weapons waste. He also met with area residents Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel, who were alarmed by cancer rates in the area.

Hsieh heard how Chapman and Nickel have issues with stinky, rotten-egg westerly breezes that waft from the landfill – and the potential for that air to be laced one day with radioactive elements from the large West Lake Superfund site of the Environmental Protection Agency.

West Lake’s radioactive waste goes back to 1942, when the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis began processing thousands of tons of uranium for the Manhattan Project. Over the next quarter century, huge amounts of radioactive waste from the processing were quietly dumped at sites throughout the metropolitan area, including thousands of cubic yards that ended up at the West Lake location.

Toxic time bomb

Chapman, Nickel and other north St. Louis County mothers formed Just Moms STL in spring of 2014. They said their mission is to educate the St. Louis region about the West Lake Landfill, the role St. Louis played in the Manhattan Project and the toxic legacy left behind that they say needs to be addressed.

“Unfortunately, we have witnessed a pattern with this dangerous radioactive waste,” said Chapman. “Wherever it has been allowed to sit out, peoples’ lives have been devastated. It has literally left a path of heartbreak, illness and destruction.

“It does not discriminate,” added Chapman. “It has proven deadly to whoever encounters it – not only for them, but for generation after generation of their families. It’s like some Biblical curse — popping up in children and their grandchildren and great grandchildren.”

Chapman and Nickel became especially concerned after a 2013 press conference including economist, Peter Andersen, who has studied landfills for several decades. Andersen raised the prospect of a “dirty bomb” resulting from the underground landfill fire reaching the radioactive site.

Andersen pointed out that a dirty bomb does not involve nuclear fission and is not a weapon of mass destruction. However, a reaction involving groundwater, the landfill fire and radioactive waste could cause a release of radioactive particles into the air that could travel 10 miles from the Bridgeton site.

“Both the Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone have covered the issues occurring at the West Lake Landfill and the radioactive Superfund site,” said Nickel. “Rolling Stone’s was very accurate. I wish that they would do a followup. So much has happened. We know so much more about the seriousness of this site. Al Jazeera recently sent a team to report on it.”

Andersen’s assertions about the landfill fire and a radioactive dispersal apparently caught the attention of Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. Although he described the risk of the fire contacting radioactive waste as a “remote hypothetical,” he sued Republic Services which runs the landfill operation.

Koster underscored a list of public health concerns and odor pollution violations posed by the landfill. He said the company must address the problems or face further state action.

More local coverage 

The mothers of Just Moms STL were gratified with the national coverage that began in 2013 and   prompted local and state agencies to take notice. However, they feel there is still a long way to go with educating the public and to getting some resolution to the problems at West Lake.

“The best local news on this has actually been a tie between KMOX Radio, the Post-Dispatch and NPR,” said Chapman. “Second would be McGraw Milhaven with KTRS Radio and KSDK Channel 5. FOX-2 news has not done as much reporting recently.

“Reporters have worked incredibly hard to understand all the complex issues occurring at this site,” added Chapman. “Things change at the site every week, making it really hard to do a quick and thorough reporting. We’ve learned, unfortunately, that local TV news is heavily influenced by St. Louis and our state politics. We’ve actually had reporters come to us off the record and tell us they want to do more stories, but are told, no!”

Rolling Stone blamed inaction by state officials and Missouri’s congressional delegation on the state’s bid to bring the manufacture of small, modular nuclear reactors to Missouri. A lot of ruckus about radioactive waste from the past would not sit well with company’s interested in siting a nuclear operation in the state.

“I think the manufacturing of small modular reactors has played a small role in causing politicians to be ‘slow to act,’ but it’s not the major problem,” said Nickel. “The major problem is unlimited campaign donations being thrown around behind the scenes by lobbyists for all the financially liable parties.

“With this landfill, there are a lot of conflicts of interest,” Nickel added. “For instance, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt’s son Andy Blunt is a lobbyist for Exelon, and is currently running his father’s re-election campaign.  Exelon is financially liable for West Lake Landfill. Another example is Senator Kurt Schaeffer, running for Attorney General 2016, who is also a partner in the law firm Lathrope and Gage, currently representing Republic Services against the State of Missouri. These conflicts need to be reported.” 

Wheres the outrage?

Just Moms STL argue there needs to be much more coverage of the state legislature and proposed laws to cap liability costs and to quash lawsuits against companies such as Republic Services, Doe Run and more. 

“The implications of some of the proposed bills go way beyond West Lake Landfill,” said Chapman. “I think if the public understood the role and influence of big business in Missouri legislature, they would be more upset.

“The problem is that many people are like we used to be,” Chapman noted. “If they have never been forced to confront one of these issues like our community has, then they don’t get to see behind the scenes. We desperately need campaign finance reform in Missouri. Without it, the citizens of Missouri do not stand a chance against the unlimited blank checks these companies can write to their candidates.”

Another kind of outrage that Just Moms STL said is noticeably absent in the news – and from consumers of news – is “taxpayer outrage.” Not enough questions get asked about who should be responsible for paying for cleanup of contaminated sites – and not just West Lake.

“Both Exelon and the Department of Energy should be responsible for the clean up of West Lake Landfill,” said Nickel. “Exelon (formerly Cotter Corp.) knowingly illegally dumped this radioactive waste at West Lake Landfill and is listed as one of the main responsible parties.

“Our federal government appears to have not adequately supervised their licensee in the processing and in the transport of this material,” added Nickel. “The U.S. Department of Energy is already listed as a responsible party for West Lake Landfill.”

According to Chapman, the EPA has to take responsibility for botching the original assessments of the dangers posed by West Lake. She said this is because the fox was in the hen house when those assessments were made under EPA purview.

“There has been a dangerous trend at EPA of rubber-stamping documents which were actually prepared by some engineers hired by Republic Services and the other financially liable parties,” said Chapman. “The result is a history of gross negligence at this site that carries with it severe consequences for the people who have lived next to it for 40 years.

“I think we’re already seeing the consequences, such as the almost 300 percent increase in childhood brain cancers in the (63043) surrounding zip code,” noted Chapman. “I believe these statistics will continue to grow – and they’re coming to light. It’s a horrifying consequence of a federal agency mishandling the world’s oldest and most dangerous nuclear weapons waste.”

Valuable help

Just Moms STL members have high praise for environmental groups and activists who have come to their aid. Many of organizations have staged actions that have drawn news media attention to the West Lake issue.

Without the visibility of protests, the news media might not be inclined to dig into the science and the history, which are the biggest part of the West Lake story.

Members of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, including well-known St. Louis activist Kay Drey, have been outspoken about the West Lake situation. The Franciscan Sisters of Mary of St. Louis have organized demonstrations and environmental education events.

Local labor unions also have assisted Just Moms STL by hosting press conferences on the smoldering landfill and the West Lake radioactive site. A crowd of 100 gathered at the Operating Engineers Local 513 in March to hear St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s new health chief talk about a change in direction at Clayton, Missouri headquarters on the West Lake issue.

“There was a lack of political will in Clayton (on the West Lake issue),” said St. Louis County Health Director Faisal Kahn. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Faisal added, “I’m here to tell you that has changed completely.”

Chapman of Just Moms STL said the visit by Kahn indicates the area residents have finally gotten the attention of St. Louis County officials. She said they seemed to be hitting a brick wall with County Executive Stenger’s predecessor, Charles Dooley.

“We are definitely encouraged by the County Health Department’s new stance – this administration’s support is giving us hope,” said Chapman. “It also speaks to the seriousness of the impact that this burning Superfund site has on the people living, working and shopping in this community.

“We still feel that those living within a mile of this Superfund site need to be voluntarily bought out,” she added. “While we are extremely pleased to see a new health study by the county proceeding, the study by itself is not a permanent solution or relief for those people living within a mile of this site.”

Posting mixed reviews

Just Moms STL members offer mixed reviews for the daily newspaper covering the region, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Post-Dispatch remains the most comprehensive source for St. Louis news, despite dwindling pages and reporter layoffs in the last decade.

“Jacob Barker of the Post has spent a lot of time researching West Lake and attending community meetings, which gives him a good understanding of how the residents feel,” said Chapman. “His articles start out really strong and are factual, but in the end the businesses always seem to get the last word or quote in every article. By doing this it softens the message and makes it seem more pro-business.”

If there is an explanation for this, perhaps it’s because Barker is part of the Post-Dispatch’s business team, Just Moms STL says. He is not exclusively an environmental reporter, but covers the energy industry on the business side as well as the environment.

At one time, energy and environment were separate beats, but because of staff consolidations at the Post-Dispatch, they were combined. Current business editor, Roland Klose, said the merger of the beats happened before he arrived at the Post-Dispatch.

“If you have to combine beats, this one makes a lot of sense,” said Klose. “It’s good to have an environmental reporter who is comfortable looking at, and understanding, a company’s SEC filing. It’s good to have an energy reporter who understands the regulatory and consumer issues that affect a company’s bottom line. It makes for deeper, more authoritative coverage.”

Plenty to go around

Klose noted that there are plenty of environmental stories to go around at the Post-Dispatch – and reporters from different sections of the paper get in on the action.

“As for environmental coverage in general, we have other reporters who contribute,” explained Klose. “Todd Frankel, who has since joined the Washington Post, did important coverage of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways controversy last year.

“Jeremy Kohler, investigative reporter, did work on the remediation of the abandoned Northwest Plaza site. Virginia Young and Alex Stuckey cover regulatory and legislative issues from our Jeff City bureau. Freelancer Jack Suntrup did stories for my section on Coastal Energy’s tank farm near the Eleven Point River,” continued Klose.

“Tim Barker, who covers biotech for my team, also has done important environmental stories — from the rise of ‘superweeds’ to GMO labeling,” explained Klose. “Chuck Raasch, our D.C. reporter, has done work on the Monarch butterfly and Monsanto.”

All of these issues, from the use and abuse of Missouri rivers to endangered species and genetically modified organisms, might logically point to the need for a reporter focused and dedicated to the environmental beat. And not just at the Post-Dispatch, but also at radio and television stations.

“I think we definitely need more environmental reporters here,” said Chapman of Just Moms STL. “St. Louis has just so many environmental issues that the public needs to learn more about. Having dedicated beat reporters  would make it easier for the press to understand these issues.”

All the environmental issues here point to an overdue return of the Society of Professional Journalists to St. Louis holding another annual conference here and putting the region under the microscope.

After all, St. Louis has it all — from A to Z, from aluminum to zinc, with some lead, dioxin and mercury contamination sandwiched in between.


Author’s note:  Don Corrigan is a long-time journalism educator at Webster University in St. Louis and well-known weekly newspaper editor and writer for Webster-Kirkwood Times Inc. He is the author of Environmental Missouri, published in 2014, and he directs the Outdoor/Environmental Journalism Certificate at Webster University, which has brought him recognition from the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and a distinguished achievement award from the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center.   

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