In Bridgeton, on the northern edge of St. Louis County, Missouri, a fire burns underground in a vast landfill, creeping closer and closer to a pile of radioactive waste from the World War II era that was dumped there back in the 1970s. This “subsurface smoldering event,” as these odorous, high-temperature chemical reactions are called, at the West Lake Landfill has burned continuously for almost a decade now, keeping nearby residents all too aware of the Superfund site in their backyard.
For years, many of these residents have filed lawsuits against Cotter Corporation and Mallinckrodt, the companies responsible for dumping the radioactive nuclear waste in the unlined landfill (a former limestone quarry) as well as in open piles on a field near what’s now the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. These residents say that this waste has contaminated their homes. Many have sparred in open forums with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency. Others have met personally with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. All want answers to an unending list of questions. As Dawn Chapman, co-founder of the grassroots advocacy group Just Moms STL and a mother of three who lives 2 miles from landfill, told me, “The battles at this site never end.”
Meanwhile, the fire burns. Closer and closer to the radioactive waste, like a ticking time bomb. But for many North County residents, that bomb has already gone off, and it’s fallen to members of the community to pressure local and federal officials to help pick up the pieces. Now, federal scientists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry are finally starting to admit the mistakes of the nation’s toxic past.
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A few years ago, the Journal published a feature “Casualties of War” that chronicled the plight of North St. Louis residents living in the fallout of our country’s nuclear warfare legacy. To recap: about 10 years ago Jenell Wright logged onto Facebook to reconnect with others from her hometown of Florissant along Coldwater Creek, a few miles east of West Lake Landfill, and quickly noticed a trend of cancers and rare diseases among her childhood classmates. She started administering a Facebook page called “Coldwater Creek – Just the facts please” where residents could report their illnesses (the group, still active, now has over 20,000 members), and she eventually helped conduct a survey that geolocated thousands of cases of rare cancers, infertility, genetic mutation, and so on. The resulting map showed a clear outline of the meandering Coldwater Creek.
Tracing the problem upstream led to an easy culprit. After World War II, the St. Louis-based chemical company Mallinckrodt began dumping nuclear refuse left over from processing uranium for the Manhattan Project, the federal research project that gave us nuclear warfare. For two decades, the company shipped a whopping 133,007 tons of radioactive waste to a then-rural site near Coldwater Creek. That site was then bought out and the waste eventually relocated…to its current location at West Lake Landfill, which was designated by the EPA as a Superfund site in 1990. The Army Corps of Engineers also began cleaning up radioactive material at Coldwater Creek.
But well before then, the damage at Coldwater Creek — and West Lake Landfill — had been done. Decades of stormwater runoff, groundwater discharge, and flooding had disseminated traces of uranium-238 and thorium-232 throughout the creek’s watershed, just as the northern suburbs of St. Louis — with its schools, parks, and homes — had started to envelop it.
When “Casualties of War” was published in 2016, Wright and others who had helped conduct the survey had begun pushing the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry to formally assess the situation at Coldwater Creek. They needed the federal government to affirm what they had been saying all along. “We couldn’t move forward with anything else until we had that confirmation from the federal government that there was an issue. [They] were the gatekeeper,” says one of the Facebook group’s admins Kim Visintine, a former Florissant resident who had lost her 6-year-old son to brain cancer.
Finally, this past April, the agency released its finalized public health assessment affirming the link between radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project and Coldwater Creek cancers.
“Our evaluation did find an increased risk of some cancer, especially for the past exposures, people who grew up in the area and played very often or frequently in or near the creek,” Jill Dykin, an environmental health scientist for the agency told St. Louis Public Radio.
Of course, the report hasn’t gone without pushback. When the federal scientists released a draft report in June 2018, Mallinckrodt responded defensively. The chemical company funded its own team of scientists, who used the draft report’s public comment period to call it “unscientific and misleading” and a means to “inject an unwarranted level of concern in the community.” But the federal scientists repeated their conclusions: Radioactive waste from federal weapons research at Mallinckrodt indeed contaminated Coldwater Creek, and people could be dying because of it.
For Visintine, the report marks a huge win.
For one, federal acknowledgement is the first step towards federal restitution. Visintine explains that now Coldwater Creek residents could potentially qualify under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides compensation to people who have contracted cancers from exposure to federal weapons tests. The federal assessment also puts the spurs to federal cleanup. Since 1997, the Army Corps has been removing radioactive material from industrial zones adjacent to the creek through its program called FUSRAP (Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program). Now, FUSRAP is expanding its testing and cleanup to include homes, as well as both the current and historic floodplain of the creek.
“We’re making progress,” says Visintine. “The community today doesn’t have the risk that we had in the 70s and 80s growing up in the area. Hopefully, everyday, we minimize that risk for them.”
Meanwhile, as the subsurface smoldering event continues to burn at West Lake Landfill, Chapman and her neighbors continue to put pressure on the EPA and local agencies to affirm the risk the site poses to their community. For years, much of their concerns seemed to fall on deaf ears, until in 2017 when HBO released a feature length documentary called Atomic Homefront showcasing Just Moms STL’s activism at the landfill.
According to Chapman, the documentary put Just Moms STL into national perspective. After the release, she was able to connect with other moms around the country — from Tucson to Minden, West Virginia — who were attempting to dig up facts about the Superfund sites in their own backyards. These connections led Chapman to discover that 53 million people in the United States live within 3 miles of a Superfund site. “And the majority of them don’t have any idea,” she says.
Last July, Chapman finally met face-to-face with EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “That was a lot of what we talked about,” says Chapman. “Communication.”
In return, Wheeler promised the neighbors of the West Lake Landfill that in the next two years, shovels would hit the ground to clean up the radioactive material. According to the EPA’s remedy decision for the West Lake Landfill, that cleanup should be completed three years after it starts.
But there are other concerns beyond the radioactive waste itself, says Chapman. For one, living next to the site can be a source of chronic stress in the community — something that the EPA alone isn’t equipped to deal with. And in the meantime, the landfill still emits dangerous gases, and Just Moms STL are now trying to tease out answers to how the fire could be affecting the area’s groundwater.
“It’s never going to be what it should have been. That ship has sailed,” says Chapman. “We’re just fighting to make it better.”