On the morning of Friday, March 31, a band of activists named Earth Defense Coalition shut down Bridgeton and West Lake landfills. Nine activists chained themselves to 500-pound, cement-filled oil drums, effectively blockading the driveways to the landfills.
Earth Defense Coalition states in a Facebook video that they are calling attention to Republic Service’s continued mismanagement of radioactive waste illegally dumped at the landfills, which is now dangerously close contacting an underground chemical fire.
Around 1942, local firm Mallinckrodt Chemical Company received a secret federal contract to spearhead the processing of raw uranium for nuclear weapons. Mallinckrodt needed to discretely deal with a large amount of hazardous waste; their cost-saving solution was to illegally dump 50-gallon drums of waste throughout North St. Louis County and St. Charles County.
Grassroots coalitions of neighbors throughout the region repeatedly discovered, exposed and demanded the cleanup of toxic and radioactive waste; the most recent successful example was Weldon Springs, which was remediated in 2001. At Weldon Springs, seven drinking well tests revealed radioactive contamination of the groundwater.
In the case of Bridgeton and West Lake landfills, reliable testing has not been conducted. Advocacy by watchdog group Just Moms STL resulted in additional tests, which confirmed the concern that radioactive waste was not confined to a small corner of West Lake Landfill, as previously alleged by officials. In fact, they found radioactive waste in the contiguous Bridgeton Landfill, much closer to the ongoing underground chemical fire.
You can’t sweep radioactive waste under the rug, or into an unlined landfill, and expect the problem to disappear. With time, the harmful material only leaches further into soil, closer to sources of drinking water, and nearer to the underground chemical fire.
Believing that state politics hindered local officials’ impartiality, Just Moms STL successfully secured bipartisan support from Missouri members of Congress, Senators McCaskill and Blunt, and Representatives Wagner and Clay, to sponsor a bill with a sensible partial solution – to transfer the waste cleanup responsibility to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP).
The bill passed in the Senate with little difficulty, but it failed in the House of Representatives due to a Republican’s and a Democrat’s votes in committee. What does it say about the leadership of Wagner and Clay that they were unable to secure the support they needed from members of their own parties to accomplish a vote on the House floor?
When the St. Louis County Emergency Operations Plan leaked to a member of the press, neighboring school districts responded by sending a letter home in every child’s backpack. Put yourself in a parent’s shoes: imagine having to explain to your 7-year-old why you might be barred from picking up them up from school for an indefinite amount of time during a mandatory shelter-in-place decree. Parents were advised to leave a stockpile of children’s medications at school just in case, for asthma and other chronic ailments are all-too-common to these families.
Imagine trying to explain the death of family members due to rare cancers that are perturbingly clustered in North County near the landfill and Cold Water Creek. The psychological strain on parents and children in the community is an absolute injustice and a disgrace. No one should have to live in the shadow of calamity or illness simply from breathing the air, drinking the water, and digging in the soil of their community.
Some residents have elected to move away for peace of mind. Others cannot afford to leave. Meanwhile North St. Louis County residents already feel the impact of a slumping housing market that undercuts what is often the only wealth this middle-class community has accumulated.
We need a systematic, scientific, Cartesian-grid-based program of soil and water tests in Bridgeton and West Lake landfills, and in a half mile buffer surrounding all known current and past radioactive dump sites. We need a rigorous public health study of reported cancer and autoimmune disorder clusters in North County. We need a comprehensive study of home value depreciation and loan availability in the footprint of the contaminated area to measure the economic impacts to private citizens already incurred.
And, crucially, we need the landfill’s clean-up to be transferred immediately to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers FUSRAP, especially in this national political climate where the very existence of life-saving regulations is threatened by Donald Trump’s corporate agenda to end the EPA.
Despite being a political failure, this is not a partisan issue. The negligence displayed here is an international human rights catastrophe. It has been 16 years since political pressure forced the cleanup of the dump site at Weldon Springs, and there has been an utter lack of political leadership ever since.
Cori Bush is a nurse, pastor and political activist.