Two Stay-at-Home Moms Are Waging War Against the Feds Over Illegal Toxic Waste
What do you do when there's 10,000 barrels of illegally dumped uranium two miles away from your home and the government tells you not to worry about it?
Photo by Christen Commuso
Dawn Chapman and her family are stuck in an absurd and depressing situation: Less than two miles from the Chapmans' neighborhood in Bridgeton, Missouri, sits a landfill where radioactive uranium was illegally dumped by a government contractor forty years ago. Since the Environmental Protection Agency is not required to warn people of such things, most people in the area—including many elected officials—knew nothing about the dump for decades.
"It would be great to be able to leave this area, but we couldn't honestly sell our house right now, " Chapman says. "Even ethically, with what's going on, I wouldn't want to sell my house to another family."
Karen Nickel learned about the dump site during a town hall with the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps have successfully removed illegally dumped nuclear waste from other sites across the nation but because this particular site, West Lake Landfill, is under the control of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Corps does not have the authority or funding to conduct a clean-up here. Nickel and other mothers are fearful about what health problem such close proximity to radioactive waste could cause their children. "A lot of their children are coming forward with cancers and such, a couple of my daughter's friends have brain tumors," Nickel says.
Nickel has good reason to be worried; other children who grew up around the original holding facility for the waste became stricken with cancers and tumors as they aged. Five miles away from the landfill sits a popular creek directly next to Mallinckrodt Chemical Company, which stored the waste on the ground from the 1940s through the 1970s. Adults who played in that creek as children began surveying their health problems about five years ago and noticed high rates of cancer. The adults organized and convinced the county health director, Dr. Faisal Kahn, that there was a major problem.
"What you see is an environmental health disaster unfolding slowly over decades," Kahn told CBS News. "The rates of appendix cancer, for instance, which is relatively rare— we see about 800 cases across the nation per year," Kahn added. "To find seven or eight cases in one zip code or one small geographic area is rather unusual."
In 2008, the EPA quietly determined that the safest and most cost-effective policy on Bridgeton's uranium filled dumpsite was to leave it alone. "The site does not emit radiation that poses a risk to health, " an EPA official, Karl Brooks, told the press in 2013.
The Do Nothing policy is supported by the company that maintains the landfill, Republic Services, but not by some researchers and activists, who note that the landfill is unlined, sits inside a floodplain, and isn't far from the Mississippi river, raising the potential to contaminate groundwater if it hasn't already.
The two competing narratives—one from the EPA, suggesting that people in northern St. Louis county are safe and that the nuclear waste can stay put, and one from activists and environmental groups arguing that the Corps is more qualified to handle the site and should remove the waste—has been a constant for the last five years. Chapman and Nickel have worked steadily to rally the community to support the second narrative. Under the banner of "Just Moms," the two women have organized informal town-hall meetings to announce happenings at the waste site. Online, their Facebook page alerting people to landfill news has grown to 18,000 members. They have used their grassroots power to lobby representatives, making the case that the waste needs to be transferred away from its current location.
There's a lot those moms have done that wouldn't have been done otherwise.
In the past four years, the "Just moms" have become a surprisingly powerful force, successfully lobbying the state health department to challenge some of the federal government's findings that downplayed the site's risks, revealing possible inconsistencies in public statements made by the EPA, and pissing off both the EPA and landfill operator Republic Services. Ed Smith, the policy director for the non-profit Missouri Coalition for the Environment is an admirer of the women. "There's a lot those moms have done that wouldn't have been done otherwise," he says.
The first major success for Just Moms came when Karen and Dawn sniffed a foul odor in their neighborhood. The landfill owners told them that it was due to a "smoldering event," created by underground gasses that can ignite some of the landfill garbage. The landfill, the moms were told, was in it's third year of a sustained underground trash smolder, something that's common among underground landfills—but landfills are typically not next to tons of uranium. Nevertheless, officials assured the moms that a limestone wall between the uranium and the trash would keep the fire from reaching the toxic materials. There were two landfills, the operators insisted: one for nuclear waste, one for trash.
"The site's radiological wastes remain contained," EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks told the public in 2013, "this material poses no health risks to the public." The moms, activists and lawmakers quickly challenged that assertion.
"In that throat that divides the two landfills, they were saying there was a limestone wall," says State Senator Keith English, "that the fire couldn't get through," However, English insists that contractors who worked on the site in the 70s and 80s, says that the site is "just one big-ass hole that they dumped in," he says.
This material poses no health risks to the public.
State senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal says she also remembers hearing about a limestone wall from officials, and then from workers who warned her no such wall existed when they had worked on the site decades ago. "There was no differentiation between north quarry and south quarry. It was all one landfill."
To confirm that such a wall was in place, the women called the local county waste department and asked for a map of the landfill site. The official gave the women a map, now included in state documents, drawing out the shape and structure of the landfill, with no indication that a limestone divided the landfill. Alarmed, the women contacted their local fire department. "For the longest time they were under the impression that there was a wall," Dawn says of the fire officials. The department appeared to be disturbed at the news and shortly afterward the state got involved. The state attorney general then sued Republic Services, accusing the company of violating state environmental laws from the burning of chemicals in the landfill's northern section and creating a public nuisance with foul odors in the air. While that lawsuit does not address the threat of nuclear waste, it marked the first time that a government agency had taken aggressive action against landfill operator Republic Services.
The landfill just one big-ass hole that they dumped toxic waste in.
Karen and Dawn say that the state, unlike the EPA, has been more responsive to their concerns and continued lobbying over the years. "It's been an interesting relationship that we've had to form with them, we try to be respectful, we try to show, using these documents, why we feel the way we feel," says Karen. "As we were doing this with the state, we were also doing this with the EPA. The EPA really blew us off whereas the state of Missouri didn't."
EPA's Midwest region spokesman agreed to answer our questions if they were submitted in writing: "EPA does not recall an instance in which this Agency said a limestone wall was in place which later was shown not to be true," Region 7 spokesman Ben Washburn writes to Broadly. He adds that the agency plans to add an additional "isolation barrier system" in the quarries, but "we have also consistently stated that the information available to us indicates that the SSE [sub-surface smoldering event] in the South Quarry is not rapidly moving or advancing towards" the radioactive material.
In 2014, the landfill operator stepped up their lobbying efforts to improve their public image and ensure that they would have to pay for any costly removal. "Excavation would be long, dangerous and expensive," the Coalition to Keep Us Safe, the lobbying front for the landfill operator posted on their website. "It would Dramatically increase (700 X) radiation exposure risks for workers digging up and hauling the material," and "put Landfill neighbors at risk of impacted rainwater drainage and run-off as a result of the digging."
Chapman and Nickel countered the paid lobbyists with their own attack. For one week in 2014, they focused their sites on United States Congressman Roy Blunt, their federal representative who had previously been publicly silent about the landfill. From their Facebook page:
"EVERY DAY from 8am-4pm please call his WASHINGTON DC office. Make it a part of your daily routine!!!!," the moms urged supporters in an online post. "Emails are good, but 2,000 phone calls everyday will make a bigger impact!!!"
The effort worked. Two months later, Blunt sent a letter to the EPA, asking the agency to transfer remediation of the nuclear site to the hands of the Corps. The next year, in 2015, the Blunt and Senator Claire McCaskill introduced federal legislation once again demanding that the EPA hand control and authority of the site over to the Corps. "The EPA's unacceptable delay in implementing a solution for the West Lake landfill has destroyed its credibility and it is time to change course," Blunt said in a statement at the time.
Through a spokesman, Blunt says he had already been concerned about the site but credits residents for helping inspire his legislation. "It was the residents who had seen the effective work the Corps had done at these nearby sites and therefore asked the Senators that they consider legislatively transferring the power over the site from the EPA Superfund program to the Corps," his office tells Broadly in an email. The bill gained some traction but is currently stalled in committee.
Just Moms continue to rally the public to demand tests from the state. The women also took trips, uninvited, to the state offices and asked for meetings so they explain why they believed the nuclear waste posed a threat. The aggressive community lobbying appeared to pay off: the state health department agreed to test the site for evidence that the radioactive waste has spread, and late last year, the Missouri State Attorney general finally released the findings. Among the disturbing conclusions: possible radioactive waste has in fact been found "off site" in the nearby foliage. What's more, groundwater wells outside the perimeter of the landfill were found to be contaminated with carcinogens like benzene in "high concentrations," the state said.
The EPA contests the state's findings. "EPA does not agree with the conclusions drawn in the report. Data collected to date does not indicate any off-site health risk for residents around the landfill," EPA spokesman Washburn writes in an email to Broadly.
In a surprise move, EPA's lead administrator Gina McCarthy agreed to meet with Chapman and Nickel recently, when the women were in D.C. to talk to their senators once again about the landfill site. "She had a productive conversation and publicly thanked the Moms for meeting with her," Washburn says.
For now, Chapman and Nickel are philosophical about their situation, even as they describe living with a constant foul smell in their neighborhood and seeing health problems in their children. They can't help but point out that the underground "smoldering event," though frightening, has engaged more people in the issue than what would have been otherwise. "It's been a blessing and a curse," says Nickel.
"We're getting swung at by a lot of people," she says, but they've also seen the way locals have become energized and slowly inspire changes, and so they don't plan to quit.