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The legacy of the World War II effort to build the atom bomb is haunting the present and may still be wreaking destruction more than 70 years after two bombs killed hundreds of thousands in Japan. This time the target is in the middle of the United States. Radioactive waste in a landfill north of St. Louis is in the path of an underground fire that’s been smoldering out of control at an adjacent dump site for more than five years. In October the St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger released an evacuation plan meant to “save lives” in case of a “catastrophic event at the West Lake landfill.” The document warns that “there is potential for radioactive fallout to be released in the smoke plume and spread throughout the region.”
The region is the north county area near the St. Louis airport not far from Ferguson, where civil unrest flared, igniting the nation-wide “Black Lives Matter” movement after the police killing of an unarmed Black teenager last year. While much has been written about the poverty and deep-seated racism in Ferguson, little has been said of the environmental racism occurring at their doorstep.
Dawn Chapman, a local resident and founder of West Lake Moms, says it’s time for the state to “focus on the people.” The group is demanding that the government which failed to warn them of the radioactive waste dump now buy out their homes. Chapman says “somebody decided to develop around here.” Adding that “it goes hand-in-hand with social justice.”
The radioactive waste at West Lake was generated by uranium processing and refining carried out beginning in 1943 with the Manhattan Project and lasting through the early years of the Cold War. The Mallinckrodt Chemical Works took on the job of turning uranium ore into the purified chemicals necessary to feed the nuclear reactors and other facilities at Hanford, Washington and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The ore, which came from sources in Africa, Canada and the western United States, was processed into various compounds at sites near Buffalo, New York, in Ontario and St. Louis prior to being formed into metal slugs from which nuclear bomb fuel could be produced.
Eventually Mallinckrodt gave up its nuclear operations, morphing into a pharmaceutical company. The waste was left to the United States government which eventually sold the land and the waste to the Cotter Corp., a mining operation. A contractor for Cotter, B7K Construction, allegedly mixed radioactive waste with other contaminated dirt and provided it to unknowing users, calling it “clean fill.” Thus “hot” fill was then used to cover municipal waste and other landfills and was trucked around to various sites in St.Louis, leaving a trail of radioactive contamination along roads and railways. Six-mile-long Coldwater Creek, which winds through the area, flooded its banks and spread contaminated soil in backyards, while also flooding homes and schools.
According to Chapman, the Manhattan Project waste is so pervasive in the community that more than 13,000 train car loads of contaminated material have been removed over the past decade. The waste is shipped to a licensed dump operated by the Idaho National Laboratory — the place where the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine, was developed.
West Lake is currently a Superfund site under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency. Cotter was purchased by Chicago-based energy giant Exelon which is potentially liable along with Republic Services, a nationwide waste disposal company that now owns the the landfill. The Department of Energy, successor to the Manhattan Project and Atomic Energy Commission which were responsible for the early days of the bomb project, also shares liability. Exelon has been opposing plans supported by Concerned Moms’ Chapman to dig up and remove the waste, claiming the cost of total removal would $400 million, 10 times the cost of simply hiding the waste under a layer of supposedly water-impervious clay.
Meanwhile, Republic has reportedly paid out $125 million to contain the smoldering fire in the dump they manage adjacent to West Lake in Bridgeton. According to Chapman the dumps were originally two separate quarries that were connected across a an underground “neck” that Chapman says was excavated by previous owners — a decision Chapman says was “irresponsible.” Chapman claims the fire is out of control and has already bypassed wells that were sunk by Republic to prevent a migration to the radioactive waste dump. Republic denies that the fire, which they say is “smoldering,” will cross the neck and claims the company has been successful in reducing the underground temperature by pumping water into the landfill.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster begs to differ, saying in a statement that “Republic Services does not have this site under control,” and that the landfill has “poisoned its neighbors’ groundwater and vegetation.“ The report was a salvo in a 2013 lawsuit against Republic for environmental violations that’s featured dueling experts and conflicting interpretations. Analysts cited by the state claim that the underground fire is nearing the radioactive waste. But the EPA says there is nothing to fear from the landfills and there is little chance of toxic fumes seeping into the air.
Chapman charges that the fire will reach the radioactive waste within six months or sooner. She says the government doesn’t know where all the waste is and there could be a sudden and unexpected disaster. She adds that the authorities are “running out of time and options.”
If time runs out, St. Louis County wants to be ready with the West Lake Landfill Shelter in Place/Evacuation Plan. That plan states that an emergency “will most likely occur with little of no warning,” and lists nearby communities containing about 150,000 residents that would be directly effected. The plan calls for “reliable evacuation routes,” but says “in most situations a ‘shelter in place’ order may be given.” Authorities would prevent those who left an area from returning until an all-clear order was received. At least four local school districts sent letters home to parents last week acknowledging emergency plans in case a radioactive cloud rises from the landfill. While the schools say they are trying to calm fears, the letters may have increased tensions as panicked parents have been meeting with officials to get information.
There’s a certain irony in how the government since 9-11 has been spending untold millions of dollars preparing for an imagined threat that terrorists might someday develop some kind of “dirty bomb” that could spread radioactive fallout, while agencies like the DOE and EPA have allowed this very real threat of a potentially much worse radioactive disaster fester for years.
Meanwhile, political support is growing to have the Army Corp of Engineers to take over the site from the EPA. Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) says the agency is moving too slow. “The EPA says there’s nothing to worry about, but the people are worried about it,” if the EPA doesn’t have a plan, says Blunt, adding, “They ought to turn it over to the Corps of Engineers.” A local State Senator, Maria Chappelle Nadal,says the federal government and the Center for Disease Control should step in with increased resources. She says, “The people who have been effected by this over the course of generations, the families, need to become whole.”
According to Chapman it was social media that allowed information about the danger to spread in the community. Poor communities who don’t have access to computers and social media she adds, “weren’t in the loop,” and poor communities “don’t get cleaned up.” But, while people who bought homes face the fear of never being able to sell, residents of the deeply troubled areas closer to St. Louis may be left behind.
African Americans began moving into the area near St. Louis airport about 20 years ago after court rulings struck down the covenants and red lining that had kept the area white for generations. The local governments and police force remained white-controlled and according to reports balanced local budgets with unreasonable fines and petty arrests in the Black community. A middle class Black town called Kinloch was virtually destroyed by the construction of an airport runway in the late 1990s a project which left the once thriving community a ghost town.
As is often the case, bigotry and privilege here conspire to leave the most vulnerable residents in the path of toxic waste.