By Holly Shanks
“I toured the situation yesterday and my hair nearly fell out,” Dr. Helen Caldicott said. “I’ve never seen anything so goddamn dangerous.”
The internationally renowned authority on the medical dangers of nuclear waste did not sugarcoat her thoughts after visiting several contamination points, like Westlake Landfill and Coldwater Creek in North St. Louis County.
Caldicott, an Australian physician and activist, was the keynote speaker at a symposium on nuclear waste held at St. Louis Community College (STLCC) at Wildwood. The personable and dynamic presenter broke down the elements of nuclear waste and its hazardous effects on the human body.
“This is extraordinary from a medical perspective,” Caldicott said. “Think, if one person here got rabies that would be headlines in the New York Times. Here you are living next to carcinogenic material and have been doing so for decades – this is criminal.”
Just Moms STL, a citizen advocacy group focused on the Westlake Landfill issues, toured the radioactive waste sites with Dr. Caldicott. Founding members, Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel, said in an email response that it was “incredibly meaningful” to meet Caldicott who has worked for decades advocating on behalf of others.
“After touring our communities, Caldicott found it unconscionable that the situation has been allowed to persist as long as it has,” Just Moms STL said. “And at Westlake Landfill that the authorities would choose to put a barrier instead of removing the source of the problem that has clearly shown evidence of offsite migration.”
Caldicott was also appalled that the areas had not been recognized as a community health crisis, according to Just Moms STL.
“This is a 70-year old problem that is just now being studied,” Just Moms STL said. “What these people really need is a financial and moral commitment from our government to help these causalities of the World War II efforts.”
Just Moms STL said that attending the public meeting at STLCC-Wildwood was “heartbreaking and painful.” Hearing first-hand from a medical professional what health effects radioactive waste can have on their community and their children was difficult to hear. They said one dying woman’s testimony at the meeting will “haunt those in attendance for the rest of their lives.”
Mary Oscko has lived in Hazelwood near Coldwater Creek for three decades. And she is dying of late stage four lung cancer. During the audience discussion portion of the Symposium she stood up to address the room.
“I feel like the only thing I did wrong is that I was a stay at home mom for many, many, years at the end of the street, last house on the left,” Oscko said. “I was an American citizen living next to radioactive waste – and now I’m going to die a very painful death possibly from it and it’s wrong.”
Oscko was diagnosed with cancer in December 2013. She said it is time to start saying there is a problem directly related to the radioactive contamination. She said there are numerous people in her community with cancer illnesses clustered around the Coldwater Creek area. She said that cannot be brushed off to coincidence.
Oscko said she thinks data likely proves the case for the radioactive connection. More doctors should be trained to do residential assessments and the medical field needs to be involved. She said there are “wonderful” teaching and research hospitals in St. Louis. Places with medical expertise like Saint Louis University and Washington University need to enter the situation and help the community link the facts.
The symposium presenters had spoken about the years it often takes to get positive movement on issues like those surrounding nuclear waste in St. Louis. Oscko gestured toward a large bouquet of red roses in the corner of the room and said the next bouquet of flowers like that her husband sees will be next to her urn.
“There is a lot of issues here and we don’t have time – my life matters,” Oscko said. “I was two days away from becoming a nurse and I’ve never gotten to be by the side of a bed to take care of a patient. How many of us are being pulled out of the workforce and we have gifts that we’ve never been able to give to our fellow man. It angers me.”
Oscko’s concluding comments were met with a standing ovation.
“Mary is the symbol of what we’ve been talking about today and what I talked about as a doctor,” Caldicott said. “She epitomizes what we’re dealing with.”
Robert Alvarez was a member of the symposium panel of experts. He is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and has an extensive background on nuclear waste issues. During the 1990s, he served as a senior policy advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment. He also served as a senior investigator for the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs and is an expert on the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
The Bridgeton landfill fire burning close to radioactive waste has generated national attention. In December of last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that a barrier would be placed between the Bridgeton Landfill fire and the radioactive waste buried at the adjacent Westlake Landfill.
Alvarez said the proposed barrier is not enough. The Landfill fire shows a systematic failure by different government agencies to protect citizens against the dangers of the radioactive waste buried at Westlake Landfill. He said the situation has “slipped through bureaucratic cracks” and has been contaminating the environment for four decades.
A positive update recently happened with the U.S. Senate passage of bill S. 2306, according to Alvarez. The bill would transfer remediation efforts of Westlake Landfill from the EPA to the U.S. Corps of Engineers. The legislation has been introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives with decision expected this year.
The Just Moms STL group said their focus will be on the passage of the bill through the U.S. House of Representatives in the next few months. They said another goal is to pressure Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the EPA, to meet with the group to discuss a buyout for residents near Westlake Landfill.
Alvarez said the Westlake Landfill location does not meet requirements of a radioactive disposal site. He said the current situation is that tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste now finds a home in a densely populated area and in a flood plain approximately 1.2 miles from the Missouri River. There is no engineered barriers to prevent seepage of radioactivity into the water table or the river.
“Responsibility for the radioactive legacy in North St. Louis County rests solely with the U.S. Government because the problem was born of the first nuclear weapons,” Alvarez said. “At minimum, the first order of business should be for the U.S. Corps of Engineers to remove as much of the waste at the landfill as possible and contain the rest to protect your communities and the drinking water you draw from the Missouri River.”
Alvarez’s presentation, including graphics of unsafe contamination levels at Westlake Landfill and Coldwater Creek, can be viewed in the symposium video recording posted at the end of this article.
Caldicott said national leaders need to be held accountable for not protecting the people. They need to be educated because most of them are “scientifically and medically illiterate.” Americans need to participate more in their democracy because this country belongs to the people and not the politicians and large corporations. She provided an immediate call to action for the standing room only crowd.
“You’ve got to educate the whole of St. Louis,” Caldicott said. “And produce a revolution.”
A list of the symposium panel members can be found HERE.
Health maps from the advocacy group “Coldwater Creek: Just the Facts Please” can be found HERE.
The entire symposium can be viewed below.