By Don Corrigan
Fear. Anxiety. Heartbreak. Those are words used by residents living near the radioactive West lake Landfill in North St. Louis County. Residents say their fear, their anxiety and their heartbreaks have multiplied in the 2020 pandemic because of weakened immune systems.
The COVID-19 virus can cause severe illness and death, especially for those with compromised immune systems. Many residents living in the vicinity of West Lake report that they already suffer ailments that they attribute to the nearby toxic landfill.
“The amount of fear and anxiety our community members have been forced to live with in regards to the landfill and toxins has doubled with COVID-19,” said Dawn Chapman, co-founder of Just Moms STL, an activist group that has fought for years for cleanup of the site. “Many of our residents are taking more extreme precautions in order to avoid this COVID-19 illness.
“If there is any good news, it is that we have learned to rely heavily on each other for support and other resources, while we have fought for a clean up at our site,” said Chapman. “Our community connections and relationships have really helped us during this viral pandemic. We are continuing to support and look after each other.”
West Lake Landfill area residents are supporting each other in uncertain times now that are not just related to the pandemic. Although federal officials with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed to a limited cleanup of the site in 2018, there is now wrangling over who will pay the costs. Estimated costs are expected to rise and federal coffers are suffering budget woes both from the tax cuts put into effect in 2018 and from the pandemic crisis now.
The federal government is on the hook for cleanup costs, but other responsible parties for the toxic waste site, such as Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, are having their own financial difficulties. A recent declaration of bankruptcy by Mallinckrodt has added fuel to a “dumpster fire” over who’s paying for West Lake cleanup costs. The St. Louis company has been hit with hefty lawsuits for its role in the nation’s opioid crisis.
Long before the chemical company was manufacturing opioid drugs, Mallinckrodt was processing uranium for the America’s atomic bomb program. Radioactive waste from the atomic weapons program was haphazardly buried in the what is now the West Lake EPA Superfund site in Bridgeton. The waste also can be found along land bordering Coldwater Creek.
Mallinckrodt faces the potential of hundreds of millions of dollars in liabilities from the recent opioid crisis, as well as from the atomic weapons program a half century ago. Hence, the company’s move earlier this fall to file for bankruptcy for protection from creditors.
“I believe everyone who had a hand in the making and dumping of this radioactive waste should be accountable at some level – including our own U.S. Government,” said Chapman. “The percentages that each stakeholder pays for the cleanup is not something that is being made public.”
Worries Pile Up
Another stakeholder that is balking at paying the high cost of the radioactive cleanup is Republic Services, a waste hauling company whose subsidiary, Bridgeton Landfill LLC, is the legal owner of the Superfund site. Republic has taken legal actions against Mallinckrodt and other entities involved in the area contamination in order to share the burden of the nine-figure costs for site cleanup.
According to Mallinckrodt’s own website, the company “purified and provided all of the uranium oxide used by the Manhattan Project” to make the atomic bomb during the World War II period. Radioactive waste from Mallinckrodt’s St. Louis operations found its way into the West Lake Landfill where it was illegally dumped in the 1970s.
“I do think to some extent Republic bought a lemon when they took over the landfill,” said Chapman. “The fact that we are still figuring out the extent of the contamination means that when they agreed to purchase this site, not enough was known about it. It would be one thing if they bought it knowing this, but that wasn’t the case.
“Don’t get me wrong about Republic, though,” added Chapman. “They fought us tooth and nail and went all out and waged war against our group of moms just for wanting to be kept safe. They wrote op-eds in the Huffington Post, created front groups, and it cost us dearly in every way possible in the battle to get a site cleanup.”
Nevertheless, Chapman said she thinks Republic was put between a rock and a radioactive hard place, because it did not know what it was buying. She puts that on the EPA, the U.S. Department of Energy and other agencies for “continually pretending this site was less dangerous than they knew it was.“
“This charade went on for decades,” said Chapman. “I think given what we now know about the extent of the radioactive wastes and potential for groundwater contamination, Republic would have at least thought twice before agreeing to purchase this site.”
There are plenty of things for residents in the area of West Lake Landfill to worry about these days: the continuing presence of radioactive waste, the effect of COVID-19, the financial viability of the parties committed to the cleanup. An additional concern is whether turmoil in the EPA and a change in presidential administrations might result in a West Lake Landfill cleanup falling through the cracks.
“I think it will move forward no matter who the next President is in 2021,” said Chapman. “The question is how fast. Will this site remain a priority? We are already working hard to make sure we have contacts within upper EPA with any administration change.
“We don’t know how much of the money going into the cleanup is being paid by the federal government,” Chapman said. “What we do know is that part of Superfund Law is that cleanup money is already set aside. So money needed is already sitting there by all stakeholders and has been reported to their shareholders.”
One silver lining for the cleanup at West Lake Landfill is that it could produce jobs for years. In the event of a prolonged recession, these jobs could be a needed benefit for area workers. The local 513 Operating Engineers have cleaned up hazardous waste all over St. Louis, including the Weldon Spring site. A state-of-the art training facility in Missouri aids workers in learning how to clean up this kind of waste.
A Marathon, Not A Sprint
“I don’t think it’s a matter of needing more taxpayer money for this now,” said Chapman. “It is all about making better use of what taxpayers are already paying. Taxpayers have already put dollars into the Department of Defense and its nuclear defense programs and they need to be allotted for the cleanup of this waste across the nation.”
Chapman said Just Moms STL has learned that the fights over contamination, cleanup and safety are a marathon, not a sprint. She said when the group started years ago, members hoped it was an issue that could be resolved with a few months of effort, but it has just continued to drag on and on.
“The costs to us are another thing,” said Chapman. “Karen Nickel and our other members have truly had to pay dearly to stay in this fight in every way you could imagine. It has tested our strength and resolve everyday.
“Everything we thought we knew about how change happens was false,” said Chapman. “We have learned that no matter who is in office, you cannot become complacent and let your guard down. You have to continue to advocate for your issue.”
After so much fear, anxiety and heartbreak, Chapman said she now realizes that her group of mothers is probably only between half or three-quarters finished with the radioactive waste issue at the site. She said they are just getting started with possible groundwater contamination issues.
“We are going to stay focused as long as we have to and to advocate to make our community a safe place to live and work,” said Chapman. “The biggest piece of advice I would give anyone in these big environmental safety battles is to find someone to help you.
“The mothers and my friend Karen Nickel – we all have each other,” said Chapman. “We have the backing and support of our families and friends. With the officials and the experts, you have to demand that they are honest with you. They need to tell you what you need to hear – not just what you want to hear.”