Her first clue that something was wrong came as she ran her hands through her baby boy’s hair. “My child was losing his hair in clumps,” Meagan Beckermann recalls. A doctor traced the problem to alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that can be triggered by environmental factors.
A frantic search for a likely source ended when neighbors advised Beckermann to follow her nose. That’s when she learned that the charms of her St. Louis suburb of Bridgeton — with its green parks and quality schools — masked two massive landfills, one filled with radioactive waste, about a mile from her home. No one had mentioned them when she’d bought her house, she says.
Four years later, she and other residents now describe the situation as only more extreme. Rapidly decomposing waste 60 feet to 200 feet down are smoldering beneath one of the landfills in what scientists call a sub-surface burning event. The underground burn is only a few thousand feet from a Superfund site filled with waste from the World War II-era Manhattan Project, the federal government’s ultimately successful effort to build an atomic bomb.
“A burning radioactive waste dump requires the government to act with urgency, but EPA seems unable to move forward with a meaningful solution,” State Attorney General Chris Koster wrote last week in an angry letter to members of the delegation, in which he called for the Army corps’ intervention.
The federal Superfund program addresses large and highly toxic hazardous waste sites. Although no credible link has been established between air quality near the landfills and prevalence of disease, residents are concerned about adverse health impacts. Mothers such as Beckermann, whose 6-year-old son Trevor now has no hair on his entire body, worry about the possible effects of the West Lake site’s contaminants on their children. Some people have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
The burn at the closed Bridgetown Landfill has increased the stench, some say. “It makes you gag,” resident Robbin Dailey said. Families within a mile of both properties are demanding that the EPA relocate them, a move that would cost a half-billion dollars, according to some estimates. A group of mothers from the area traveled to Washington last week to press for action. While on Capitol Hill, they told lawmakers that their requests to speak with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy had been ignored.
“Everybody has responsibility,” Chapman said. “If you knew about this, you have responsibility. The failure to notify residents, the failure to advocate, falls on every elected official that covers the district. This is no place to raise a family.”
As the one landfill smoldered and word about it spread, Chapman and two other women co-founded a protest group. They called it Just Moms because whenever they contacted elected officials to help them, they’d be asked if they were advocates. “No,” the women responded, “we’re just moms.”
Read more at An underground fire is burning near radioactive waste. Don’t worry, EPA says