Two Stay-at-Home Moms Are Waging War Against the Feds Over Illegal Toxic Waste via Broadly

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?

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.”


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.


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.


n 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.

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