When Karen Nickel’s parents moved to the banks of Coldwater Creek in Hazelwood, Missouri 20 miles northwest of St. Louis, they did not realize they were moving to an area contaminated by radioactive material. Karen later moved to nearby Maryland Heights, where she raised her own family in a house 1.5 miles from the West Lake Landfill. Unbeknownst to Karen, she had once again moved to an area contaminated by radioactive waste.
Upon learning what she had been exposed to, Karen started the West Lake Landfill Facebook group in November 2012, where she met Dawn Chapman. In March 2014, the two founded Just Moms STL, a grassroots organization that raises awareness about radioactive material present in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area as a consequence of the Manhattan Project. ProSPER and Connections met with Dawn and Karen on March 12, 2021 to hear their story and learn about their experience in advocacy and policy.
Uranium was secretly purified in downtown St. Louis by Mallinckrodt in the 1940s to support the Manhattan Project. To avoid prying eyes, the waste was hurriedly moved to unincorporated land near what is now St. Louis International Airport. The waste laid out in the open for years, steadily flowing into Coldwater Creek during downpours. Eventually, the waste was moved to West Lake Landfill where it remains to this day. The entire time, the presence of radioactive contamination was unknown to local residents. When Karen learned Coldwater Creek was contaminated, she did some investigation about her neighborhood.
“What I found was absolutely heartbreaking,” Karen told us. “Fifteen people on my street alone had died of very rare cancers, and a lot of those people were in their later 30s, earlier 40s.” Appendix cancer, for example, affects 1 in a million people, yet there have been close to 200 cases in the ZIP codes surrounding Coldwater Creek and the West Lake Landfill. “To have that many is statistically improbable,” Dawn noted.
“We’ve had babies born without eyes,” added Karen. “There was infertility on the street, birth defects, four cases of lupus within my 5 or 6 house radius. My sister had cysts that covered her ovaries when she was 11 and our next door neighbor’s daughter had cysts when she was 9.” Karen herself suffers from lupus and several other autoimmune diseases. One of her granddaughters had to have a mass removed when she was only three weeks old. “We were poisoned.”
The contamination of Coldwater Creek was declared an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) superfund site in 1989 and the West Lake Landfill was declared one in 1990, meaning the federal government designated them for long-term clean up of hazardous material. However, nobody knew the extent of the damage until Dawn and Karen pieced it together. In 2017, HBO released the documentary Atomic Homefront, which detailed Just Moms STL’s struggle to get the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to recognize the nuclear waste concern.
“None of the people responsible for protecting us even had a complete picture,” Dawn said. When they first met with state and federal officials, Karen and Dawn had documents that neither agency had in their possession. “Between Karen and I, we have over 30 thousand pages of documents that go all the way back to the 1940s,” Dawn notes, “and not one person is alive, probably besides Karen and I, that have read through all of them.”
Coldwater Creek has been under remediation by the Army Corps of Engineers since the late 1990s, but because the creek was contaminated decades ago, the radioactivity now runs throughout the extent of the creek, its tributaries, and its floodplains. The creek alone is 9 miles long, but only 2 miles have been cleaned up. “Some of the reason is because of budgeting,” Karen said. “When they run out of money for their budget for the year, they halt all production.”
While these plans are delayed, the nearby fire continues to spread and is expected to burn for another 10 to 15 years. In that time, the radioactive contamination will continue to intensify, putting residents at even greater risk of being poisoned. The EPA has pledged to clean up 70% of the radioactivity; however, as radioactive contamination spreads, this becomes a bigger and bigger challenge. To make matters worse, government officials have not done much to educate the public. “You are allowed to be chronically exposed to a toxic substance,” Dawn said, “and your federal government does not have to let you know about it.”
Read more at Recap: Environmental Justice with Just Moms STL