On a mild winter evening, about 50 people filed into a room in a community center in Bridgeton. Many live in north St. Louis County and came to hear an update from Environmental Protection Agency officials about ongoing work at the West Lake Landfill Superfund site, where World War II-era radioactive waste sits approximately 600 feet from an underground smoldering fire.
For many residents, learning that they live close to such hazards has been a traumatic experience.
“I believe it’s like PTSD. I think people learn about this issue and now their emotions are like roller coasters. They’re all over the place,” said Karen Nickel, a Maryland Heights resident.
Such public information meetings have taken place many times in recent years. The residents who attend tend to be concerned that exposure to the radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill has put them at risk of developing cancer and other serious illnesses, or that the fumes from the underground fire at the Bridgeton Landfill have caused asthma and other respiratory problems.
This long term concern, which psychologists call chronic stress, isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon, as the EPA has pushed back its deadline for deciding how to address the contamination. The Bridgeton Landfill fire is also expected to keep smoldering until 2024.
At the most recent public meeting in mid-February, residents asked many of the same questions they’ve asked in previous gatherings. They again wanted EPA officials to explain why they haven’t tested the area between the radioactive waste and the underground fire, or where the fire is located, which is under the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ jurisdiction.
“You don’t have the authority to ask the DNR to say, ‘Hey, let’s test this site, guys?’ You guys are fighting? They don’t want you to test it?” one woman asked.
“We’re not fighting, we just don’t have the data to suggest that,” responded Brad Vann, an EPA remedial project manager.
But the woman wasn't satisfied. She said the community wanted the land tested. “The community. Do we not matter? What is the point of these meetings if you are not going to take us into consideration?”
Complicated information breeds stress
Chronic stress is a common issue for many communities near toxic waste sites, such as north St. Louis County. With the West Lake Landfill, the EPA has mainly interacted with the community through informational meetings.
“Most of what they say can be picked apart and it comes down to someone’s opinion,” said Meagan Beckerman, a mother who lives less than two miles from the landfill.
Shortly after Beckerman’s family moved to Bridgeton in 2010, she said that she and her husband started
having bloody noses and sinus infections. She also began using an inhaler. But what startled her the most was what happened to her youngest son, who is 6 years old. He lost all of his hair, his eyelashes and the hair inside of his nose. Doctors diagnosed him with a rare form of alopecia.
“Being a mom, concerned, I did research,” Beckerman said. “You have to have certain genes to get it. A lot of people walking around have those genes. It’s not until you’re exposed to something toxic that it brings it out.”
Several other area residents say they have illnesses they believe are connected to the nuclear waste dumped at the West Lake Landfill in the 1970s. A health survey conducted by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in 2014 to study incidences of cancer around Coldwater Creek showed statistically higher rates of cancer in zip codes near the landfill.
However, it’s nearly impossible for scientists to draw a cause and effect between the contamination and specific health problems, considering the fact that the waste has been dumped in several locations in north St. Louis County. Also, Beckerman and other residents have moved around the area multiple times. Some have moved out of the St. Louis area entirely.
The St. Louis County Department of Health declined to discuss chronic stress near the landfill. EPA region 7 officials have yet to comment on the issue.
Stress is a physical problem
Chronic stress, which has not been considered in recent studies conducted by the state and the county, can also cause physical symptoms, such as headaches and back pain. Studies also indicate that it puts a person a higher risk of developing serious conditions, such as heart and autoimmune diseases, and can alter one’s genetics in a way that compromises the immune system.
It also makes people more vulnerable to reactivated viruses, such as when chicken pox returns as shingles. In 2009, a study from the University of Texas found that residents who lived closer to the fence of several refineries in Texas City were at higher risk of having reactivated viruses. Their blood samples also contained markers associated with chronic stress and poor physical health.
“The further away you get from the plant line, the better off you are,” said Kristen Peek, the study's lead author.
Leaving a bad situation is hard to do
Moving away from the environmental hazard can be difficult for residents. Those who live near the West
Lake Landfill are no exception. Area activist and Maryland Heights resident Dawn Chapman said that her family can’t afford to move, given their high credit card debt and expensive medical treatments for her husband, who has Crohn’s disease. She said she can’t, in clear conscience, sell her house to someone else.
Pressing federal officials to clean up the landfill has consumed much of her life.
“I’ve got ceilings falling down in three rooms of my house,” she said. “It’s not a water leak, it’s really just aesthetic, but it looks pretty rough. And you know, these are things that we should probably fix that we are never going to get to. Because we’re not. That’s not a priority. This, keeping our kids safe, is a priority.”
Four years ago, she and Nickel, another stay-at-home mother, began sharing research about the West Lake and Bridgeton landfills. They created the West Lake Landfill Facebook forum and the Just Moms STL group to raise awareness of the site. They’ve since received support from local and federal leaders, but they feel overburdened by how much the community depends on them to stay vocal about the issue.
“One of the most frustrating conversations or statements we get are from people who say, ‘You guys are doing a great job,’” Nickel said.
“‘We got your back, way to go,’” Chapman chimed in.
“‘You’re doing a great job of standing up for my kid,’” Nickel added. “That’s very frustrating to us, to the point where we’ve cried over it. Because this is not what we wanted to do. We did not choose this. For whatever reason, it chose us. And it’s not what we wanted to do when we grew up. We wanted to have babies. We both just wanted to have a simple life and raise our kids.”
Whether they’re attending a youth softball game or shopping for groceries, Nickel and Chapman often run into people who want to discuss the landfill with them. On one week in January, the West Lake Landfill Facebook group, which has more than 17,000 members, became inaccessible on computers, and the two mothers were bombarded with anxious messages from others in the community. It did not help that on the same week, the Trump administration had placed a gag order on EPA officials.
Research says regulators should address chronic stress
Studies on the psychological effects of living near environmental contamination sites have been conducted for more than three decades. In 2011, Penn State sociologist Stephen Couch and his colleagues took a step further to recommend strategies regulators, such as the EPA, should use in order to factor chronic stress in decisions about remediation.
These ideas include bringing in a counselor or a mediator to simply hear out people’s concerns, provide mental health services to those who are suffering the most from stress and make an effort to empower and unite residents who may be divided over issue.
“A number of us have consulted with government agencies to try and encourage them to implement some of these plans,” Couch said. “I know that at some levels, we’ve been listened to. But our ideas haven’t been implemented on the ground to the extent they should have.”
Counseling services have been given to communities other types of environmental disasters, such as the historic flooding that occurred in the St. Louis area in early 2016 and the Flint water crisis. However, the federal government must declare a state of emergency for crisis counseling to be deployed. Toxic waste sites are typically not given such a designation.
Residents are finding ways to cope
Nickel and Chapman have developed coping strategies for their stress.
“I have rules,” Nickel said, noting that she also suffers from lupus. “I have to pick and choose what I can do physically. I know a trip to Jeff City means three or four days of doing nothing for me. I sit down with my family at this table and we eat and we don’t talk about landfill stuff.”
Chapman confessed to feeling anxious before speaking in front of people at the monthly information meetings organized by Just Moms. She usually arrives early at John Presbyterian Church, where they hold these events, to play the piano.
They’ve also met other parents, like Beckerman, who share their concerns. In a sense, they are their own support group on the situation. Learning how to deal with their stress over the situation has become necessary, so that they have the energy to advocate for their children’s health.
“Through this issue, the only good thing that’s happened is the fact that we’ve met wonderful people,” Nickel said. “We love our community and we want to fight for our community.”
Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli