Before a group of young adults embarked on a tour of toxic waste sites in St. Louis, artist Allana Ross asked if anyone wanted a respirator.
Twice a year since 2017, Ross dresses up as a park ranger and invites people to follow her on a “Toxic Mounds Tour” to locations in St. Louis County that have been contaminated by toxic waste.
Some stops along the tour are sites where federal officials are cleaning up radioactive waste, like Coldwater Creek in Hazelwood. Others, like the Weldon Spring site in St. Charles, which contains nuclear waste, were converted into parks.
Ross wants to encourage people to think about how humans have dealt with pollution throughout history. They can start doing that by asking questions about these sites, she said.
“That’s what I really want out of this, is for people to start caring about these sites and what’s going to happen to them,” Ross said.
Ross’ work has often focused on interpreting the human relationship with the environment. Initially, she wanted to create a map that would help people forage for food within St. Louis’ green spaces. After learning that much of the soil in St. Louis has been contaminated by industry, Ross decided to organize the Toxic Mounds Tours.
At each site, Ross recited the area’s history to a group of 10 people. When they visited Route 66 State Park, for example, she told the story about how a journalist informed a city official of Times Beach that the community had been contaminated with dioxin, a chemical associated with Agent Orange.
“So, they burned the dioxin-contaminated materials? Is that a safe way to get rid of dioxin?” asked Natalie Rainer, a St. Louis resident.
The former location of the Times Beach community was the first stop on the tour. The next stops were a former uranium processing site in Berkeley, the Coldwater Creek headwaters, the former suburb of Carrollton, the West Lake Landfill and the Weldon Spring site.
The West Lake Landfill is a federal Superfund site that contains nuclear waste from the Manhattan project. It's adjacent to the Bridgeton Landfill, which sits above an underground smoldering fire.
Behind a fence, visitors quietly stared at Bridgeton Landfill, which was covered in hissing equipment.
“Looks like my grandpa dying of pneumonia in the hospital, tubes, pipes and everything,” said Tommy Nagel, a St. Louis resident. “Mother Earth is dying over here and on total life support.”
Another visitor, Aaron McMullin, said the tour gave her a new perspective on places she’s heard about often, like Coldwater Creek and the West Lake Landfill.
“I grew up in the area, so it’s a little bizarre to be driving around to these sites that are slightly removed from where, you know, paths that I’ve taken my whole life,” she said.
McMullin added that the places seem eerily quiet, especially the final stop on the tour, the Weldon Spring site. The former Superfund site contains nuclear waste in a holding cell.
“The silence feels like a graveyard to me,” she said. “Will our whole Earth look like this some day?”