Environmental activist Lois Gibbs will be in St. Louis this weekend for a “teach-in” to address problems at the adjoining Bridgeton and West Lake landfills, located in Bridgeton a few miles from Lambert Airport.
The West Lake Landfill contains two known areas of World War II-era uranium processing residues, illegally dumped there in 1973. In 2010, an underground fire was reported at the south quarry of the Bridgeton Landfill. Not a fire in the traditional sense, it is a chemical reaction that produces temperatures higher than 170 degrees. At Bridgeton, temperatures have reached 300 degrees.
“If that fire reaches the radioactive waste, the smoke that comes out of that fire will be radioactive and it will increase the risks, which are already extraordinarily high, to the community that lives around there,” Gibbs said. “It’s totally insane. I don’t understand why they let it go for so long, and I don’t understand why they’re not doing something to protect the people today from both the radioactive contaminants as well as the burning fire landfill site.”
Gibbs became involved in environmental causes in the spring of 1978 when she discovered her son was attending a school built on top of a toxic waste dump in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Three years later, she founded the Center for Health, Environment and Justice; Gibbs is now the organization’s executive director.
“Love Canal was a toxic waste dump that was buried in the center of our community, which nobody knew about,” Gibbs said. “My son kept getting sick and the pediatrician and I couldn’t figure out why. One day I picked up the newspaper, and it talked about Love Canal having 250 different chemicals in it that were migrating from the dump site into the neighborhood, and it talked about the different diseases that resulted from that. I connected those diseases to my son’s problems. At that point, I got really angry.”
Gibbs began to organize the neighborhood, establishing the Love Canal Homeowners Association: 900 residents who lived around the dump site. The group requested testing, then asked to be relocated.
“I thought my child was the only one that was sick,” Gibbs said. “Then when I went door-to-door to knock on other people’s houses and say ‘We have to close this school — the school is on the dump, for goodness’ sakes,’ and people would start telling me these horrible stories about cancer, about children who were born birth defected. They would talk about the various types of diseases they would have. We had a 12-year-old who had a hysterectomy due to cancer, and we had a 21-year-old who died of crib death, of all things. When I went around the neighborhood, I just found that there was an incredible amount of diseases.”
The homeowners association asked the New York Department of Health to study the area. When the department declined, the homeowners did their own study.
“What we found was 56 percent of children were born with birth defects, including three ears; double rows of teeth; extra fingers, extra toes; or were mentally retarded,” Gibbs said.
They used that data to pressure the health department, which then completed its own study.
“They said ‘Yes, we found 56 percent of the kids have birth defects in this community, but we don’t believe it’s connected to the 21,000 tons of chemicals in Love Canal. We believe that it’s connected to a random clustering of genetically defective people.’ It was outrageous,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs and her neighbors turned their attention to New York Gov. Hugh Carey, who was seeking re-election.
“Finally he evacuated women and children under the age of 2 in the first two rows of (the) community, and said that 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds and adults were perfectly fine,” Gibbs said. “You look at the science, and it makes absolutely no sense. They’re sort of removing the canaries from the mine, if you will.”
A few weeks later, Carey ordered 239 Love Canal families, those who lived closest to the dump site, to evacuate.
“Then (they) erected a 10-foot fence and said everybody inside the fence — that was the 239 families — were at risk, and everybody outside the fence, which was where I lived, was not at risk and did not need to be evacuated and that they were going to clean up the canal,” Gibbs said.
The group turned its attention to the federal government.
“We got (President) Jimmy Carter to come to our backyard and agree, two years later, to evacuate all 900 families who wished to leave from the community with their homes being purchased at fair-market value.”
Carter also signed the Superfund law, an Environmental Protection Agency program that cleans up toxic sites. In Bridgeton, the West Lake Landfill is listed on the National Priorities List, making it a Superfund site.
Gibbs said the next step for residents affected by the Bridgeton landfills is to pressure the EPA and the landfills’ owners. Both landfills are owned by Republic Services Inc. subsidiaries.
“It’s really a political fight,” Gibbs said. “You have to find out who has the power to give you what you want, and then you have to go after them. And I don’t mean in a violent way because I’m a nonviolent person, but you need to be in their face. You need to make it uncomfortable for them.
“These folks aren’t looking for handouts. They’re just looking for a life without smoke, without toxics, without concerns about radioactive waste being in the air as soon as that fire hits that place.”
“Love Canal and West Lake Landfill” with Lois Gibbs
- When: Noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 4, 2014
- Where: Graphic Arts Banquet and Conference Center, 105 Progress Parkway, Maryland Heights
- Cost: Free
- More information
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.