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As West Lake Landfill cleanup gets delayed, Just Moms STL wants answers

Dawn Chapman co-founded Just Moms STL in 2014 to push for cleanup of the West Lake Landfill Superfund site.
Emily Woodbury
St. Louis Public Radio
Dawn Chapman co-founded Just Moms STL in 2014 to push for cleanup of the West Lake Landfill Superfund site.

Dawn Chapman is frustrated with the Environmental Protection Agency. For years, Chapman has been advocating for cleanup at the West Lake Landfill Superfund site, two miles from her family’s home in Maryland Heights. Now the agency has said it needs to push back its previous plans in order to do additional testing.

“The EPA has had this site for 30 years,” she told St. Louis on the Air. “It’s mind-blowing that they are just now bothering to look for the extent of the waste.”

The site, located in Bridgeton, contains radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project. It was illegally buried there in 1973.

In 2018, the EPA announced a plan to remove some of the radioactive material and cap the rest. At the time, staffers told Chapman that they were confident in the testing previously conducted on the site. Today, however, the EPA says the nuclear waste on-site is more extensive than it previously believed.

Environmental Protection Agency
The map on the right, released by the EPA in March 2022, illustrates the currently approved soil sampling locations at the site. Many of those drilling sites are outside of the sections that were originally identified as the extent of the radioactive contamination at the landfill (indicated by the purple outlines in the 1973 map on the left).

Contacted by St. Louis on the Air, the EPA said that it intends to finish the drilling and testing by spring, and that “the investigation work must be completed to determine where the excavation will take place and where to place the engineered cover.” The more data collected now, the EPA wrote, “the shorter the time it will take to implement the remedy.”

The agency refused to share further details.

“There is no reason why the transparency isn't there,” Chapman said. “If you can't give me a timeline, that's fine. But what you owe me is a reason why what you're finding means you can't give an accurate timeline.”

Chapman co-founded Just Moms STL in 2014 to push for cleanup of the site, which many people believe is linked to health problems in the area. She said the site’s neighbors are now worried about what the EPA’s additional testing will reveal.

“If what they're finding cannot be removed because it's too deep,” she said, “then how come we're not removing what we already know is there — and putting us at risk?”

State Rep. Paula Brown, a Democrat who represents parts of St. Louis and St. Charles counties, wants to see cleanup as soon as possible. Her home is located three miles from the site.

“We’ve had multiple incidences of cancer, we’ve had deaths in young people, we’ve had deaths in pets. We have people who are now afraid to be out in their yard. They don’t grow their flowers, they don’t grow vegetables,” she said. “They’re always afraid, and I’m afraid for them.”

Both Chapman and Brown said the anxiety of residents who live near the site is palpable. It’s reignited on days when they can smell the landfill — especially since the buried radioactive waste is adjacent to the Bridgeton Landfill, home to a “subsurface smoldering event,” or underground fire.

Chapman said she visited the site recently and was impressed by some of the short-term safeguards that had been erected.

Dawn Chapman joins St. Louis on the Air

“It's amazing to see the technology that can be put into place quickly, to keep a community safe from the fire by the [potentially responsible party],” Chapman said. “But to think my own federal government can't get out in front of this and has let this sit on the surface for 30 years — it really affected us.”

Chapman plans to head to Washington, D.C., in the coming weeks to attend EPA Region 7 Administrator Meg McCollister’s congressional briefing on the cleanup timeline. She said she plans to push for answers — and she’s determined not to let the EPA off the hook.

"This is our own federal government's waste. They made it, they created it," Chapman said. "Why is it the creator of the waste is silent?"

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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