BY JENNIFER BRINKER | jbrinker@archstl.org | twitter: @jenniferbrinker

Photos by LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org | twitter: @aeternusphoto

“The big bang, took and shook the world | Shot down the rising sun | The end was begun, it would hit everyone | When the chain reaction was done | The big shots try to hold it back | Fools try to wish it away | The hopeful depend on a world without end | Whatever the hopeless may say” — Manhattan Project, Rush

The first nuclear chain reaction was developed in the mid-20th century, but residents of north St. Louis County are still coping with the lingering remnants of Manhattan Project-era radioactive waste.

In 1942, St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Chemical Works was chosen to purify uranium for the first atomic bomb used in World War II. Physicist Arthur Compton and two other scientists from the University of Chicago had approached Edward Mallinckrodt Jr. about preparing uranium compounds for an urgent war project. According to a historical account, it took Mallinckrodt two hours to agree.

More than three quarters of a century later — a culmination of more than 600,000 hours — the aftereffects remain from the radioactive waste long ago dumped at several sites in the St. Louis area from the Mallinckrodt wartime project.

The primary sites include West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, where nearly 47,000 tons of radioactive waste (8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate mixed with 38,000 tons of soil) were dumped in 1973, and Coldwater Creek, which extends about four miles east of the landfill from near St. Louis Lambert International Airport, and extending through much of North County. The contamination issues at both sites are being handled differently.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been charged with the cleanup at West Lake. In 1990, the landfill was designated a federal Superfund site — a designation given to the most contaminated sites in the United States. In February of this year, the agency announced several proposals, with a preferred proposal of cleaning up 67 percent of the site’s radioactivity, excavating 16 feet deep. The project would cost about $236 million and would be completed in about five years. A public comment period on the proposal concluded April 23.

The St. Louis District of the Army Corps of Engineers has been working on cleanup of Coldwater Creek through the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). The corps has been doing remediation work in the region for years; sampling of Coldwater Creek began in 2012-13. (See related story below.)

About eight years ago, residents near the landfill began complaining of an increase in noxious fumes. A smoldering underground fire — referred to officially as a “subsurface smoldering event” (technically it is not a fire because no oxygen is present) — was discovered in Bridgeton Landfill, which sits adjacent to West Lake. The smoldering has been working its way toward West Lake, leaving people concerned that the radioactive material could become airborne.

The EPA has stated that “scientific data indicates that people living and working near the West Lake Landfill site are not currently being exposed to contaminants above levels of health concern.”

Residents of the area have disagreed as scientific studies have not been published on effects from long-term low dose exposure.

Franciscan Sisters of Mary, Sister Irma Kennebeck, Sister Sherri Coleman, Sister Marge O’Gorman and Sister Jeanne Derer, are pictured near the Bridgeton Landfill’s South Quarry. Franciscan Sisters of Mary promoting legislation to remove the 48,000 tons of radioactive waste used in the Manhattan Project during World War II that was illegally dumped in the West Lake Landfill 40-plus years ago. The unlined landfill poses a constant threat of contamination for air, soil, and groundwater, and an underground fire in the adjoining Bridgeton Landfill multiplies the danger.

Ecological justice

On a windy April morning, four Franciscan Sisters of Mary perched themselves along the sidewalk in front of a shuttered gas station on St. Charles Rock Road in Bridgeton, just yards from the entrance of Republic Services, which owns the West Lake and Bridgeton landfills.

They waved at the trickle of cars passing by as they held bright yellow and black signs with messages including, “thanks for your support for removal of radioactive waste” and “protect St. Louis/St. Charles drinking water.” To pass the time, the sisters counted the number of honks they received.

“I counted 36 today,” Sister Sherri Coleman reported to the group that morning.

Sister Sherri Coleman, FSM, waved to passerby's along St. Charles Rock Road near the West Lake Landfill on April 11, 2018. Since 2013 the Franciscan Sisters of Mercy have held twice-monthly prayer vigils to pray for healing and to raise awareness about the West Lake landfill within the St. Louis metropolitan area.

The sisters have been holding these demonstrations, followed by a brief prayer vigil, twice a month for several years. They became active in the situation not long after the community relocated its administrative offices to Bridgeton in 2011. They, too, began to notice the odor.

“There was this very acrid smell in the air. Sometimes it was worse than others, but it was there,” said Sister Jeanne Derer, FSM. “It was very distinctive. You could walk through the buildings and smell it inside of the buildings.”

The religious community’s former ecological justice coordinator, Gale Thackrey, met with members of Just Moms STL, a group of moms in North County who later became a nonprofit organization in an effort to push for a cleanup of the landfill. Kay Drey, a longtime environmental activist who kept records of the issues concerning nuclear technology and radioactive waste sites connected to Mallinckrodt, had told them about the proximity between the radioactive waste and the fire.

“She said ‘Well, with the fire in that landfill, that’s right next to the West Lake Landfill where all of that radioactive material was illegally dumped in 1973,” Sister Jeanne recalled. “That was the beginning.”

In 2013, the sisters held a congregation-wide assembly in St. Louis, where they pulled in Drey, representatives from Just Moms, Ed Smith from the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and others. The sisters also chartered a bus and took a tour around the periphery of the landfill.

“It was a way for our sisters to all know about the issue and really coalesce around it,” said Sister Irma Kennebeck. Around that time, the sisters also started holding their vigils, including another prayer vigil twice a month at the Sarah Community.

Part of the community’s charism is care for God’s creation and collaborating with others. Five sisters — Sisters Jeanne Derer, Irma Kennebeck, Sherri Coleman, Marge O’Gorman and Sandy Schwartz — became the Focus Implementation Group (FIG) in 2016. The landfill became the group’s top priority.

The sisters’ involvement has been a tremendous support, said Karen Nickel and Dawn Chapman, founders of Just Moms STL and residents of Maryland Heights.

“The sisters have been our saving grace — several times,” said Nickel, who has faced several illnesses, including lupus, fibromyalgia and psoriatic arthritis. “There were times when Dawn and I were just — that’s it, what are we going to do? And the sisters will pray for us, or they’ll send us out of the blue a box of notes that they’ve written. Everything that’s ever happened, good or bad, we definitely have had a lot of prayers.”

“Going to the community meetings, standing out there and meeting people, people know who we are and if nothing else, it’s our presence to stand with them on this issue,” Sister Irma said.

Karen Nickel, left, and Dawn Chapman, are founders of JustMoms STL, a group campaigning for the radioactive cleanup of the West Lake Landfill. They stood in front of a Republic Services truck on trash pick-up day in their neighborhood. Dawn Chapman is a mother of three special needs children and her husband is fighting a rare auto-immune disorder. Karen Nickel grew up exposed to the radioactive Coldwater Creek site, and for the past twenty years, she has lived just under 2 miles away from the West Lake – Bridgeton Landfill Superfund Site.

Just Moms

Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel know more about picocuries and different types of radionuclides than the average person.

The two friends and residents of Maryland Heights are founders of Just Moms STL, a nonprofit group they started to raise awareness and educate others about the radioactive waste that was interspersed throughout the St. Louis area.

Like others, Nickel and Chapman noticed the strong odor coming from the landfill and began researching the issue. They were featured in the HBO documentary, “Atomic Homefront” released in February.

The two recently returned from a visit to Washington, D.C., where they met with EPA officials and members of a task force started by environmental activist Lois Gibbs, who founded the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice and whose work led to the creation of the EPA’s Superfund program. The task force, which includes people living near other U.S. Superfund sites, has been working with the EPA in its efforts to fix the Superfund program.

Last summer, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced a top 10 list of Superfund sites, which includes West Lake, to be targeted with immediate and intense attention.

“We are a sick and dying community, and we need help just like these other sites that we sat with last week,” Chapman said. “We need to take care of the people … because to us, every life matters. Right now, that is what Administrator Pruitt is doing. Right now, he is our saving grace to get action at this site, which we have not seen in the past.”

During a public hearing with EPA officials March 6, 2018, Kirby Pemberton, left, held a clump of her deceased 12-year-old daughter’s hair. “This is all I have left of my daughter,” said Pemberton, who lost her child from a brain tumor. Karen Nickel, co-founder of Just Moms STL, comforted Pemberton as she shared her story.

In February, the EPA announced a proposed remedy for West Lake, which would include excavation of 67 percent of radioactive waste within 16 feet of the surface and exceeding 52.9 picocuries per gram. (A picocurie is a measurement of the intensity of radioactivity contained in a sample of radioactive material.) The plan also would include construction of a permanent engineered cover system. The estimated cost is $236 million and would take about 5 years to complete.

The public comment period on the EPA’s proposed cleanup closed April 23, and the agency has said it will issue a “signed record of decision amendment” by the end of fiscal year, in September 2018.

In March, the EPA hosted a public meeting at the Machinists’ Hall in Bridgeton. In attendance was Albert Kelly, then-head of the Superfund Task Force and adviser to Administrator Pruitt. (It was announced on May 1 that Kelly resigned from the agency.) More than 800 people attended, many of whom advocated for complete removal of the waste, which would cost about double the EPA’s proposed plan.

The Environmental Protection Agency held a meeting in Bridgeton to listen to residents’ concerns about their proposals to clean-up the Westlake Landfill Supefund site on March 6, 2018.

Karen Nickel, left, and Dawn Chapman are co-founders of Just Moms STL, a group advocating for local citizens to become educated about the potential hazards and health risks surrounding the West Lake Landfill. They listened to speakers during the March 6, 2018 meeting with concerned citizens and the Environmental Protection Agency representatives.

Robbin Dailey, who with her husband has filed a law suit alleging that her Spanish Village home is contaminated with radiation from the Superfund site adjoining her property, addressed the EPA committee citing claims of two semi-trailers buried on the site, “We know there are trucks there, you know there are trucks, we want those trucks!” she said.

Chapman and Nickel explained what while it’s natural instinct to want the biggest and most expensive cleanup, there are many factors to consider when talking about a cleanup of a landfill.

“This is not soil like Coldwater Creek,” Chapman said. “This is municipal waste. You have mattresses and diapers and all sorts of goodies that are now contaminated and radioactive. Municipal waste is unsteady. You have to have people climb down in that hole, and have them pull that waste up. And the groundwater is shallow. They’re working up to their necks in leachate (liquid that drains or “leaches” from a landfill). How do you do that? And how do you do that and not put us at more risk?”

Chapman and Nickel said given the recent changes with the EPA, they are hopeful for a good cleanup, and that the people living closest to the landfill, including residents of Spanish Village, are given an option to move.

The two carry with them a shiny blue stone, which they received at the visitation for Michelle Seger, who lost a three-year battle with cancer in April 2017. Seger, who was featured in the “Atomic Homefront” documentary, was raised near Coldwater Creek and had a rare type of cancer attributed to environmental exposure. She believed her illness was caused by childhood exposure to the creek.

Dawn Chapman, keeps this blue stone from her friend, Michelle Seger.

Seger’s family “wanted everyone to take (a rock) to remind us how strong she was,” Nickel said. “In everything we do, we bring this rock along.”

Chapman said the rock also is a reminder that “none of this is in our hands. I think the (Franciscan Sisters of Mary) helped us realize that. It’s not up to us to change hearts. It’s a reminder that somebody else has this. It’s clear that whoever is in charge does not want this to stay the way it is. Because mountains have moved for us to even get this proposal.”

In their efforts, “we always get what we need,” Chapman added. “We don’t ever get any more, we don’t ever get any less. When it gets quiet, we laugh, because we’re like, well, that’s just God giving us some down time, because He knows it’s going to be busy in a few days. And that’s exactly what happens.”

Mary Beth Chik raised her six children in the Spanish Village subdivision, less than half a mile from West Lake Landfill. The Chiks moved to their home in Bridgeton the year after 48,000 tons of radioactive waste was dumped into the landfill.

“It becomes part of your life”

Mary Beth and Roger Chik moved into their home in the Spanish Village subdivision in Bridgeton in March of 1974. It was close to major roadways, but yet tucked away in a quiet spot, where their six children could safely play.

When her children were growing up, the area was largely wooded — a fortress for their imaginations to come to life. “They all played in our backyard and all the way down to the river,” Mary Beth Chik said. “It was a great little place to play and it was safe — I thought. But here was this thing lurking that I didn’t know about.”

Less than half a mile away from their home are the West Lake-Bridgeton landfills. The year before they moved in, about 47,000 tons of radioactive waste was dumped at West Lake — unbeknownst to them.

About eight years ago, the Chiks started noticing the smell coming from the landfill, too. “We thought, what is this smell?” she recalled. As the news started to spread about the fire and the radioactive waste, naturally they became concerned.

Chik said she’d like to stay put — she loves her home, which has now become a favorite visiting spot for her 17 grandchildren, with one on the way. But a buyout, she said, “would be a consideration.” (While Spanish Village has been discussed as a possibility for buyout, the EPA has not included that in its proposal. An effort by state legislators to provide funding for a buyout of Spanish Village failed in 2017.)

Even if she wanted to sell her home, she knows in good conscience she couldn’t do that.

“As much as a blessing this house was to us and our children, I don’t want someone else to worry and to wonder if their little ones are going to be affected later,” she said.

Chik, who was principal at Holy Spirit School in Maryland Heights for 19 years, worked with others to develop a plan of action in the case of a radioactive emergency at the landfill. She worked with first responders, including the Pattonville Fire Protection District, and other neighboring schools. The plan includes instructions on what to do if students need to shelter in place, as well as an evacuation route and plans for contacting parents.

While landfill representatives have assured the public that the situation is under control, “you’re remiss if you don’t get a plan in action,” said Chik, who retired from Holy Spirit three years ago. “I always felt very strongly about keeping kids safe. Teach them about God, keep them safe, and the academics fall into place.”

Chik said there’s a definite ebb and flow to the situation. Things are quiet for a while and then an announcement is made, or new information comes out, and it’s back in the news again. It’s a lot like living by the airport, she mused. “Sometimes you don’t hear the airplanes going over. It becomes a part of your life and it is what it is. Life is going on, and it’s not all revolving around this area. People are getting married and having babies and burying loved ones. But then someone brings it to your attention, and you stop, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s right.’”

The support of fellow parishioners at Holy Spirit helps sustain Chik. Praying a Divine Mercy chaplet for wisdom and truth, or for peace for people who have lost loved ones — with no concrete proof the radioactive waste contributed to their death — is something she is felt called to do.

“I have never felt alone,” she said. “God has the answer somewhere — He has it in Mass, He has it in Scripture, He has it in the wisdom of another person. Because of that, that’s what keeps you going. I would like to be a beacon of hope and of light for another person — we’re all called to do that. You have to keep your eyes on Him.”

Mark Behlmann is a real estate developer in Florissant and a parishioner at St. Ferdinand. He is pictured along Coldwater Creek in Florrisant on March 9. Coldwater Creek ran through the property where he and his wife raised their family. His wife passed away from stage 4 lung cancer eight years ago.

Tom Kuehner, managing director of grounds and facilities at Catholic Cemeteries, and Matthew DeWitt, managing director of administrative services of Catholic Cemeteries, stand at near the edge of St. Ferdinand Cemetery in Florissant that borders Coldwater Creek on April 17.

Cleanup efforts along Coldwater Creek continue

Coldwater Creek in North St. Louis County is another area affected by Manhattan Project-era radioactive waste.

Radioactive waste from Mallinckrodt was stored at several sites in North County beginning in the 1940s, including the St. Louis Airport Site (SLAPS) and the Hazelwood Interim Storage Site (HISS). Contamination of the creek occurred from runoff at these waste storage sites over the years. The soil has been primarily contaminated with radium, thorium and uranium.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District, has been in charge of cleanup efforts at these and several other sites in the area through the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). In 2005, the EPA signed a record of decision, outlining the cleanup remedy at the North County sites. Cost of the project is $274.3 million. The contaminated soil is being transported to federally licensed disposal facilities in Michigan, Utah and Idaho.

St. Ferdinand Cemetery in Florissant is one of numerous properties affected by Coldwater Creek. The creek runs along the back edge of the 35-acre cemetery. Only about eight acres on the front end of the property contain grave sites, said Tom Kuehner, managing director of grounds and facilities at Catholic Cemeteries, meaning that no grave sites were affected by contamination.

“They basically used our land as an easement to get to their (cleanup),” said Matt DeWitt, Catholic Cemeteries’ managing director of administration services. “It will take at least 100 years before we ever get (graves) back here — if we ever get back here.”

Remediation efforts along other parts of Coldwater Creek are ongoing.

Mark Behlmann believes that the lens of logic is the clearest set of glasses to view the situation at Coldwater Creek.

Behlmann, a well-known land developer in North County, has been part of the volunteer efforts with a Facebook group, Coldwater Creek — Just the Facts Please, which began tracing the possibility of a cluster of cancers and other illnesses found in people living near the creek.

Behlmann lost his wife, Cathy, eight years ago from lung cancer. She had died within six months of her diagnosis. Behlmann’s mother-in-law also suffered several types of cancer. Cathy Behlmann had played in the creek as a child.

Like many others, Behlmann cannot point to the creek as the cause of his wife’s cancer. “For me, or for anybody to point the fingers or get hysterical … that is driven by fear of the unknown.”

Behlmann has shared his knowledge as a land developer in guiding members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as they assessed areas along the creek. The Coldwater Creek group, he said, is working toward helping people understand the scientific aspects of the radioactive contamination in the creek and converting that into what he calls a “logical standpoint” — helping people to get beyond their fears.

Whether the creek caused so many illnesses “is another fight for another day,” he said. “No one is able to identify that this is causing cancer for certain.”

“Because of my faith, this has got to be resolved by a much higher power than us humans or any court,” he said. “When you lose hope, that becomes the downfall. I know for my wife, the only thing she had left was her faith in going to a bigger, better place.”

West Lake Landfill resources

Coldwater Creek resources


Lisa Johnston

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