When Karen Nickel’s parents moved to the banks of Coldwater Creek in Hazelwood, Missouri 20 miles northwest of St. Louis, they did not realize they were moving to an area contaminated by radioactive material. Karen later moved to nearby Maryland Heights, where she raised her own family in a house 1.5 miles from the West Lake Landfill. Unbeknownst to Karen, she had once again moved to an area contaminated by radioactive waste.
Upon learning what she had been exposed to, Karen started the West Lake Landfill Facebook group in November 2012, where she met Dawn Chapman. In March 2014, the two founded Just Moms STL, a grassroots organization that raises awareness about radioactive material present in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area as a consequence of the Manhattan Project. ProSPER and Connections met with Dawn and Karen on March 12, 2021 to hear their story and learn about their experience in advocacy and policy.
Uranium was secretly purified in downtown St. Louis by Mallinckrodt in the 1940s to support the Manhattan Project. To avoid prying eyes, the waste was hurriedly moved to unincorporated land near what is now St. Louis International Airport. The waste laid out in the open for years, steadily flowing into Coldwater Creek during downpours. Eventually, the waste was moved to West Lake Landfill where it remains to this day. The entire time, the presence of radioactive contamination was unknown to local residents. When Karen learned Coldwater Creek was contaminated, she did some investigation about her neighborhood.
“What I found was absolutely heartbreaking,” Karen told us. “Fifteen people on my street alone had died of very rare cancers, and a lot of those people were in their later 30s, earlier 40s.” Appendix cancer, for example, affects 1 in a million people, yet there have been close to 200 cases in the ZIP codes surrounding Coldwater Creek and the West Lake Landfill. “To have that many is statistically improbable,” Dawn noted.
“We’ve had babies born without eyes,” added Karen. “There was infertility on the street, birth defects, four cases of lupus within my 5 or 6 house radius. My sister had cysts that covered her ovaries when she was 11 and our next door neighbor’s daughter had cysts when she was 9.” Karen herself suffers from lupus and several other autoimmune diseases. One of her granddaughters had to have a mass removed when she was only three weeks old. “We were poisoned.”
In 2010, a fire began in West Lake Landfill 1000 feet from the radioactive waste, causing it to release gas and leak contaminated water. In January 2013, Dawn noticed intense odors outside of her house. Dawn called City Hall and was quickly referred to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, where she learned she was being exposed to radioactive waste from the landfill.
The contamination of Coldwater Creek was declared an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) superfund site in 1989 and the West Lake Landfill was declared one in 1990, meaning the federal government designated them for long-term clean up of hazardous material. However, nobody knew the extent of the damage until Dawn and Karen pieced it together. In 2017, HBO released the documentary Atomic Homefront, which detailed Just Moms STL’s struggle to get the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to recognize the nuclear waste concern.
“None of the people responsible for protecting us even had a complete picture,” Dawn said. When they first met with state and federal officials, Karen and Dawn had documents that neither agency had in their possession. “Between Karen and I, we have over 30 thousand pages of documents that go all the way back to the 1940s,” Dawn notes, “and not one person is alive, probably besides Karen and I, that have read through all of them.”
Dawn and Karen have struggled for years to get the government to respond. “We’re two moms,” Dawn said. “We’re not regulatory authorities or politicians. We’re not in a place in society where we can write laws or where we can declare public health emergencies, and yet we are the only two people alive who have read these documents.”
Karen, Dawn, and others like them are often not taken seriously because they are middle-aged women. Karen recounted an experience where an official told her that the reason she was gasping for air, having asthma attacks, and suffering from nosebleeds was because she was making herself anxious. “To have an official say to your face ‘it’s fine’ was almost gaslighting,” she said. “We have had so many moms die in 6 months because their doctors would not take them seriously.”
Since founding Just Moms STL eight years ago, Dawn and Karen have rallied public pressure on the EPA and government officials to acknowledge the harm the West Lake Landfill poses to locals and follow through with the process of environmental cleanup and restoration. However, progress has been limited.
Coldwater Creek has been under remediation by the Army Corps of Engineers since the late 1990s, but because the creek was contaminated decades ago, the radioactivity now runs throughout the extent of the creek, its tributaries, and its floodplains. The creek alone is 9 miles long, but only 2 miles have been cleaned up. “Some of the reason is because of budgeting,” Karen said. “When they run out of money for their budget for the year, they halt all production.”
In 2018, the EPA agreed to excavate irradiated material from the West Lake Landfill and install a cover, but specific details still are not finalized. Complete removal of the radioactive waste is impossible and deciding how to remove as much as possible while keeping workers safe is challenging. When designs are finalized, the work is estimated to take 2-3 years to complete. Currently, there are investigations into the water contamination and gas emittance from the landfill to properly monitor the situation. The EPA is also determining what risks the contamination poses to people and the environment.
While these plans are delayed, the nearby fire continues to spread and is expected to burn for another 10 to 15 years. In that time, the radioactive contamination will continue to intensify, putting residents at even greater risk of being poisoned. The EPA has pledged to clean up 70% of the radioactivity; however, as radioactive contamination spreads, this becomes a bigger and bigger challenge. To make matters worse, government officials have not done much to educate the public. “You are allowed to be chronically exposed to a toxic substance,” Dawn said, “and your federal government does not have to let you know about it.”
In spite of all of these challenges, Dawn and Karen continue to dedicate all of their time to their cause. Although much of the public focus on environmental justice is centered on climate change, Karen and Dawn emphasize that superfund sites like Coldwater Creek and the West Lake Landfill are an immediate concern that also needs to be addressed. “We have the ability to focus on these communities, usually Black and brown communities that have been harmed for decades, because they’re already at risk right now,” Dawn said, “but we also need to look to the future with climate change and make sure we don’t make more of these sites.”
Dawn and Karen are also working with Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush to introduce legislation that would require the government to inform anyone who has lived in close proximity to the site about their chronic radioactive exposure. Under such legislation, residents would receive a form they can take to their doctor indicating their exposure.
One piece of advice Karen and Dawn gave to anyone interested in policy and advocacy is to always advocate for your issue no matter who is in office. “You may not agree with a politician,” Karen said, “but yet you have to work your way though there to keep that person on your side on this issue.”
We were blown away by how much Dawn and Karen have been able to accomplish, and how many hurdles they had to overcome. However, there is still much more work to be done. As Karen and Dawn like to say, they are “Just Moms,” and can always use help informing the community and pressuring those in power to right the wrongs of the past.