Toxicity and Resistance

Against the Current, No. 191, November/December 2017

Elaine Emmerich

THE VARIOUS THREATS posed by the Trump administration — diminishing access to healthcare, the normalization of racism and xenophobia, environmental degradation, mass deportations, voter disenfranchisement, military conflict, and so many more — range from unnerving to paralyzing.

We are told to “resist,” but the sheer volume of items on the What-to-Resist List is daunting, and constantly growing. It is disempowering and discouraging to feel pitted against a seemingly endless deluge of disaster.

In a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, residents living near the West Lake Landfill are all too familiar with this strain. Yet for these residents, who have been betrayed by their government for far longer than Donald Trump has been a politician, community power and the daily practice of solidarity transcend hopelessness.

In a political moment that tends to inspire overwhelming anger, apprehension and fear rather than hope or energy, I suggest that we look towards those who have made resistance a daily part of their lives out of necessity and determination.

The unlined West Lake Landfill, which sits adjacent to the Bridgeton Landfill in the town of Bridgeton, Missouri, has been home to 43,000 tons of soil contaminated with nuclear weapons waste from the Manhattan Project for over 40 years.(1) Dumped there illegally in 1973 after decades of diffused ownership and responsibility, the radioactive particles have been slowly moving off-site, contaminating homes, roads and possibly waterways.(2)

To make matters worse, for the past seven years a fire has smoldered deep underground in the landfill’s South Quarry, torturing residents with its intense fumes as it burns its way towards the concentrated radioactive waste in the North Quarry.

High rates of cancers, respiratory distress and autoimmune disorders are being linked to the landfill’s presence in the community, which has been forced to endure the prioritization of corporate profit and of local, state and federal politics over the matter of their lives.

Just Moms STL

As is often the case in situations of environmental or medical injustice, a group of women have taken it upon themselves to fight for their own and their children’s health. Just Moms STL, a nonprofit organization comprised of local mothers concerned about the West Lake Landfill, is led by long-time residents and full-time moms Karen Nickel and Dawn Chapman.

Both the imminent health risks of the noxious fumes and the dangerous possibility of a fire meeting nuclear waste in a residential community prompted the formation of the group in 2013, and as the problems persevere, so do Dawn and Karen.

They have held open community meetings on the third Thursday of each month for the past three years, relying on donated space from community centers or churches as the Moms field questions from frightened residents about evacuation routes, radioactive decay products and agency jurisdiction.

Since late August of 2015, I have followed the mobilization against the West Lake Landfill as part of an extended research project on democracy and social movements in St. Louis. In my research, I suggested that American citizenship is contingent on a perception of agency — both in the individual body and in state undertakings — and proposed that the collective response of the community to the threats of the landfill constituted a transformation of citizenship.(3)

The loss of health, safety and trust in the democratic process experienced by residents affected by the West Lake Landfill gave rise to a new form of citizenship, which despite its many hardships grants a unique level of agency to their lives in a way that conventional citizenship failed to provide. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to provide historical and political context to these citizens’ struggle towards justice alongside accounts of their suffering.

A Brief History

The story begins in 1942, when the United States government initiated the development of an atomic bomb through a secret research and development program commonly known as the Manhattan Project. The government contracted the St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Chemical Works to process uranium ore, ultimately used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Mallinckrodt rented land near the St. Louis Airport to store extra radioactive waste, the amount of which totaled over 133,000 tons by 1959. The federal government sold these wastes to a private company, which over the next decade hauled them through North St. Louis County in uncovered dump trucks to another local storage site.

In the process of storing and transporting the radioactive material, large swaths of St. Louis County were heavily contaminated, most notably Coldwater Creek, which winds its way through the northern part of the county. Coldwater Creek contamination is the source of massive clusters of rare cancers and autoimmune disorders in North County.(4)

Because of the limited scope of this particular article, I do not include detailed information about the various agencies involved in the sale and subsequent coverup of the radioactive waste. Nor is it possible here to go into detail about recent (successful) citizen organizing at Coldwater Creek, which is inherently connected to that at the West Lake Landfill.

Although not included in this paper, the health ramifications of nuclear contamination at Coldwater Creek and of Mallinckrodt’s workers cannot be understated, and are extremely important to understanding the full legacy of nuclear waste in St. Louis. Much of the concern about the landfill stems from the illnesses in communities already contaminated by Coldwater Creek.

 Put simply, many people fear that the West Lake Landfill is another Coldwater Creek waiting to happen, but on a potentially larger scale, both because of the underground fire and the historical mismanagement of the site.

The waste changed hands a number of times due to bankruptcy and other unknown factors — a game of “nuclear hot potato,” as local activists like to refer to this period of time. Eventually the waste was acquired by Cotter Corporation, which sent most of it to Colorado but was left with a huge amount to dispose of in St. Louis.

In 1973 Cotter mixed the remaining nuclear waste with what they claimed to be clean fill dirt, and dumped 47,700 tons at the West Lake Landfill with the use of a subcontractor. In fact, the “clean fill” was not clean at all — it was heavily contaminated material from the aforementioned site where radioactive waste was being stored.

Although Cotter’s actions in 1973 were illegal, dangerous, and known to the regulatory agency in charge — at the time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — there was no further action taken by the NRC. In 1990 the NRC transferred oversight of the West Lake Landfill to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program. It has been under the jurisdiction of the EPA ever since.

It is also worth clarifying here that this is technically a tale of two landfills; the West Lake Landfill and its nuclear waste is directly adjacent to the Bridgeton Landfill, which contains a subsurface smoldering fire.

There is no barrier between the two contiguous landfills, so I refer to the entire landfill complex as the West Lake Landfill in this article unless otherwise specified. Both are now owned by Republic Services, the second largest waste management company in the country.

Republic Services, a for-profit, publicly traded national waste disposal company incorporated in 1996, is ill-equipped for managing such hazardous wastes, which is why Superfund is supposed to intervene. Unfortunately, the EPA has repeatedly failed to meet deadlines, properly compel Republic to test for contamination, or cultivate any meaningful relationship with the community.

At the time of publication for this article in September 2017, the EPA has still not come forward with the updated plan for cleaning up or otherwise managing the nuclear waste that they had promised over two years ago.

Pain, Blame and Politics

In response, Just Moms STL has mobilized the community towards removal of jurisdiction of the site from the EPA, with citizens utilizing every method at their disposal, from door-knocking to congressional testimony to direct action. Both their monthly community meetings and the Facebook group have facilitated the organization of protests, citizen-led emergency planning committees, and letter-writing campaigns.

Just Moms encourages people to participate in whatever forms of “resistance” against the landfill work best for them and their family — whether that be moving to a different state for their children’s safety, running for office, or lying in front of Republic Services’ dump trucks to disrupt their profits for a day.(5)

Particularly since the 2016 presidential election, residents belonging to any and all (or no) political parties have become increasingly interested in and committed to legislative politics, as well as extrapolitical activism.

Just Moms STL and other community members want the jurisdiction of West Lake Landfill to move from the EPA to the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the cleanup of Coldwater Creek and many other similar sites under a Department of Energy program created explicitly for this purpose.

The program is called the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). The transfer would require federal legislation, which Republic Services has opposed.

In a rare act of bipartisan support, such a bill was introduced by Missouri’s Republican and Democratic congresspeople. The transfer of jurisdiction from the EPA to the Army Corps of Engineers, the Moms argue, would put the problem in the right hands but is far from the solution this complex situation requires.

There’s a consensus among residents that in an ideal world, the government would properly regulate and correct the errors of corporations. They also agree that this supervision is not happening the way it is meant to.

Some believe that corporations are less corrupt than government agencies; others maintain that the government is fundamentally more trustworthy than any corporation. Yet this concept suggests that the role of corporation is inherently abusive to the citizen; it assumes the inevitability of — and thus naturalizes — capitalist exploitation.

Not only does the normalization of neoliberal exploitation remove any responsibility for its effects from the institutions which perpetuate it, but it also negates the potential agency that a citizen may exert under such a system. When the state limits citizen agency through codification of corporate power, the practices of citizens are severely constricted.

Thus, practices that extend beyond typical duties of citizens and the typical boundaries of political citizenship often emerge in communities who have been stripped of functional citizenship rights. A powerful and common way in which this can manifest is mass direct action, along with other forms of collective activism.

What Democracy Looks Like

Some residents see activism as a necessary counterweight to the standard political process, as a means for individuals to advocate for justice on their own terms. Yet the practice of activism itself could be understood as an indictment of the American democratic machine.

A democracy is supposed to ensure that citizens’ voices are represented at the outset, averting any necessity for further protest or outrage. Open lines of communication between citizen and state should ensure not only that the state’s interests lie with the people, but that the state’s power lies with the people.

In Bridgeton, however, citizens have little control over the decisions made about their bodies and futures. From City Council to Congress, residents are represented by numerous officials who share their concerns about the West Lake Landfill, yet little has been done to enforce a cleanup plan in line with citizens’ concerns and priorities.

And when large corporations like Republic Services are underregulated by a permissive state, it is virtually impossible for anyone — elected or not — to properly police the profit-seeking behavior of environmental polluters. When it comes to environmental contaminants, especially, this is to the detriment of entire communities.

For decades, state, federal and even municipal government have been allowed to act contrary to Bridgeton residents’ interests and wellbeing, in pursuit of financial comfort and political power. When the democratic process at its most sympathetic — as is arguably the case in Bridgeton — still denies agency to citizens, activism can do the work of democracy, but the reclamation of agency through activism is no easy task.

Furthermore, the work of activism is dependent on individual sacrifice. The everyday strain of injustice is already burdensome, and it is clear that the fight against injustice takes an additional toll on residents’ well-being and that of their families.

Activism is exhausting and exasperating under the best of circumstances, and for activists who are constantly experiencing cycles of illness, grief and fear, the frustration is exacerbated. But for the Moms and many others affected by radioactive waste in St. Louis, activism is the most viable instrument for restoring agency to a systematically disempowered community.

Furthermore, activism itself has become an exercise in building community in Bridgeton, as individuals have joined together in anger and action to build a collective identity around the landfill issue. In this way, activism can facilitate agency, identity, and community, and in turn synthesize new forms of citizenship.

Despite the impressive political victories racked up by the Moms, there will be no act of salvation when it comes to the West Lake Landfill. Just as no single mistake has led to the current situation at the landfill, no individual party has the power (or money) to fully address it.

The democratic system as it exists in modern America was not built to properly regulate corporate arrogance, let alone nuclear weapons waste, nor has it successfully given decision-making power to citizens and communities through political representation.

The solution will not lie with a senator, a corporation, or even the president. Rather, I believe that any solution will require sacrifice, humility, and the reorganization of priorities by all culpable parties, most feasibly in response to mass dissent and mobilization on the part of citizens.

The potential power of the people to “resist” transcends both bank accounts and partisan barriers, and can create a more accountable and more democratic future for the citizens who wield it. I encourage readers to go to Just Moms STL’s website at to learn more about this community’s burdens and battles, and to stay updated on their many accomplishments.


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  3. Here, “citizenship” refers to a civic and political spirit of belonging, rather than legal status.
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November-December 2017, ATC 191