Once a month, the Moms of West Lake Landfill host a community meeting to give updates about the conditions at the site and to give stakeholders and local officials a chance to interact with each other.
It started over four years ago, when Ed Smith from the Missouri Coalition for the Environment met Karen Nickels at a meeting regarding the nuclear waste. She asked him about the landfill fire, which surprised him. At that point, the fire department in the area had only just been notified, and the residents had only just been given an explanation of what was causing the terrible smell that drifted through their neighborhoods. Karen Nickels met Dawn Chapman, another mother from the area who worried about the effects of the fire on her children’s development. When they would call their government officials, they would be asked if they were activists, and they’d reply that they were “just moms.” And so the name of their organization, when they officially became activists, was Just Moms St. Louis, welcome to mothers and non-mothers alike.
I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at the July meeting. I came in five minutes before the meeting started, and I was one of the last people there and had to sit near the back of the room. 57 other people attended, including a handful of local officials and the county Public Health Director. It is a respectable number for a regularly scheduled meeting, though far less than the two-thousand residents who attended meetings about Weldon Spring. The citizens there were restive, but attentive. When the presenters had breaks in their presentation, or paused to ask a question, eager attendees jumped to add a comment or pose questions of their own. Without prompting, the couple sitting next to me shared their history of living in neighborhoods that have been polluted with nuclear waste.
The Moms have whipped up support and educated their neighbors, in turn putting political pressure on elected officials. “We do have significant bipartisan support,” claimed Dawn Chapman at the opening of the meeting. The representatives stood so that people could see their representatives at work for them. This was not the picture when Chapman and Nickels met Ed Smith.
Still, the help from politicians has only resulted in slow progress. “The solution to pollution is dilution,” Dawn and one of the attendees said in unison at one point, when talking about an EPA proposal to add soil to the top of the landfill, thus lowering the concentration of the waste below cleanup standards.
I’m looking forward to talking more with Dawn Chapman about the amazing work she has done, including getting to meet with Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. EPA.