Just Moms Try Electoral Politics

Sixty-five people gathered at the start time for the Moms’ (Just Moms STL) August meeting, this time in a union hall. At least ten more straggled in, as confused newcomers navigated construction on the road outside. Billed as a candidate’s forum instead of the normal monthly updates, the meeting was in some ways a test of the Moms’ effectiveness in putting political pressure on their elected officials to clean up the landfill.

Five minutes before the candidate forum began.

Five minutes before the candidate forum began.

Ten candidates spoke, many of them running for county council positions, to be on a council that has already passed multiple resolutions in favor of removing the waste over the last forty years. Two candidates for the United States House, Bill Otto (D) and Steve Bailey (R) appeared, but neither of the incumbents for the region were there. The gubernatorial candidates along with Ann Wagner (R) of Congress pledged to come to a different meeting in a few weeks, after the Missouri State Fair. The hall could have sat many more people, and the vacant seats around seemed a stark reminder of the enormous uphill battle that the activists face in pushing for change.

The Moms and their supporters, however, made a big impression on me as I sat in the audience. Before the candidates were given the opportunity to speak, two people, one Mom and one thirteen-year-old girl, spoke about their personal experiences. Meghan Beckerman, mother of a boy who has lost all of his hair and who has had continual health issues, testified that she is “in a constant state of anxiety,” which is alone a risk to health. “Our outdoor barbecues literally smell like dead meat mixed with rotten eggs, and I promise it is not my cooking,” she said as she got choked up about the fact that she can never have company because her family doesn’t feel safe visiting. Izzy Richmond, who moved to Maryland Heights as a small child in 2010, developed asthma within months of the fire starting. After her mother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, the Richmond family moved away, and Izzy’s asthma disappeared. Izzy spoke on the verge of tears, but bravely made it through her speech and received much applause from the audience.

Meghan Beckerman speaks as Karen Nickels, co-founder of Just Moms STL, holds up photos of Beckerman's son.

Meghan Beckerman speaks as Karen Nickels, co-founder of Just Moms STL, holds up photos of Beckerman’s son.

Each candidate was asked if they supported a buy-out of the homes within a one-mile radius of the landfill and if they supported the transfer of jurisdiction from the EPA to the Army Corps of Engineers. With very little variation, all ten candidates answered yes to both. All were very courteous to the Moms and did not waste their efforts by talking about other issues.

Their answers were very encouraging, according to Kay Drey, a life-long environmental activist who has played a role in establishing many of the state’s environmental organizations. It was very different from a recent EPA-led meeting, where the hostility the region feels towards their environmental stewards was on display. Drey laughed as she related that one frustrated community member made the analogy to the representatives that just because they didn’t properly test for the components of the waste in the landfill didn’t mean they weren’t there, just as because one couldn’t see Kay Drey’s pink underwear didn’t mean she wasn’t wearing it. This hostility was fresh on the mind of the local candidates, several of whom said that the jurisdiction needed to be transferred to the ACE for trust reasons alone.

Why do people of the region distrust the EPA so much? In part it is because the slow wheels of bureaucracy don’t move with the urgency that many people feel when they find their families at risk for environmental harm. Other issues—such as the EPA informing the NRC in 2,000 that it would leave the waste in place, eight years before its official record of decision—make residents doubt how seriously the EPA is taking their health and well-being. Whether or not the residents are correct, their feelings were overt and reflected in the words of the ten candidates for whom the landfill is an important enough issue to give up an evening to speak about it.