By Jacob Metz
Last week, President Obama became the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima, one of only two sites directly targeted by nuclear warfare. He used the trip to promote his vision of a world without nuclear weapons, encouraging the global community to “have the courage to escape the logic of fear” and to eliminate nuclear stockpiles from military arsenals. We would do well to heed Obama’s call to work towards a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons. But a world free from nuclear weapons must also mean a world free from dangerous nuclear waste situated near our communities.
In 1942, the St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Chemical Works became one of the main processors of uranium ore for the Manhattan Project, the government-sponsored project tasked with developing nuclear weaponry for use in World War II. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Mallinckrodt Chemical Works played a large role in the production of weapons-grade uranium, from the end of World War II to the height of the Cold War in 1957. The heightened focus on the possibility of war combined with a rudimentary scientific understanding of the health effects of radioactivity meant that little attention was devoted to figuring out how to safely dispose of the radioactive waste.
After the 1950s, the radioactive waste changed hands several times around the St. Louis area before falling under the supervision of the Cotter Corporation, which illegally disposed of the waste in the West Lake Landfill. Though dumped nearly fifty years ago, the nuclear waste still remains in the West Lake Landfill today, posing a direct threat to the public health and local environment of nearby Bridgeton, Missouri.
Despite the consistent efforts of local activists like Dawn Chapman and Karen Nichols to call for the complete removal of the waste, the EPA has stalled and not used its full authority to properly and efficiently remediate the site through the Superfund law. The content of the West Lake Landfill is already strongly believed by residents to be linked to cases of cancer in the community, especially since a Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services report claims that the exact same waste in nearby Coldwater Creek was linked to statistically higher rates of cancer in surrounding zip codes.
Local Bridgeton residents want jurisdiction over the clean-up of the site to be transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency which has already successfully remediated other St. Louis sites affected by the same nuclear waste. Congress must pass S. 2306 to transfer authority of the clean-up to the Army Corps of Engineers and to protect the health of Bridgeton residents. As we contemplate the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we must remember that nuclear weapons threaten the lives of civilians both through their use in war as well as through their domestic production.