By: Jenna Clark, Communications Intern
Karen and Dawn will tell you that they are “just moms,” but you shouldn’t believe them. In their
community of West Lake, Missouri, these two moms have led the battle against nearby nuclear waste. For 8 years, they have diligently organized community members, educated
local officials, spearheaded investigations into toxic waste mere miles from their homes, called EPA administrators day in and day out, and ultimately achieved their goal: federal recognition of its responsibility for the nuclear waste that threatens their community’s health, and its impending removal.
Rather than “just moms” it might be better to say that they are “moms, and…” Moms first, unequivocally and with pride, but just moms, never.
For Karen and Dawn, their kids are inextricable from their stories of the fights, challenges, and victories of their mission. Karen potty trained her youngest while calling the EPA: “When I first got involved in this, 2012, 2013, that was right when my youngest was potty training. And we’d be on a conference call with the EPA, and he’d be hollering for me from the bathroom. And I’d be quietly slipping him Cheerios and books and saying ‘you can’t get up until you go!’” Her kids are now 10, 12, and 14, and the oldest has an autoimmune disorder, likely caused by the toxic waste practically in their backyard.
Karen not only raised her own children near to tons of nuclear waste, she grew up there herself. After learning in 2012 that the Army Corps of Engineers was cleaning up a site adjacent to her home in West Lake, she realized that both she and her children had been exposed: “After attending that meeting I learned that I was raising my own four kids now, miles from a burning radioactive landfill. The fire had been burning since 2010, and I had been raising my own kids here for the past 20+ years. So, I have 4 kids, 3 of them are grown, one just graduated from high school, and I have grandchildren. We’ve been working on educating, promoting, raising awareness about the West Lake Landfill.”
The problems with the West Lake Landfill begin with the Manhattan Project in 1942. As the U.S. military sought to build the world’s first nuclear bomb, barrels of toxic waste from the uranium purification process were left outside of St. Louis. In the 1970s, efforts were made to clean up the site, without much success. Some was sent to be stored in Colorado, but much of the radioactive soil was dumped illegally into the West Lake Landfill.
For decades the presence of nuclear waste wasn’t acknowledged. However, in 2010 a fire began in the nearby Bridgeton Landfill, which is adjacent to the West Lake Landfill. With the fire came an intense stench. Karen and Dawn started to notice.
Dawn explained how she and Karen began working together: “Karen and I were neighbors and we didn’t even know. We had been living right around the corner from each other for years. I found out because I could smell the toxins from the fire that were coming out. And I put a call in to the local municipality, and they didn’t want to answer any questions. And I thought, oh God. And they sent me to the state regulator, which was the Department of Natural Resources…He was just pouring information out, and was really panicked. And I thought, this is a big deal.”
Once Karen and Dawn learned about the waste, they began a long term effort for its removal, and founded their organization, Just Moms STL. Karen credits team-work and connectivity as a major reason for their success: “Most importantly we used the connections that we had, both Dawn and I being involved with PTA’s in school and what not. We literally started one family at a time, sitting down and showing them documents that we had read about the fire. We spent really the first 2.5 years just educating, 24 hours a day, sitting with documents, just learning what we could learn. And then taking that out into the community and building relationships with other community leaders…You have to make those connections because you have to start building your army. Because this is a fight, and we need an army.”
Their best advice for activists just getting started? Find a team you trust. And if you can’t find one, create one: “Find a Karen. Find a Karen Nickel. Don’t isolate yourself within this fight, find a group, find somebody that you can really trust and count on,” says Dawn.
She adds, “Have a goal. What do you want to see happen at the end of this? And be prepared that should you achieve it, validation doesn’t feel like you think it is going to feel...Forget everything you knew about how change happens.”
For Karen and Dawn, this means that even now, after they “won” their battle, they still have work to do. Many of the problems caused by the nuclear waste and other toxic materials in their community still exist. Many people in the area, including Karen, will be dealing with negative health effects from the pollution for their entire lives.
Acknowledging this, Karen and Dawn’s story illustrates the power of team-work and community activism. With enough determination and drive, it is possible to create change. The groups responsible for large scale pollution can be held accountable for their actions, and you don’t need professional training or to be a policy or legal expert to do it. Yes, you can even be “just” a mom. As a part of our new series, Living Room Leadership, we recently spoke with Dawn and Karen. Watch our conversation here.