Backyard Talk

A student’s reflection on the EPA, Superfund and CHEJ

Maddelene Karlsson. As a Community Health student, I had the opportunity to go as an intern with Center for Health Environment and Justice to the EPA headquarters for a meeting regarding the Superfund program on March 5. This meeting, although very emotional, was also intellectually rewarding and confirming in many ways. It is one thing to read and learn about public health, community health and the topics under those umbrellas in class, but a whole other thing to see it and experience it in reality.
At the meeting, there were six EPA representatives all with different roles, CHEJ founder, staff and interns, community members and a few organizational environmental health advocacy individuals, each one with expertise on specific topics. The goal was to raise the concerns in the communities affected by superfund sites, general superfund issues and to put pressure on the EPA to act faster and more responsible. The community members shared their personal stories and experiences to give everyone an insight of what it is like to live near or on a superfund site, to see their own and their loved ones’ health spiraling downwards without the capacity to do anything about it. One community member expressed the she “doesn’t care about her own health concerns any longer, she’ll deal with it and all that matters is that her children and next generations at least get the chance to grow up healthy.” Another community member said that he “was the only one of his nine siblings still alive, and that after reaching the age of 60, which no one else of his entire family ever did, he is now worried about what health issues he might face” after growing up and living in a highly polluted town all his life. These stories were heartbreaking to me, and what might have been even more heartbreaking was the straight, expressionless faces of some of the EPA representatives. They were even caught off guard by another community member stating that no one of them would ever accept living in any of those conditions or be treated that way by top level leaders and officials, so why do they let other people go through that? Ironically, the EPA clearly states on their website that their core mission is the “protection of human health and the environment” and that they “are committed to providing clean air, water and land for all Americans.” To me it sounds like a mission that is too hard for them to live up to, or maybe it is only for a very few selected, as I observed faces expressed with frustration and distrust, and gloomy eyes filled with hopelessness.
In school, I have learned about the importance of the building blocks of public health for the establishment and management of healthy communities: assessment, policy development and assurance. It sounds like a pretty straight forward model, but in reality, it’s not. Especially when it comes to environmental health, it seems like it sometimes becomes a question of whether it is a human right or privilege to be part of healthy communities. Should it really be this way? In my opinion, no. I have come to the realization that we, the general population are sometimes naïve, we like to think that certain agencies and parts of the social system is there for us to keep us safe, represent us and to provide us with the tools needed for optimal health. Yesterday in that meeting, the EPA showed to me that this is not the way they work, and that the system is in fact very weak. The system is weak because it is full of loopholes and like serpents, they use these loopholes to bolt and dodge their responsibilities. Individuals at grassroots level on the other hand, have power. Lots of power. They are all one essential link each of an unbreakable chain, and what makes them stand out is their support and empowerment of one another and their commitment for battling the problems they face along the way together.

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We hosted a Candidate Forum in St. Louis that empowered constituents and held politicians accountable this election season.

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Just Moms Co-Founder Karen Nickel happily maintains control of the microphone while Sam Page, democrat running to maintain his seat for County Councilmen of District 2 responds to questions about West Lake.
Just Moms Co-Founder Karen Nickel happily maintains control of the microphone while Sam Page, democrat running to maintain his seat for County Councilmen of District 2 responds to questions about West Lake.

This past Thursday, August 18th, members of the St. Louis community came together to hold their candidates running for public office accountable for working towards a safe and permanent solution for the West Lake Landfill. I am one of the St. Louis team members of CHEJ. We have worked tirelessly all summer to help the grassroots organization Just Moms STL organize powerful, community-driven actions in order to move public officials who are responsible for the West Lake Landfill. The irony has not been lost on us that Dawn and Karen, founders of Just Moms, named simply because that’s their preferred career title description, have had to interact with the EPA and many government officials as if they were as stubborn and incoherent as young children.
We held a candidate forum. We invited every politician running for a position of power that has the potential to affect change for West Lake. A lot of politicians chose not to come, many citing that the Missouri State Fair’s Governor’s Ham Breakfast was on the same day, across the state. We had 11 candidates attend, running for local seats as city representatives, state legislation representatives, and two running for congress. We provided them with two pointed questions and three minutes to respond however they saw fit. We never handed them the microphone –– everyone in attendance of the meeting came to hear only about a West Lake solution, and keeping the mic gave us that control.
On Thursday we heard a lot of bipartisan support for a bill currently sitting in the house, HR-4100, that would transfer the EPA’s responsibility (or lack thereof) of West Lake to the Army Corps of Engineers, who across the country effectively clean up nuclear waste sites such as ours. This bill has experienced resistance in the house from politicians in the pockets of Republic Services (the company who currently owns the landfill), and from representatives who fear their own nuclear waste-sites high priority status will be jeopardized once a site as bad as West Lake comes on to the Army Corps plate. It’s been a mess at the federal level, so perhaps a state-level solution is the best– and only– way.
This event took a lot of coordination between CHEJ, Just Moms, and Missouri Coalition for the Environment. All three organizations worked together to come up with the questions, produce and edit literature, and fact-checked one another on all the information we presented at the event. We handed all this out in a booklet to everyone in attendance. One of the major successes of this handout was a candidate scorecard, which allowed the audience to write down and reflect on how the candidates responded to our questions. We used #WestLakeForum on twitter and facebook to document and share with those not at the meeting the various promises and ideas the politicians came up with. If nothing else, the community affected by the landfill now has a record of accountability for these candidates and can use this to decide how they’ll vote on November 8th.
Overall, this forum was a demonstration of the enormity with which the Bridgeton community cares for a resolution to the West Lake Landfill, and a powerful tool of documentation for the candidates vying for their support. It has been made abundantly clear that to win over the votes of their constituents, these politicians need to work together to come up with a safe and permanent solution for the residents around the West Lake Landfill.
We’ll be holding another West Lake Candidate Forum this month on August 31st. We have candidates running for seats like the U.S. Senate, Lieutenant Governor, and U.S. House of Representatives to the event. Check out the event page if you’d like more info.
Check out photos of the event here[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]