Backyard Talk Homepage News Archive

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]

Backyard Talk

Our White House Call In: An Empowering Success

I don’t know if you noticed, but over the past week and a half, we at CHEJ have been repeatedly asking you, and by extension, your friends, your family, your colleagues, and everyone else you know to call in to the White House and ask for the EPA to ‘Get Out of The Way!’ I’m sure if you’ve called, whether it was once, or every day like myself, you discovered that it was the easiest and most polite call exchange with a government agency that you’ve ever had in your entire life. From my perspective at least, the phone call went something like this:
“Hi, this is the White House Comment Line. All our lines are busy right now, but if you’d like to stay on the line, someone will accept your call and record a quick comment….”
…Music plays while I’m put on hold for less than ten seconds…
Which is kind of boring and bureaucratic-sounding, right? Until a sweet old lady answers your call and sincerely listens to whatever it is you’re trying to say!

“Hi! My name is Zoe Hall and I am a citizen of St. Louis calling on behalf of the citizens of Bridgeton, Missouri. I think the EPA needs to get out of the way and push for the FUSRAP to pass so the Army Corps of Engineers can clean up the West Lake Landfill. I would also like the president to see what he can do about relocation for the citizens within a mile of the landfill. This is a really pressing issue and I hope you see to it the president finds out how concerned I am.”
Eventually, by the last Tuesday of our push for calls, the conversation ended like this:
“Sure sweetie, are you referring to HR-4100?”  
Which is the House of Representatives bill 4100 pushing for FURSAP. The instant recognition of the exact issue we are pushing for indicates that the White House Comment Line has gotten such an influx of calls concerning West Lake that they have to have a code for it to easily identify and tally up all of our voices united in our outrage. This is a huge deal –– this list of codes and top concerns of the nation gets forwarded to the White House Staff in order to keep our president updated on the issues we as his constituents are focused on. That means our president has in his possession a lengthy list of people’s names and outcries for change. What he does next is out of our hands, but at least, now aware of our concern, he is accountable for whatever that may be! In itself, I consider this a victory.
Whether or not you participated in the call in, everyone can learn from the power this provided to the citizens at West Lake and anyone who wants to organize a simple, empowering action that is not only easy to do (it takes five minutes!) but is also one that gets results. Remain persistent and focused, keep your goals clear, and use the power given to we the people to raise your voice as loud as possible, so that one of the most powerful people in the world might hear.  

Backyard Talk

A World Free of Nuclear Weapons Must Also Begin At Home

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.

Backyard Talk

(Yet) Another PVC Plant Explosion and Fire

An explosion and raging fire at the Westlake PVC plant rocked Geismar, Louisiana a few weeks ago, sending a billowing cloud of toxic vinyl
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Photo of Westlake PVC chemical plant after it exploded and caught on fire, releasing vinyl chloride and other toxic pollutants into the community.

chloride and hydrochloric acid through the community.  The accident forced area residents and plant workers to shelter in place for several hours, shut roads, and even led to the closure of a 45-mile section of the Mississippi River.

The accident took place just one week before the Vinyl Institute was in NYC arguing PVC was perfectly safe. For some reason, they forgot to mention in their testimony that one of their plants had just exploded.

Westlake Vinyls makes 550 million pounds of vinyl chloride monomer and 60 million pounds of PVC a year.  The company reports this is used to make PVC pipe, pipe fittings, vinyl sidings, bottles, flexible and rigid film and sheeting used for packaging, credit cards and wall coverings.

Check out this local TV news report (and see another at the bottom) on the accident:

A Toxic Cocktail of Chlorinated Chemicals

We’ll likely never know exactly what was in that cloud of smoke released into the community, but according to report filed by Westlake Vinyls, the company estimated they released a toxic cocktail of:

  • 2,645 pounds of hydrochloric acid;
  • 632 pounds of chlorine;
  • 239 pounds of vinyl chloride monomer;
  • 29 pounds of 1,2-dichloroethane;
  • 11 pounds of 1,1,2-Trichloroethane;
  • 1 pound of 1,1,2,2-Tetrachloroethane; and a number of other chemicals.

According to a local newspaper:

Even after the fire was out, a large white cloud could be seen still billowing from the plant.”

According to Westlake own reports to the EPA, its plant puts 589,558 people at risk due to the bulk use and storage of chlorine. An accident involving this chemical could potentially impact an area up to 25.00 miles downwind of the plant.

A History of Environmental Injustice

Low income and communities of color live downwind of the Westlake PVC plant.  According to census data, 52.83% of people living within 3 miles of the facility are people of color.  445 people that live within 3 miles of the plant are below the poverty level.

This isn’t first time the plant has had an accident in recent years. On July 8 2010, over 900 pounds of vinyl chloride as well as other chemicals were released during another accident.

A number of other significant incidents and violations that have taken place at this location over the past twenty years, particularly when it was owned operated by Borden Chemicals and Plastics.  This has been well documented in the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice report, From plantations to plants: Report of the Emergency National Commission of Environmental and Economic Justice in St. James Parish, Louisiana, which found:

“In March 1998, Borden Chemicals and Plastics and the federal government reached a settlement under which Borden would pay a $3.6 million penalty and clean up groundwater pollution at its plant in Geismar. The fine was described by a U.S. Attorney as “the largest ever for hazardous-waste law violations in Louisiana.” The settlement ended a case in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claimed Borden failed to investigate and clean up contamination at its site, failed to report toxic spills, and ran an incinerator without the proper license. Borden said in a news release that the penalty is “less than 1 percent of the $800 million judgment sought by the government.”

On December 24, 1997, a 500,000-gallon storage tank at Borden Chemicals & Plastics in Ascension Parish, Louisiana blew off its top “with a detonation heard for miles around, forcing the closure of Louisiana Route 1 and the voluntary evacuation of some neighbors.” Over a year before (August 22, 1996), equipment failure during the restart of Borden’s facility caused 8,000 pounds of “hazardous materials” to be released.”

In addition, Borden was charged in 1994 with shipping over 300, 000 pounds of hazardous waste to South Africa without notifying the US EPA, as required by law.

The Borden-Westlake-Formosa-Explosion Connection

The Westlake plant that exploded used to be operated by Borden.  Borden also used to operate a chemical plant in Illiopolis, IL which was later taken over by Formosa Plastics.  Interestingly, there was also a major chemical explosion and fire at this plant in Illiopolis a few years ago, which acclaimed author Sandra Steingraber has written about.

This explosion sent a plume of toxic smoke for miles around surrounding communities. Five workers were killed, four towns were evacuated, several highways closed, a no-fly zone declared, and three hundred firefighters from twenty-seven surrounding communities battled the flames for three days.

Did the Westlake Plant Release Deadly Dioxin?

Perhaps even more importantly, we’re very concerned that the fire and explosion sent a plume of toxic dioxin into communities and waterbodies downwind and downstream.  Given that large quantities of highly toxic chlorinated chemicals burned for numerous hours, under uncontrolled conditions, you can bet dioxins and furans were released.

The question is – will EPA and the state DEQ launch an investigation?

Will they sample communities downwind for dioxin contamination?

As we ponder that, here’s another video on the accident: