Community members support landfill fire awareness efforts

| Contributing Reporter

Green Action will host a panel on Tuesday to discuss efforts set in place to prevent a smoldering underground fire from reaching soil containing WWII-era nuclear waste at the West Lake Landfill in North County.

The panel, which will take place at 7:00 p.m. in Laboratory Sciences Building 300, is a part of an ongoing student and faculty effort to raise awareness about the environmental hazard, which has been making national and international headlines amidst debates over transferring waste removal jurisdiction from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Green Action hopes that the panel will help mobilize students on an issue that they believe much of the student body is currently unaware of.

The panel will feature Bill Otto, the landfill area’s state representative; Mark Diedrich, director of the Office of Emergency Management for St. Louis County; Dawn Chapman, a prominent landfill clean-up activist; and Robbin Dailey, a North County resident.

Green Action President and junior Chloe Ames described the panel as an opportunity to educate students on the topic and earn their political support. The group has developed a list of ways students can help raise awareness and take action on the issue, including signing a petition and calling state representatives.

Political science professor William Lowry, who studies environmental and energy issues, said some students have found opportunities to volunteer in the West Lake area.

“The Sustainability Exchange [class] is a pretty new program that gets groups of students involved with sustainability projects both on and off campus,” Lowry said. “We had a group of four students that we connected with MCE, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, who needed help getting information out in a more accessible manner.”

Junior Elaine Emmerich got involved with a landfill cleanup advocacy team through her Ethnographic Fieldwork course.

“At a community meeting, people mentioned Chernobyl, and I thought, ‘This really sounds crazy.’ I contacted someone involved who told me this problem goes really far back and really far up, who said if I really wanted to help I should be ready to spend a ton of time on this. I thought, ‘H— yeah,’ and dove in head first,” Emmerich said.

Emmerich has also heard from several residents about the human component of the situation.

“As I’ve been supporting these people, I’ve learned about their stories. These people don’t like to leave their homes; they get headaches and nosebleeds from the noxious fumes around the landfill,” Emmerich said.

Though the underground fire has been burning for years, media coverage has recently spiked regarding the landfill, which contains nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project discarded by the Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals.

In September, as part of a lawsuit against Republic Services, the waste management corporation that operates the landfill, the attorney general released a series of reports highlighting a need to remove waste quickly.

According to Emmerich, North County residents are growing increasingly concerned.

“There’s an official 104-page evacuation plan, but no one really knows what could happen, since it all comes down to complete chance about which direction the winds are blowing that day,” Emmerich said.

Lowry is supportive of plans issued by the Attorney General and other activist groups to transfer jurisdiction to the Army Corps of Engineers because he believes the EPA’s actions have been insufficient.

“I agree with MCE, who has been pushing for this whole situation to be turned over to the army corps through a program called FUSRAP [Formerly Utilized Sites Removal Action Program]. That would mandate more immediate and urgent attention for the site,” Lowry said.

Junior Julia Curbera hopes the panel will force students to examine their role in the St. Louis community.

“Learning about this from all the national news is scary. We shouldn’t keep to the Wash. U. bubble and just grow complacent about the community outside. We’re part of St. Louis, and this seems like everyone’s problem,” Curbera said.

Lowry is also optimistic about student activism regarding important sustainability issues.

“It’s good that students and faculty are starting to become aware of this, though we could always get more people educated, because this is a potentially serious situation,” Lowry added.

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