This is a powerful long-form piece on how the Manhattan Project and its aftermath, with the utter indifference toward disposing of nuclear waste that partially defined its domestic impact, is still creating horrible health impacts on Americans today, with a focus on a uranium enrichment plant near St. Louis.
Dawn Chapman first noticed the smell on Halloween in 2012, when she was out trick-or-treating with her three young children in her neighborhood of Maryland Heights, Missouri, a small suburb of St. Louis. By Thanksgiving, it was a stench—a mixture of petroleum fumes, skunk spray, electrical fire, and dead bodies—reaching the airport, the ballpark, the strip mall where Dawn bought her groceries. Dawn could smell the odor every time she got in her car, and then, by Christmas, she couldn’t not smell it. In January, the stench hung in the air inside her home when Dawn woke her children for school every morning. “That was the last straw,” she told me recently. Dawn made a call to City Hall asking about this terrible smell. The woman on the phone told Dawn she needed to call the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, gave her the number, and abruptly hung up the phone. Dawn called the number, left a message, and then went on with her day.
Her youngest son was napping when the phone rang. Dawn was sitting on the top bunk in his bedroom folding laundry. The man on the phone introduced himself as Joe Trunko from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Joe spoke gently, slowly. He told Dawn that there is a landfill near her home, that it is an EPA Superfund site contaminated with toxic chemicals, that there has been an underground fire burning there since 2010. “These things happen sometimes in landfills,” he said. “But this one is really not good.”
Joe told Dawn that this landfill fire measures six football fields across and more than a hundred and fifty feet deep; it is in the floodplain of the Missouri River, less than two miles from the water itself, roughly twenty-seven miles upstream from where the Missouri River joins the Mississippi River before flowing out to the sea. “But to be honest, it’s not even the fire you should be worrying about,” Joe continued. “It’s the nuclear waste buried less than one thousand feet away.”
Joe explained how almost fifty thousand tons of nuclear waste left over from the Manhattan Project was dumped in the landfill illegally in 1973. He explained, so gently, that Dawn should be concerned that the fire and the waste would meet and that there would be some kind of “event.”
“Why isn’t this in the news?” Dawn asked.
“You know, Mrs. Chapman, that’s a really good question.”
It goes from there.
Even taking into account the creation of Superfund in 1980, the U.S. has never taken its toxic impact seriously. A big part of the reason for this is that people of color are pushed into neighborhoods near toxic sites and wealthy white people are far away. Like everything else about this racist nation, race plays a central role in our entire history of toxicity. The field of environmental justice appeared in the 1980s to deal with the history and scholarship around this, going along with local environmental justice campaigns that began in the 1970s as people, building on the civil rights movement, began to fight for their rights to not be poisoned. But as of this coincided with the long conservative movement that has perhaps reached its crescendo today, enforcement of the laws has slowly lagged and the money to clean this up disappeared.