The Fire This Time in Ferguson, Missouri
The legacy of the World War II effort to build the atom bomb is haunting the present and may still be wreaking destruction more than 70 years after two bombs killed hundreds of thousands in Japan. This time the target is in the middle of the United States. Radioactive waste in a landfill north of St. Louis is in the path of an underground fire that’s been smoldering out of control at an adjacent dump site for more than five years. In October the St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger released an evacuation plan meant to “save lives” in case of a “catastrophic event at the West Lake landfill.” The document warns that “there is potential for radioactive fallout to be released in the smoke plume and spread throughout the region.”
The region is the north county area near the St. Louis airport not far from Ferguson, where civil unrest flared, igniting the nation-wide "Black Lives Matter" movement after the police killing of an unarmed Black teenager last year. While much has been written about the poverty and deep-seated racism in Ferguson, little has been said of the environmental racism occurring at their doorstep.
Dawn Chapman, a local resident and founder of West Lake Moms, says it’s time for the state to “focus on the people.” The group is demanding that the government which failed to warn them of the radioactive waste dump now buy out their homes. Chapman says “somebody decided to develop around here.” Adding that “it goes hand-in-hand with social justice.”
The radioactive waste at West Lake was generated by uranium processing and refining carried out beginning in 1943 with the Manhattan Project and lasting through the early years of the Cold War. The Mallinckrodt Chemical Works took on the job of turning uranium ore into the purified chemicals necessary to feed the nuclear reactors and other facilities at Hanford, Washington and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The ore, which came from sources in Africa, Canada and the western United States, was processed into various compounds at sites near Buffalo, New York, in Ontario and St. Louis prior to being formed into metal slugs from which nuclear bomb fuel could be produced.