In Bridgeton, Mo., they can’t breathe.
Residents of this community near Ferguson — site of 2014’s police-involved shooting death of teenager Michael Brown — have complained for years about lung troubles caused by toxic fumes tied to radioactive waste that is in turn linked to the atomic bombs that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services will release a study in June to gauge these concerns. But many here call this step positive, small and too late; a slow-moving, subterranean landfill fire that began in 2010, could boost the site’s toxic-gas emissions.
Some locals have been diagnosed with cancer, which they connect to nuclear waste illegally dumped at the West Lake Landfill by the Cotter Corporation in 1973. This radioactive refuse is from the U.S. Army's top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II.
Thanks to these conditions, residents who seek government-assisted relocation feel abandoned. Lengthy fights over who ultimately should control the site have slowed cleanup efforts.
Paul Berry III, a local African-American small business owner running for the U.S. House as a Republican, has long raised awareness about the toxic waste.
“I take issue with President Obama and his focus on the Iran nuclear deal while we have nuclear waste sitting derelict in my community less than two miles away,” said Berry, who grew up in the area.
“How are we going to be a steward for nuclear waste when we’re not even taking care of business in my backyard?” asked Berry.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reportedly investigating the issue following a September 2014 study by Missouri’s health department. It found that, between 1996 and 2011, the ZIP codes around the landfill included statistically significant, higher incidences of leukemia plus cancers of the colon, prostate, kidney, bladder and brain.
“[The] recent study by St. Louis County is actually the first time that a government entity has asked people if they feel ill,” said Laura Barrett, executive director for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
“This is a hot mess,” said Dawn Chapman, a local mother and co-founder of Just Moms STL, a non-profit organization made up of local mothers who worry that these radioactive materials are sickening their families.
When Chapman bought a home in nearby Maryland Heights in 2005, she says she was never warned that her family would live near a radioactive waste site. She discovered their close proximity just three years ago when her family began experiencing what she called a “horrible odor” emanating from the site.
A 1988 Nuclear Regulatory Commission study revealed that its inspectors discovered in 1974 that the Cotter Corporation — which agreed to buy the atomic refuse from the federal government and dispose of it — mixed this waste with 39,000 tons of topsoil. Cotter illegally covered the West Lake Landfill with this irradiated earth in 1973, according to the nuclear agency’s report.
“It’s not in barrels. Some of it’s mixed in the soil and the garbage,” said Chapman. “Some of it’s just lying on the surface for over 40 years, and none of us knew about this.”
Chapman, who lives with her husband and their three special-needs children, described the odor as a burning-electrical smell mixed with trash and petroleum. Two of her kids suffer developmental problems, Chapman said. She personally complains of breathing difficulties.
“I’m 35 and have never had an issue in my life,” said Chapman. “These past couple of years, I’ve found myself using and borrowing other people’s inhalers.”
Some, however, consider these fears overblown.
Low-level radiation “is generally a health benefit,” said Dr. Jerry Cuttler, a scientist with more than 50 years of experience with nuclear radiation and an adviser to the New York-based American Council on Science and Health.
“The natural radon level in an open area is very low,” said Cuttler. “To find a harmful radon level, you would need to go into a uranium mine that has no forced ventilation.”
Despite ordering landfill owner Republic Services to build a barrier between the fire and the toxic waste, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency denies residents are at risk.
St. Louis County, on the other hand, published a 2014 shelter-in-place plan due to concerns that the fire could reach and burn the toxic waste, increase pollution and hurt residents. The fire is expected to smolder until 2024.
This plan dismays Chapman, whose home is located several miles from the landfill. Some locals live within half a mile of the site, and the odor penetrates their residences, according to Chapman.
“What are those people supposed to do?” said Chapman. “A lot of people here feel like they’re prisoners in their own homes.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed its author. The name has been corrected.