President Donald Trump Could Be the Best Goddamn Thing to Ever Happen To St. Louis 

...But he probably won't be

In north St. Louis County, between the airport and the riverfront casinos, there's a landfill you should know about.

In 1973 a sketchy hauling company illegally dumped waste from the construction of Little Boy, the nuclear weapon dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 and co-credited with ending World War II, at West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Missouri. Over decades, radioactive particles as fine as powdered sugar spread through the surrounding neighborhood, turning up in homes and parks. (Not all of the leftover uranium, thorium and radium made it to the landfill. Some spilled into nearby Coldwater Creek, a tributary to the Missouri River that flows through some of St. Louis' poorest and blackest neighborhoods. Rare cancers, immune diseases, reproductive disorders and death followed.)

There's another reason you should know about West Lake Landfill: It is directly in the path of an unstoppable underground garbage fire.

When I say "garbage fire," I mean it literally, not in the millennial sense of a bad situation that has grown irrevocably worse — though that definition undeniably applies. The fire burns 700 feet away from West Lake Landfill, too close to safely construct a barrier wall. No one is exactly sure what will happen if the seven-year-old fire and the radioactive contamination meet; first responders, especially the Pattonville Fire Protection District, have had to consider the worst-case scenario: nuclear fallout.

Residents say the only solution is full excavation. Predictably, no one — not the company that owns the landfill, not the government, which declared it a Superfund site, and not the defunct business that dumped the junk there in the first place — wants to pay millions to dig up tons of urban toxic waste and transport it somewhere safe and remote. North-county residents who ask for excavation have been met with dismissal or cruel silence.

Until now.

There's one more thing you should know. Something unexpected happened, something that has the potential to save this tragic story from its predestined ending (but probably won't):

Donald Trump got elected president of the United States.

"LET'S GET ST. LOUIS CLEANED UP"

It's May 17, 2017. America is reeling from news that former FBI Director James Comey kept memos of his private conversations with Trump, including one where the president asked him to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. While other morning news shows excitedly debate the likelihood of impeachment, Fox & Friends has invited Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and America's top environmental official, to promote draining the metaphorical swamp.

"The press made President Obama out to be the environmental savior," co-host Steve Doocy begins, "and yet when you look at the number of toxic dumps left on your plate, it's a big number."

"Absolutely," Pruitt responds earnestly.

He illustrates the problem with an example. "We have a site just outside of St. Louis called West Lake," Pruitt stresses the name as though to say, If you haven't heard of it yet, you will soon, "that's taken the EPA 27 years just to make a decision. Not to clean it up, but just to make a decision on what should be done to clean it up. That's unacceptable."

"These Superfund sites that need to be cleaned up, what's your first target?" asks co-host Brian Kilmeade.

"Well, we're very focused on West Lake," Pruitt says.

"Do you know how to do it? Have you decided on a way?" Kilmeade asks rapid-fire.

"We have a plan in place that we're going to announce very soon on West Lake. It's very, very important to make those citizens know that we're going to take steps to clean it up and clean it up quickly," Pruitt answers.

"Mr. Pruitt..."

A rare second of dead air hangs as the men on the couch turn to co-host Ainsley Earhardt, who's been mostly silent throughout the interview. Pruitt flashes a nervous smile as Earhardt deliberates on what to say next.

"We're talking about memos and what's happening in the White House," Earhardt says, her voice dismissive. She continues animatedly: "This is what the American public needs to be focused on, right? Jobs, personal safety, protecting our kids from cancer!"

"They want leadership, and this president is providing leadership," Pruitt answers.

"Providing leadership to do what with the environment?" Doocy asks.

"Clean up these sites," Pruitt says, referring to sites on the National Priorities List, or Superfund, designated the nation's most contaminated places. "You know, actually set a goal to say 13,022 sites is unacceptable. Twenty-seven years to make a decision is unacceptable. Let's get St. Louis cleaned up."

"How much is that going to cost?" Doocy asks.

"The great thing about this is we have private funding," Pruitt says, still referring to West Lake. Doocy nods, visibly pleased, as Pruitt continues: "There are people out there responsible for these sites to clean up. The monies are there to do so. It's not a matter of money, it's a matter of leadership and attitude and management, and we need to do it much better."

The interview ends with a brief mention of the 2015 Paris Agreement, from which Trump will withdraw the U.S. — with Pruitt's support — two weeks later.

West Lake Landfill is known as "St. Louis' dirtiest secret." - KELLY GLUECK
  • KELLY GLUECK
  • West Lake Landfill is known as "St. Louis' dirtiest secret."

BACK-TO-BASICS ORIGINALISM

If Donald Trump's administration successfully excavates the radioactive contamination from West Lake Landfill before it meets the underground garbage fire, Pruitt will be the one to thank.

Pruitt, a Republican lawyer best known for doggedly suing the EPA before Trump nominated him to be its administrator, has the round cheeks, approachable smile and paternal diligence of a youth group leader. A lifelong Baptist, Pruitt is a church deacon in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and credits his faith for his brand of environmentalism, which calls on people to be good stewards of God's earth.

"What is true environmentalism?" Pruitt said in a November interview with the Washington Post. "I think it's environmental stewardship, not prohibition. ... We can be about jobs and growth and be good stewards of our environment. The last several years we've been told we can't do both."

Stewardship is a popular topic for Sunday sermons and Wednesday night Bible study in evangelical congregations — like the one in which I grew up in Dallas, 250 miles south of Pruitt's church in Broken Arrow. Unfailingly, the connotation is pecuniary. The word "steward" originally referred to seventeenth-century servants who oversaw kitchen stores and brought food to the dining hall — literally the warden of the stew. "To make it really simple," writes mainstream Christian organization Focus on the Family in an online series about stewardship, "everything — from your backyard and bank account to your mind and body — is a resource that you must manage for God."

Inherent to Pruitt's environmental "originalism" is the belief that nature is a resource meant to be used. That's wholly different from President Barack Obama's globalist approach, which assumes that nature is an ecosystem meant to be sustained. Globalism shines in the international arena, where the U.S. could build consensus, especially on climate change, but it often proved ineffectual on domestic projects with implacable opposition, including and especially West Lake Landfill.

Pruitt says he's returning to the agency's "real" mission — clean air, water and land — with a "Back-to-Basics Agenda" prioritizing the three Es: Environment, Economy and Engagement. The goal is a total transformation of the EPA from a confused bureaucracy into a potent agency with a narrow focus on priority projects, especially toxic waste cleanup. Pruitt has pledged to personally oversee any Superfund remediations costing more than $50 million and calls his work "some of the most consequential things domestically that can occur."

This originalist mission to "co-manage" the Earth coincides nicely with Trump's view of the world as one yuge "deal" in the making. "He's got tremendous ideas," Pruitt said of Trump. "He's actually presented some things to me on the Superfund sites on how to improve our approach there. It was very instructive."

Ever since that Fox & Friends interview, West Lake Landfill has been Pruitt's go-to example of Obama-era globalism's failures. He's named St. Louis in speeches to the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation. On November 26, USA Today noted that Pruitt "often talks about the problems at the West Lake Landfill near St. Louis and how the EPA still hasn't decided how to proceed 27 years after it was tagged as a Superfund site."

Pruitt has promised an official EPA remedy proposal for West Lake Landfill by January. It's just a promise, the kind D.C. is lousy with. Still, it's already more traction than residents ever achieved under Obama.

Pruitt's ideological transformation of the EPA makes West Lake Landfill as high of a priority to the U.S. government as it's ever been, but his Red Wedding approach to the agency's budget and website make it hard to keep faith.

Some north-county residents fear Pruitt's "environmental stewardship" is code for pursuing corporate interests over public safety. And for all the attention he's drawn to West Lake Landfill and St. Louis in speeches and interviews, there's one word Pruitt never says:

Fire.

THE EASIEST FIX

Franklin Roosevelt was president when Congolese uranium ore started arriving in St. Louis, where Mallinckrodt Inc. processed it into one ton of highly pure uranium dioxide per day. Richard Nixon was president when trucks illegally dumped an estimated 8.700 tons of leached barium sulfate cake residue mixed with 39,000 tons of contaminated soil in West Lake Landfill. Barack Obama was president when we discovered the landfill next door is on fire.

Trump's legacy is undecided. He could be president when, for the first time ever, waste from nuclear weapons ignites in a suburban neighborhood prone to tornados, floods and earthquakes. Or, he could be the president who fixes the problem for good.

Of course, radioactive waste isn't St. Louis' only problem. Recent protests against police shootings and the bid for Amazon's second headquarters have put a few of our city's flaws in the spotlight. Comparatively, West Lake Landfill's remedy is obvious and achievable: full excavation.

"Of everything happening in St. Louis right now, this is the easiest fix."

It's two days before Thanksgiving, and Dawn Chapman is studying an EPA feasibility study. Chapman and I are sitting with Karen Nickel at her dining-room table a couple of miles away from the landfill. When the two first started asking questions about West Lake Landfill in 2013, officials responded brusquely: "Who are you?"

"We're just moms," the pair responded. Now they're co-founders of Just Moms STL, a grassroots non-profit that wants to see the landfill cleaned up and neighboring families relocated. Ambassadors for their neighborhood, Chapman says they're afraid to get on a plane together: "If we go down, who's going to carry this issue?"

"Just Moms" Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel have sat at this table with reporters from national news outlets as well as federal officials. President Trump brings new hope. - KELLY GLUECK
  • KELLY GLUECK
  • "Just Moms" Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel have sat at this table with reporters from national news outlets as well as federal officials. President Trump brings new hope.

"It's the easiest fix," Nickel repeats Chapman's words, holding up a finger for emphasis, "with the most catastrophic effect on people if it goes wrong."

"People keep saying West Lake is complicated. No, it's not," says Chapman. "It's unique. It's dangerous. The catastrophe is the complication, what to do if a catastrophe occurs."

Chapman and Nickel recently returned from a trip to New York, where they lobbied the United Nations, which has been supportive if ineffectual. While there, they visited the 9/11 museum, where a memorial wall displays photos of victims of the terrorist attack.

"There won't be a wall big enough to put our stuff on," Nickel remembers thinking. "It's just that our deaths are in slow motion."

"This is a form of environmental terrorism," Chapman says of West Lake. "And there's a fix! There's a way we can make sure this never happens. If we could go back and make 9/11 not happen, why wouldn't we?"

Nickel answers sharply. "Because we are a reactive, not proactive. We are a country that doesn't do anything proactive."

She has a point: It's easier to get the government to act on an actual catastrophe, such as the contaminated Superfund site in hurricane-ravaged Houston, than a potential catastrophe. Prevention requires, of all things, hope — the idea that something can be done.

"The No. 1 thing we have to fight, above illnesses, is hopelessness," Chapman says. "And this is a very hopeless time for our nation, you know?"

Staying hopeful isn't a purely rhetorical battle for the Moms. Advocacy is physically taxing, especially for people whose health is affected by chronic, low-level radioactive exposure. Without hope, this grassroots campaign runs out of grass.

Chapman, a former teacher, stays home to raise three special-needs children with her husband, who has an autoimmune disorder. "Nobody understands how the deck is stacked against us, how we're not normal people taking on a cause," she says. "These are people who are very limited, making calls sometimes between chemo treatments. A lot of them have used up a lot of their personal time already for illnesses. They're doing this on days when they can get out of bed."

"We are very sick people, there is no doubt about it," Nickel says, nodding with her eyes down. Nickel, who grew up near Coldwater Creek and now lives miles from the West Lake Landfill, has been diagnosed with lupus, psoriatic arthritis and fibromyalgia.

"That's why we had the testimony hearing."

THE APOLOGY

Albert Kelly doesn't go by Albert or Kelly.

"Everybody calls me Kell," he says by way of introduction.

Seated before him are a couple hundred St. Louisans, mostly north-county residents, listening intently. It's October 19, 2017, and for the first time ever, a high-level EPA official is in Bridgeton for a public testimony hearing about West Lake Landfill. Residents are determined to make the most out of the unexpected opportunity, regardless of what he calls himself. Under Obama, residents had to travel to D.C. to get the EPA's attention, and even that didn't always work.

Kelly is exactly the kind of bulldog businessman the Trump administration loves to recruit. He spent 30-plus years as a banking executive before his friend and fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt became the administrator of the EPA and brought him along to Washington as senior adviser. "Kell," he explains, is his mother's long-ago compromise: She wanted to name Kelly after his father, but she didn't want them known as Big Albert and Lil' Albert.

As the new head of the new Superfund Task Force, Kelly promises action. He's here representing the third of Pruitt's three Es: Engagement.

"We give no blame to anyone, we take responsibility," Kelly says, sounding confident and credible, a drawl lengthening his vowels. "This is ours to clean up. That's what we intend to do."

The crowd applauds, and Kelly takes his seat behind a table covered in a white tablecloth and sips water out of a flimsy plastic cup. Cathy Stepp, who's been the EPA's acting regional administrator for six weeks, introduces herself as Kelly readies his pen to take notes.

Nickel goes first, taking her position at the podium set up across the floor from Kelly.

"I am a Coldwater Creek contaminated person," she says. "My parents had no idea we were being poisoned. ... I also live 1.8 miles away from the West Lake Landfill, and for the past twenty years, I've been raising my own four children near a contaminated waste site."

Her voice breaks.

"Do not let my kids be standing in this position ten years from now," she begs. "Because we have to do better, we just have to."

Matt LaVanchy, the assistant fire chief for Pattonville Fire Protection District, speaks second.

"We've been responding to trash fires at the Bridgeton Landfill and the trash transfer station for years. I personally have been on more than I can count on two hands," he says. "Then we come to find out that we have an issue where the known radioactive material is not in the area where we were told it was. We still don't know where the radioactive material is. We still don't know how close to the fire ...

"And I'm going to call it a fire."

The EPA says the Bridgeton Landfill is "smoldering," but not on fire. The Pattonville Fire District says otherwise. - KELLY GLUECK
  • KELLY GLUECK
  • The EPA says the Bridgeton Landfill is "smoldering," but not on fire. The Pattonville Fire District says otherwise.

The official term for what's happening in Bridgeton Landfill, which is currently smoldering at an average of 200 degrees, is a subsurface smoldering event (SSE) or a subsurface reaction (SSR). That's what the EPA and Republic Services Inc., the company that owns Bridgeton Landfill and adjacent West Lake Landfill, call it.

A spokesman for EPA region 7, which includes Missouri, told the Hill in 2015 that the landfill garbage is "not actually on fire but only smoldering, a common occurrence, and the agency does not believe local residents are in immediate risk."

(Residents will tell you the only reason EPA doesn't call it a fire is because the agency is in Republic's pocket. Republic, of course, denies this and dismisses residents' accusations as fear-mongering. "We've been the only adult in the room for a long time," company spokesman Russ Knocke told Bloomberg in September. "It's been this spin-up of noise and fear and anxiety, and we generally feel like we've been the only ones that have been trying to say, 'Guys, here's the science.'")

At the meeting, LaVanchy continues to applause. "I'm going to call it a fire because I want to say that I don't think it's fair for a company that has a lot of money to be able to attempt to buy their way out of scientific proof," the assistant fire chief says. "I'll tell you, SSE and SSR are exactly what I deal with and have been dealing with in my career of now 27 years. It is a fire."

Next is Robbin Dailey, who filed a lawsuit against Republic Services last year after tests found radioactive thorium-230 particles at concentrations 200 times higher than background levels under the floorboards in her kitchen, on basement window ledges and in the backyard of her home in Spanish Village: "We're just hard-working, middle-class Americans who are trying to retire in peace and live with dignity. We're in the shadow of a disaster waiting to happen that won't allow us any peace."

Kirbi Pemberton, who's lived within five miles of Spanish Village since her birth in 1971, brings to the podium a poster decorated with photos of her daughters. Her voice trembles, but not from fear.

"My daughter Kristee Pemberton was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme at the age of eight and passed away at the age of twelve," she says. This type of brain cancer can be "caused by ionizing radiation and is found in mainly 60-year-old men."

"My second daughter has fertility issues," Pemberton continues, looking up at Kelly. "She has not had a menstrual cycle since 2014. She's ready to get married and have babies. Does that seem possible?

"My third child, Kassidy. Boy, it's been quite a year. She's been hospitalized from February till July 17th of this year with depression, anxiety and bipolar, which was the No. 1 thing on Dr. [Faisal] Khan's health survey when he went around," she says, referring to a St. Louis County odor and emissions survey.

"Then I have my youngest daughter, who has dinosaur teeth," Pemberton says, pausing to let the unusual diagnosis sink in.

"Literally, dinosaur teeth that grow out from the middle of her mouth. This has affected my entire life. My husband had grade-nine prostate cancer. I've had a hysterectomy. I've had lumps taken out of me the size of baseballs. This has ruined my entire life. This needs to be cleaned up.

"It's time to help us. It's time."

BrieAnn McCormick, a teacher raising two children with her husband in Spanish Village, lists her family's health problems: "low muscle tone, a languish disorder, asthma, epilepsy, eczema, Ménière's disease, low liver function and severe dermatitis. I think it is important to note that none of these ailments occurred before we were in this home.

"I've watched water fall down a radioactive hill into a sewer ditch. I've had my home tested by a reputable law firm that has found high levels of radiation in the vacuum cleaner, RAY-DEE-YUM. Imagine looking at your carpet having flashbacks of your babies crawling on it after being told that there's radium in it.

"Hell just continues to get hotter," McCormick concludes. She asks Kelly to make sure the EPA "is not just worried about the bottom line."

Volunteers hold Meagan Beckermann's posters while she speaks. One is a collection of family photos. The other shows the stages of her eight-year-old son Trevor's condition.

"We moved here, less than two miles from the landfill, before he was one year old," Beckermann says, starting to cry. "Trevor has an extremely rare form of alopecia, alopecia universalis. It has caused him to lose all of the hair on his body, which has never grown back. To me, this is his body's way of calling out for help.

"My youngest, my daughter Faith —" the sob building in Beckermann's throat finally breaks. She braces herself against the podium, barely responding when someone offers to read the rest for her. "Faith was my only child who was conceived in our current home here. Unfortunately, we lost her in a miscarriage during my second trimester of pregnancy three months ago — the worst day of my life.

"The second worst day of my life was when I found out my home is less than two miles away from a leaking, burning radioactive landfill."

The HBO documentary Atomic Homefront includes a scene from a previous community meeting three years — and one presidency — earlier. At that meeting, a vocally angry crowd asked the regional EPA's public affairs deputy director if she would live in their neighborhood, knowing what she knows. The official said she would. Kirbi Pemberton then stood, her face red, and unleashed the ruinous fury of a grieving mother. The official visibly recoiled. The EPA kept the Moms at arm's length ever since.

Until Trump. This meeting feels different. In fact, after another Spanish Village mother asks why the EPA ignores residents' pleas to test more areas for radioactive contamination ("What are you afraid you'll find?"), something wildly unprecedented happens: Kelly apologizes.

"I want you to know I'm taking notes, and we're ..." Kelly solemnly lowers his eyes and grabs the microphone with his left hand.

"We're sorry."

An apology is only words, Kelly admits. "There is no way my words can in any way give you back the things that you lost, and I understand that. But what we are trying to do is be very proactive and not get half of a solution but get to a solution."

Kelly has briefly interrupted the testimony, he explains, to share some news: "We're going to go ahead and test additional areas" for radioactive contamination. The crowd applauds loudly for seven seconds before he can continue.

"We are moving as rapidly as we can and moving in a direction that has a good record, that will allow us to defend that record, and that will get the entirety of this remediated in a way that is going to make it safe so that you all believe that it's safe," he says. He gestures toward the previous speaker and adds, "You talked about trying to test in other areas? We're going to do that."

"I think we will take that as a victory for right now," Nickel says to applause.

Later, after another hour of grueling testimony, Chapman tells St. Louis Public Radio that the decision to do more testing makes her feel hopeful for once: "There's something about this guy that makes me believe him."

The toxic waste was never supposed to be stored at West Lake Landfill. - KELLY GLUECK
  • KELLY GLUECK
  • The toxic waste was never supposed to be stored at West Lake Landfill.

UNCOVERING ST. LOUIS' DIRTIEST SECRET

Despite its moniker as "St. Louis' dirtiest secret," the radioactive waste dumped illegally at West Lake Landfill wasn't secret for long.

Reporters started asking about the waste before it even got to the landfill, when it was stored near the airport on Latty Avenue in 1946. "Concerns disappeared after the Government and Mallinckrodt said the wastes were 'not radioactive or otherwise dangerous,'" according to the New York Times.

On July 16, 1973 — coincidentally the 28th anniversary of the first successful test explosion of a nuclear weapon, in New Mexico — B&K Construction Company trucks started illegally dumping the toxic waste and contaminated soil into West Lake Landfill.

"Assuming the trucks were loaded with clean fill, the landfill superintendent waved them through without charging a dumping fee," writes Robert Alvarez, former senior policy adviser for the Energy Department, in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. No one recorded exactly where the waste got dumped. "A truck driver said later that he and others used the black stuff in their home gardens."

B&K Construction recorded on paper that it deposited fewer than nine tons of radioactive material "in St. Louis County sanitary landfill area No. 1 on Old Bridge Road" and that it was "probably buried under 100 feet of garbage." In reality, an estimated 47,000 tons of radioactive waste and contaminated soil were haphazardly dumped in West Lake Landfill.

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) found out about the illegal dumping just one year later. Inspectors didn't know which St. Louis County landfill received the waste, but they knew B&K's relocation violated federal disposal standards. "But the AEC and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, decided not to exercise their legal power to require the wastes to be retrieved and placed in suitable storage," according to the Bulletin. "Instead, the AEC let the Cotter company [which contracted B&K Construction] off the hook by terminating its license to possess the material."

The truth stayed buried from public knowledge for three years.

In 1976, Margaret Freivogel was filling in for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's environmental reporter, who'd won a year-long fellowship abroad, when she figured out where the radioactive waste and contaminated soil had been dumped. Reached at her daughter's house on a sunny November afternoon more than 40 years later, she's happy to tell me the story behind the story.

Freivogel says she was methodically tracking World War II-era waste when she called Colorado-based Cotter Corporation looking for a shipment that had supposedly arrived by rail from the Latty Avenue dump in St. Louis.

"I'm curious about what you did with it when you got it. How did you make it clean?" Freivogel remembers asking the company.

"And they said, 'We didn't get it.' I was like, 'What do you mean we didn't get it?'" The Cotter employee at the other end of the line acknowledged that B&K Construction sent some materials as contracted, but not the tons recorded in the paper trail.

"My guess was that it wasn't profitable or maybe they couldn't even figure out how to separate the waste from the radioactivity, so they weren't interested in it," Freivogel says.

She had a hunch: "Somebody was going to make some money by not actually doing the shipping." So Freivogel went digging, so to speak.

Every week she thought she'd uncovered the truth only to hit a dead end. "I just kept calling people and saying, 'Did you handle this? Where did it go?' until I finally found somebody out at the landfill."

A West Lake employee told the reporter that he remembered "a bunch of dump trucks coming in here and dumping some stuff." Freivogel called Cotter back with the news, and Executive Vice President David Marcott responded: "I suspect now that there was some hanky-panky going on."

Freivogel published her scoops on May 30 and June 1, 1976, poking holes in the federal inspection report: For starters, there's no such place as St. Louis County Landfill No. 1 on Old Bridge Road.

Kenneth Karch, then-director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Division of Environmental Quality, clipped the articles out and mailed them the following day to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission regional director. With them, he sent a letter saying federal investigators couldn't ensure the waste was safe — not if they didn't know "the correct location of the dumping, the local geology, nor the actual concentration of uranium dumped," Karch wrote.

The AEC's assertion that the radioactive waste was "probably" buried under 100 feet of garbage had especially irked Karch. It was an impossible number. "No landfills in the St. Louis area contain 100 feet of fill," Karch wrote. "I must therefore question the validity of the AEC 'review' of the burial operation."

"State officials are disturbed," Freivogel wrote in the Post-Dispatch on June 4, 1976, "that federal inspectors apparently lost track of the materials."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission addressed the problems in a 1977 report: The inaccuracies were blamed on "miscommunication" between federal inspectors and the hauling company. The erroneous "100 feet of garbage" line was an "offhand opinion" from Marcott, who'd toured West Lake before the dumping: "It was his recollection that the landfill area had a large deep pit."

Testing started for the first time in August 1976. Surveyors found radioactive material, including an environmental sample with "slightly elevated natural uranium concentration." The official report concluded that the site was not a health risk.

But there was one important caveat: It was dry on the summer day when investigators tested. The commission recommended an environmental impact analysis to determine what would happen to this unlined, flood-prone toxic dump in the rain.

Fourteen years later, in 1990, EPA put West Lake Landfill on its Superfund list; another eighteen years passed before the agency did anything about it. In 2008, the EPA announced a plan to "cap" the contaminated West Lake waste with clean rock, soil and clay — the fastest, easiest and cheapest remedy.

Capping has never been a popular option — except with those who are on the hook to pay ten times as much for the only obvious alternative: excavation. West Lake Landfill is unlined, meaning it's exposed to groundwater and underground fires, with or without a cap.

"That's like putting a lid on a colander and expecting water not to flow through it," says state Rep. Mark Matthiesen (R-Maryland Heights). I can't help but picture an exterminator covering an ant hill with an upturned bowl.

Republic Services inherited this mess when it purchased the landfills as part of a broader acquisition in 2008, the same year the EPA announced its "remedy." The company figured it would pay $15 million toward a cap, keep an eye on the spot and call it a day; meanwhile, the $6 billion merger grew Republic into the second-largest company in its industry by revenue, according to Bloomberg.

Instead, the cap plan drew broad criticism — including from the EPA's own review board, scientists who concluded that partial removal of the toxic waste could be done safely and reduce long-term risk, especially considering "chemical and physical changes" at the landfill.

The EPA stalled its cap plan, citing community opposition.

Then the fire began.

"WHERE THE HELL IS 60 MINUTES?"

In August 2015, for the first time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed that radioactive materials from the Manhattan Project — the same source as the West Lake waste — had contaminated the residential properties along Coldwater Creek.

Neighbors weren't surprised; they've known too many people who've died of rare cancers and disorders to feel anything but angry. "The bottom line is there is an astronomical amount of people who were affected by this," Florissant resident Carl Chappell told the Post-Dispatch. Chappell's son, who played in the creek as a child, died at age 44 of appendix cancer.

"This is an article or something that should be on 60 Minutes," Chappell told the paper. "Where the hell is 60 Minutes?"

The next day McGraw Milhaven, the plainspoken host of the McGraw Show on KTRS 550 AM, wants to talk about West Lake Landfill on air. His first question to LaVanchy, assistant fire chief for the area, is, "How bad is this?"

"[The fire] is closer today to the radioactive material than it has ever been," LaVanchy answers.

"They say 1,000 feet," Milhaven says. "That's basically the length of a football field."

"I wish I could say that I agree with that 1,000 feet, and I don't want to sound like an alarmist," LaVanchy begins, before explaining that no one, including the EPA, knows exactly how far the toxic waste has spread. "So to say that it's 1,000 feet [away], that's pretty much a guess. ... I think 1,000 feet might be conservative."

LaVanchy has spent years preparing himself and his firefighters for the day when the fire meets the radioactive waste and he'll have to ask them to run into a toxic smoke plume. But he still hopes he won't have to.

"Maybe I'm an optimist," LaVanchy says, "but I just really don't think that is ever going to be allowed to happen. With our elected officials, I think they're finally realizing ... This is a situation that is a lot more serious than anyone really ever gave it credit for."

"I just don't understand," Milhaven says, his eyes rapidly scanning the studio. "We have a burning landfill next to a nuclear toxic waste dump, and people are like, 'So what did the Cardinals do last night?' I mean, it is baffling to me that this continues to be a non-story in the St. Louis metropolitan area."

LaVanchy keeps his voice calm: "And it's almost like, how long do you bang your head against the wall before somebody realizes there is a problem?"

"Governors, senators, congressmen, elected officials, politicians, soon-to-be politicians — they all don't have an answer for it," Milhaven says, shrugging in imitation. "And the public, and the people of Pattonville ... anyway, we're short on time."

Two years later, time is growing shorter.

Today the garbage fire burns at least 300 feet closer to the radioactive waste. Engineers have found seven more contaminated "hot spots" along Coldwater Creek. Still no word from 60 Minutes. But now the nation has a new president.

President Trump's motorcade leaves St. Charles following his rally there in November. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • President Trump's motorcade leaves St. Charles following his rally there in November.

"THIS GUY?"

It's after 3 p.m. on November 29, and Trump is driving away from his St. Charles rally touting the GOP tax plan. Just Moms STL co-founder Chapman is still at the event center, sitting in her car, suppressing her hunger long enough to call everyone on her list with the day's big news.

"We were able to get President Trump one of our West Lake Landfill books," she says, breathless.

Chapman got to St. Charles by 11:30 a.m. to claim a seat close to the stage. She wore an unmissably bright pink top and curled her chin-length brown hair. Through sheer luck, she managed to get in the third row, close enough to shake Trump's hand if he'd have reached in her direction, which he didn't.

But U.S. Representative Ann Wagner (R-St. Louis County) did.

Wagner, one of the politicians who helped Chapman get into the Trump event, knew by sight what she wanted: to give Trump the Moms' self-published book about the landfill, which they've pressed upon everyone up to and including former President Bill Clinton and then-Vice President Joe Biden.

"She said, 'Is this your book for him? I'm in the motorcade next to him, I'm giving it to him right now,'" Chapman remembers. She handed Wagner the book and then whipped out her phone to take a picture as the congresswoman raced after the president. "If she truly gave it to him — and it sure as hell looked like it, she was running after him with it — then we have literally just gone up as high as we can go. We've exhausted everything with our government."

Chapman, who often uses chess metaphors to explain her efforts, says: "I guess we're at check now."

Delivering the book is a victory five years in the making. Even if Trump never glances at it, all of the elected officials riding in the motorcade and Air Force One with him know what it says, thanks to the Moms. "Ann Wagner, Roy Blunt, Eric Greitens, Josh Hawley," Chapman lists. "They're sitting there within inches of the man. All they have to do is lean over and say, 'Hey, we need you to do this one thing. Here is your chance to champion for the ordinary people.'"

Now Chapman isn't sure what to do next. She needs to eat (she's craving a donut), but she's also anxious to get home to her husband, who cancelled his medical treatment and took off work early so she could attend.

During the rally, she started getting calls from concerned neighbors about a compost fire at a Republic Services-owned landfill in Maryland Heights. "You can see it for miles, it's dropping ash on people's cars," she says. The fire wasn't at West Lake Landfill, but the news left Chapman panicked about being stuck on the other side of a river from her family. "Oh, God," she thought during the rally, "please don't let today be the day for this. What if I did all this for nothing?"

She also needs to call Nickel to figure out how to explain the day's developments to their Facebook group followers, many of whom are not fans of this president.

"This is the best chance that we have ever had to get anything accomplished at this site," Chapman says. "And thinking that makes me angry, because of all the people to be a champion for this issue, is it going to be this guy?"

NO GOOD DEED

No one agrees on the worst-case scenario for the West Lake Landfill problem, although there are many apocalyptic contenders. (Here's the one that keeps me up at night: An earthquake liquefies the sand-and-dirt foundation beneath the landfill, sending radioactive flow into the adjacent garbage fire and sparking a wave of evacuees, while crippling surrounding hospitals and fire departments.)

Everyone agrees on one of two best-case scenarios:

The EPA decides to completely remove all contamination and, using its authority from the law establishing the Superfund program, requires Republic Services and two other responsible parties — Chicago-based Exelon Corporation and the U.S. Department of Energy — to pay for it. Then they do so, using the stores of money they've already set aside specifically for this purpose (yes, these funds exist) and instead of filing obstructionist lawsuits that delay action for years (remember, this is a best-case scenario). The waste is safely transported, probably by the Army Corps of Engineers, and contained. The fire burns itself out.

Or:

The fire self-extinguishes or otherwise stays away from the radioactive waste. A cap prevents re-exposure or contamination and allays resident fears about public health risk.

Both scenarios are equally improbable, but Trump's election creates an unexpected, yet undeniable, opportunity to accomplish the former. The president's mission to dismantle the political establishment as well as his preference for tangible results over incremental change and global cooperation have opened a door to full excavation, starting with the unlikely confirmation of an environmental originalist as EPA administrator.

On December 7, Administrator Pruitt testified to a House committee that he'll release a plan for West Lake Landfill next month.

"We should be able to announce a decision in the month of January," Pruitt says. "There are proposals that I'm looking at this month to make a decision on West Lake. It's been a long time coming, specifically 27 years. It's a very important issue to the people of St. Louis. For those of you who don't know on the committee, 8,000 tons of uranium commingled with 38,000 tons of solid waste dispersed over a very large geographical area buried about 80 feet deep, and it's taken the agency 27 years to make a decision on whether to excavate or cap the site. That's unacceptable, and the decision is coming in the month of January."

The next day, the EPA released Pruitt's official list of "Superfund Sites Targeted for Immediate Intense Action." West Lake Landfill is one of 21 sites, one of only two in Region 7. "We want the list to be the administrator's special emphasis list," not a ranking, Kelly told me the week before its release. "He wants to get moving. The list will be fluid."

On the same day Trump rallied in St. Charles, in fact, the EPA announced a $22.6 million cleanup plan for East Chicago: excavate 61,000 cubic yards of lead-contaminated soil from a landfill, contain arsenic-contaminated groundwater, ensure safety during digging and get financing from the site owner. The East Chicago plan sounds a lot like what residents want for West Lake, only our local problem has more than twice as many cubic yards of radioactive waste.

Optimistic that the EPA could announce a similar (but much more expensive) remedy here, activists have cautiously paused their quest to petition Congress to transfer responsibility for the site to the Army Corps of Engineers.

"I sure don't advocate business as usual," wrote John Paul Woodley Jr., a lobbyist and former assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works under President George W. Bush, in a May op-ed in the Hill. "But the EPA has new leadership, and Administrator Scott Pruitt has gone on record as saying that Superfund sites in general, and the West Lake Landfill in particular, are a top priority and will receive his personal attention. I would hold him to that and give the EPA one more chance to succeed."

The optimism is bipartisan.

"Donald Trump has an opportunity to do a better job than establishment Democrats in office now" on West Lake, says state Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal (D-University City), raising her eyebrows as though in shock at her own words.

Chappelle-Nadal tells me she "would think of Trump as a totally different person" if his administration got started on excavating West Lake. It's a surprising admission; the progressive politician is so vocally against the president, the Missouri Senate formally reprimanded her in September for posting on Facebook that she hoped he would be assassinated. "He has his personality, I have my personality. But if he dedicated the time, money and resources to cleaning up that landfill, I would think of him differently."

Alex Cohen, co-founder of the Earth Defense Coalition, isn't legally allowed at West Lake anymore after he and nine fellow activists chained themselves to the landfill entrance to demand responsibility be transferred to the Army Corps. Even he admits things are different post-2016: "We're like, 'Do we really feel hopeful under Trump?'" he asks.

Cohen still thinks Trump's election will have devastating environmental consequences; he predicts Pruitt's hyper-focus on Superfund combined with federal budget cuts will create additional toxic sites, no matter what happens to West Lake.

"We are all part of this toxic, polluted family," Cohen says. "They better not use our site as an excuse to get away with polluting thousands of other communities."

Gina McCarthy, Pruitt's predecessor in the EPA, agrees the new administration's focus is prohibitively narrow.

"It is just ridiculous to think that you can ignore the most significant threats to public health today while chasing Superfund sites that have been around for twenty years," she told USA Today in November. "You don't make those choices. You do both."

From St. Louis, especially north county, McCarthy's response to her successor sounds patronizingly glib. Pemberton, the Spanish Village resident whose youngest daughter was born with dinosaur teeth, would offer West Lake Landfill — not global climate change — as her family's most significant health threat. The landfill has been a Superfund site for 27 years; the contamination inside is the world's oldest (and Mallinckrodt's worst) nuclear weapons waste and will increase in radioactivity by a factor of 35 over the next 1,000 years.

And the Obama appointee certainly didn't "do both" when she was in office. "Gina McCarthy blew us off," Nickel says. "She was strictly focused on climate change and wanted nothing to do with anything else."

And McCarthy wasn't the first to ignore the situation.

"Trump wouldn't be wrong to point out that this should have been handled decades ago," Chapman tells me.

Republic Services, which owns both West Lake and Bridgeton landfills, agrees. "It's taken too long," company spokesman Knocke told the Washington Post in June. "We certainly welcome the priority the new administrator is placing on the site."

That doesn't mean there is consensus on what to do. No matter what the EPA decides in January, someone won't like it, Kelly acknowledges to me. "All I can tell you is, no good deed goes unpunished."

A decision to excavate West Lake Landfill — before the garbage fire becomes a "garbage fire," that is — would put the U.S. government on its own collision course with the legal team at Republic Services, whose largest single shareholder is Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, the only tech leader who's been able to meet President "Let's Make a Deal" Trump face to face without inciting public outrage. (The coincidence makes Nelly's seventeen-year-old lyric, "Bill Gates, Donald Trump/Let me in, now," feel downright prophetic.)

Republic Services already expects to pay $400 million to monitor and contain the fire, according to Bloomberg, and it's paid out almost $6.9 million in a class action lawsuit from residents. It's not hard to understand why the company would rather help pay for a $50 million cap than a $400 million excavation. But it has the money ready for either in case the government decides to sue, which Pruitt has threatened to do.

"Listen," Pruitt told the Washington Post in June, "these [responsible companies] across the country are going to be held accountable. They're going to get these areas cleaned up, or they are going to be sued by this agency."

Republic Services can file legal appeals of its own if the government chooses excavation. Lawsuits would likely stall action for years, especially since there are no studies to prove definitively how far contamination has spread since the toxic material was dumped in 1973.

Conversely, if the EPA chooses a cap instead of excavation, the people have no standing to appeal. Residents fear a cap will end up costing even more in the long run; if something goes wrong underground and engineers have to dig up the cap and the waste to fix it, that would be the most expensive remedy of all.

"It's a courage issue," Chapman says. "This has nothing to do with the science anymore, it's the courage to make the call to piss off these corporations."

Remembering the man who'd just stood mere feet away from her, Chapman says of President Trump: "Maybe this guy really is the guy to do it."

When I pitch that idea to Freivogel, now retired after a long and venerated career in journalism, she laughs freely. I'm used to it. Everyone I interview for this story betrays an incongruous chuckle at some point. No one trusts hope in Trump's America.

Freivogel, who worked in the Post-Dispatch's D.C. bureau for years, says it's foolish to make plans on any politician's promises.

"The whole reason that they dug it up from Latty Avenue was because they were supposed to make a permanent cleanup," Freivogel reminds me, "and what happened is it got dumped somewhere else.

"And here we are debating it 40 years later."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the doctor mentioned by Kirbi Pemberton during her EPA hearing testimony. Dr. Faisal Khan is the director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health.

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