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

...But he probably won't be

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"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."

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