Doctors found the first tumors in Christen Commuso’s ovaries in 2012. Before long, more turned up in her gall bladder, thyroid and adrenal glands. Lesions appeared on her liver.
While she was undergoing multiple surgeries, her stepdaughter, then 7, was learning that she could no longer climb stairs without stopping to catch her breath. Eventually, she was diagnosed with asthma.
When everything seemed bleakest, Commuso realized that many of her neighbors in the St. Louis suburb were facing similar medical issues.
On a Facebook page, Just Moms STL, neighbors were linking their faltering health to two nearby landfills: West Lake, which houses radioactive waste, and the Bridgeton landfill, where an underground hot spot has been smoldering for years. A small strip of land separates the two.
“I started kind of putting it all together,” Commuso said.
The landfills have long been a concern for residents of Bridgeton, in northwestern St. Louis County. They worry about the effects on their health, and they fear the underground fire may one day reach the radioactive waste and cause even greater problems.
A study by the state found significantly higher rates of some forms of childhood brain cancers, nervous system cancers and leukemia in communities around the landfills.
The neighbors have pleaded for federal intervention and pushed state lawmakers for financial help. Late last month, protesters chained themselves to barrels filled with concrete to block the entrance to the landfills. The same group staged a protest in early April in U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s St. Louis office.
The residents are tired of the company that owns the landfills, Republic Services, which they say is trying to distance itself from community health concerns. They’re tired of waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency to come up with a plan for dealing with the radioactive waste. Most of all, they’re tired of feeling helpless.
“I’m stuck here,” said Karen Nickel, who helps administer the Facebook page that connected Commuso with other ailing community members.
“What can I do about it? My three grown children all have homes in this area. I’m not going to leave them.”
Phoenix-based Republic Services says the radioactive waste poses no danger, and it says it is doing everything it can to monitor the hotspot and limit emissions of odors. The Fortune 500 company says the area around the landfills is safe for residents.
The Missouri Senate last week approved a bill on a 30-3 vote that would create a buyout program for people living within 3 miles of a radioactive waste site. The House budget committee will hold a public hearing on the bill on Wednesday.
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat, said 91 homes and a community of mobile homes would be eligible in Bridgeton.
The bill also would require sellers and landlords to make prospective owners and renters aware of radioactive contamination if it has been found on the property. This is currently not required, meaning some families may move into the area unaware of possible health risks.
The Senate-approved legislation would cap the cost of the program at $12.5 million.
“I really, really, really do hope that we are able to embrace the crisis that people are experiencing,” said Chappelle-Nadal, whose district includes the landfills. “Especially as we are getting more and more cases of cancer and autoimmune disease.”
Cherie Hanson, a Coldwell Banker Realtor, said the landfills are rarely a factor in decisions to buy or sell a home in nearby communities.
People living in Spanish Village, the subdivision that is eligible for the buyout, may have seen recent declines in their property value, Hanson said, but other nearby communities have been relatively unaffected. “I haven’t seen a mass exodus in any way,” she said.
Commuso did leave. In 2015, she and her family moved 10 miles away from the landfills. Her daughter’s asthma, which Commuso blames on the emissions from the smoldering landfill, seemed to disappear.
Since then, “she has not used her inhaler one time,” Commuso said. “To me, that was just further proof we were poisoning our kid by living in the house we were living in.”
How did radioactive waste end up buried in a St. Louis suburb?
It goes back to the Manhattan Project. The nuclear waste at West Lake was generated in St. Louis for the federal government’s 1940s effort to design and create an atomic bomb.
The nuclear materials first were stored near the St. Louis Airport in north St. Louis County. From there, the waste was moved to a site northeast of the city, and then to another site on Latty Avenue, also north of the city.
Chappelle-Nadal said that during storage at Latty Avenue, the waste sat in large barrels above the surface. Contamination ran off into Coldwater Creek, which is about 5 miles from the West Lake site.
The waste was mixed with neutralizing chemicals and soil and moved to the West Lake landfill in 1973.
The landfills became Republic’s responsibility in 2008, when the company acquired them along with the other holdings of Allied Waste. Allied was the second-largest U.S. waste-management company at the time.
For the Bridgeton landfill, company spokesman Russ Knocke said, Republic assumed the cost would be for the basic procedures generally required to maintain a standard closed landfill.
For West Lake, Republic knew it would be footing one-third of the bill to remediate the radioactivity of the site once the EPA proposed a solution.
What wasn’t expected, Knocke said, was the smoldering underground fire that would begin at the Bridgeton site two years after the acquisition. Since then, he said, the company has spent more than $200 million to improve monitoring of the hot spot and to help control emissions.
Various state and federal agencies have looked into the emissions and health effects that could be linked to the landfills in recent years. Their findings have been parsed by both the neighbors and Republic.
Neighbors point to a Department of Health and Senior Services analysis of the area that ran from 1996 to 2011. It found that the neighborhood just southwest of the landfills saw seven cases of childhood brain cancer during that period — a number “significantly higher than the expected three cases.”
The neighborhood just north of the landfills recorded 117 cases of leukemia, 15 more than expected.
Knocke acknowledged the higher cancer rates in nearby communities but said the study found no measurable spikes in cancer rates in the ZIP code that contains the landfills and their immediate neighbors. This suggests, he said, that the ailments aren’t really linked to the landfill.
A 2015 Health Consultation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said radioactive exposure to certain particulates or radon could cause such illnesses. That study looked at particulates and radon emissions in the area and found that although particulates were being released at a small fraction of the regulatory limit, radon levels were twice the limit.
Increased exposure to radon has been linked to several types of cancer, including lung cancer.
But the Health Consultation also found that it was unlikely for radon to travel from the landfill sites, and it said groundwater emissions from the site were safe.
Republic points to an EPA report that said the nuclear emissions are too low to cause harm.
The report looked at the amount of Lead 210, a byproduct of radon gas that occurs when radioactive uranium decays. According to the report, there is less Lead 210 around West Lake than in places in the United States where lead concentrations occur naturally.
Each day, Republic says, teams check for holes in the liners that cover the two landfills, which spread across about 200 acres.
The liners are designed to cap odors.
“Even a pinhole can cause us an issue, so we manage that liner (and) repair it every day,” said Erin Fanning, a Republic employee who serves as a division manager at the Bridgeton landfill.
A system that uses microorganisms to purify waste water also is being installed at the base of the Bridgeton site.
To prevent the underground fire from spreading to the radioactive waste, a piping system carries cool water through the strip of land between the two landfills, sometimes referred to as the neck.
Knocke said that most often any odor that neighbors smell is coming from sources other than the landfill, such as the many nearby industrial sites.
And though a Star reporter did not smell any odor during a recent two-hour tour, neighbors say the emissions come on suddenly and are highly influenced by the weather.
“The schools here are wall to wall with inhalers because of the odor,” Nickel said.
In a lawsuit against Republic filed in 2013, then-Attorney General Chris Koster demanded that Republic extinguish the hot spot and better control odors. The lawsuit is ongoing.
Republic last year reached a settlement with 34 nearby homeowners who had sued, alleging that the smoldering landfill had caused loss of use or enjoyment of their property. The amount was not disclosed.
Waiting for the EPA
Because West Lake is a Superfund site, the EPA must propose a plan to address concerns about radioactivity.
That remediation could be adding rock to the site to cap the nuclear waste. Other possibilities include a complete removal and transfer of the waste to another site, which some estimate could take up to 40 years to complete.
An EPA decision was due more than a year ago.
Dawn Chapman, who co-founded Just Moms STL alongside Nickel, said the lack of EPA action is unacceptable.
“I thought that if EPA had any inkling whatsoever that something was wrong, they would be knocking on doors,” Chapman said. “What you really come to understand is that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
The EPA Region 7 Office, based in Lenexa, said in November that the deadline for a remediation plan was being extended. No further timeline updates have been released, a spokesman said.
Knocke said the higher rates of illness in nearby neighborhoods have more to do with radioactive contamination in Coldwater Creek than with the landfills.
The landfills and the creek are separate issues, he said, and should be thought of independently.
Chapman scoffed at Republic’s argument. Because the radioactive waste now stored in the landfill is also what contaminated the creek, she and Nickel say it must be considered one large problem site.
“I cannot believe that they would have allowed this radioactive waste to sit this long at this site without even considering that at some point something bad was going to happen that would put it at risk,” Chapman said.
Republic, Knocke said, is doing everything it can to manage the situation.
“I actually believe that we’re not far from a day that people are going to say, ‘Thank God these guys had the keys to this thing,’ ” he said. “Because most people would have turned away (and) left the keys under the mat.”
But the neighbors say Republic’s statements make little difference.
Nickel, who struggles with several chronic illnesses of her own, said she knows her parents still feel guilt over having unknowingly raised their children near the radioactive waste.
Now a mother herself, and being aware of the possible risks, she understands that guilt even more.
“We would like our daughters to have children,” Nickel said. “But at the same time, we’re scared to death of that for them.”