Reporter Steven Hsieh was never informed about a dangerous landfill in his hometown of West County in St. Louis until one day while watching cable news.
Hsieh, one-year out of school at the Missouri School of Journalism, stumbled upon a broadcast of a roundtable discussion in which Diane Schanzenbach, associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern, raised the question of how St. Louis and the Federal government were going to rectify the decades old problem of the West Lake Landfill. It turned into his first investigative piece, which published in Rolling Stone
The story revolves around an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site located about 1,200 feet south of the Bridgeton Landfill. The issue is proximity, but the real problem stems from an underground fire deeply buried under tons of garbage. Members of the community have already experienced a smell that resembles “rotten eggs mixed with skunk and fertilizer.”
In February, waste management company Republic Services sent out newsletters to concerned citizens stressing that the stench in the air was not harmful to their overall health. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) disagreed, stating the air around the landfill possessed dangerous-levels of benzene and hydrogen sulfide.
Missouri Attorney General, Chris Koster, responded by suing for eight counts of environmental violations.
As the underground fire continuously burns, it threatens the 8,700 tons of nuclear waste and local citizens are rightly concerned. In 1942, uranium waste started being delivered to site from the University of Chicago. The waste was part of the infamous Manhattan project that ultimately developed the nuclear bomb and ended WWII.
The landfill never received safety measures that could prevent nuclear seepage into groundwater, and with the site sitting only 1.5 miles away from a floodplain that feeds into the Missouri River. Another eight miles downstream is a water reservoir that serves 300,000 residents of St. Louis.
The Missouri statehouses are trying to urge action by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill and Republican Senator Roy Blunt, but both are ostensibly pro-nuclear and according to Missouri Coalition for the Environment safe energy director, Ed Smith, “It doesn’t fit their narrative of clean nuclear power and ‘jobs, jobs, jobs.'”
The lack of resolution now places the burden on the people who live around the landfill. Individuals like Ramona Herbert, who worries about the effects on her children and has joined a neighborhood coalition of concerned citizens aimed at having their voices heard.
When asked why the story has been in-and-out of the news since the 1970’s, Hsieh said “Now that the Attorney General has filed the lawsuit, people are starting to pay more attention. The story has resurfaced over the years, but is just forgotten again.”
Being his first investigative piece, Hsieh said it was a learning process and though he was happy with the finished product he was sometimes “too aggressive with some source.”
He organized the story by manilla folders and submitted FOIA(s), looked at EPA documents on the site. He also got in touch with independent researcher Bob Criss, who offered his own scientific analysis.
Hsieh’s advice for fellow reporters who want to add more investigative elements to their stories was to find something interesting and dig.
“If you come upon a story that captivates you.” Hsieh said, “Go for it, because the story you are looking at is probably even deeper than you think it is.”
Hseih was inspired by the local citizens near the landfills, “The most amazing thing about this story was how passionate the locals were about fighting the issue… it was about their neighborhoods and their children.”
By bringing attention to the story, Hseih hopes people will understand the true impact of a superfund site.
“I just wanted to bring attention to the story. I hope local residents will have a greater sense of what nuclear legacy means and what a nuclear legacy looks like.”
Dalton Barker is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.