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Environmental Concerns in Flint & Bridgeton

March 11, 2016

During assembly on Friday, March 11, eighth grader Gabe Fleisher and freshman Ethan Blinder addressed the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and the potential nuclear waste threat in Bridgeton, Missouri. They spoke as members of the Current Events Club dedicated to bringing objective information and discussion to local, national and global issues. Here are their remarks.

Ethan Blinder
Good morning to the John Burroughs students and faculty.

The roots of the Flint water problem can be traced back to 2011 when the majority of the automobile factories closed down, causing Flint to go into an economic tailspin, with 40% of Flint’s population already living below the poverty line. Its population was reduced to less than a half of its original number, the police force was also halved, and a new cost-saving initiative was introduced. In order to save money, the state of Michigan introduced emergency managers who were to enact cost cutting measures, bypassing the normal political procedure.

One of these procedures was to stop buying water from the city of Detroit, and instead join a new regional water system, and using water from the Flint river. This switch happened in 2014, and who individually enacted this is under intense debate. Soon after, the residents of Flint sent numerous complaints to the local government about brown and dirty water in the system. However, the city claimed that the water was tested to be safe and clean, and that the problems arose from the plumbing systems of the individuals homes. Compounding the problem was the fact that the city did not pay for the water to be treated with chemicals in order to prevent lead leading into the water lines.

An employee for the Environmental Protection Agency leaked a local report of high lead levels in the water to an activist, with Virginia Tech researchers confirming this claim when it became widespread. In October of 2015, the city of Flint capitulated and distributed water filters to its citizens and switched back to the Detroit water system.However, this move cost upwards of $12 million dollars to a city that was already in massive debt, setting reconstruction efforts back even further. General Motors stopped using water from the Flint River, as it was damaging the car parts, and state workers in government buildings were sent bottled water.

No amount of lead content is safe, and, in Flint, 4% of children contained elevated lead levels in the blood. In the worst affected areas, it was 6.3%. Already, many people are worried for their children's and their own safety, with several people already showing signs of poisoning. Currently, a lawsuit against the city is pending, and both democratic candidates for the presidency called upon the governor to resign or to be impeached.

Gabe Fleisher
And something not that much unlike Flint is happening right in our backyard.

The West Lake Landfill is located in Bridgeton, Missouri, just northwest of the Lambert Airport. It was first created in 1947 to store waste from the Manhattan Project, the government-funded project which produced the first nuclear bomb. The nuclear waste was stored at West Lake until the 1960’s, when it was moved to Hazelwood, and later to north St. Louis, and then to Colorado, before being illegally dumped back at the West Lake location in 1973. Meanwhile, the Bridgeton Landfill is adjacent to West Lake, and located in the same complex. There, an underground fire has been burning since December 2010, now just 1,200 feet away from each other. There’s a range of opinions as to what will happen when the waste comes in contact with the fire: some say a nuclear emergency that will cause widespread cancer, others say the effects will be small. But with worry rising over the Bridgeton Landfill fire, action may be taken soon to clean up West Lake.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday, which currently administers the West Lake Landfill, criticizing the agency’s procrastination in fixing the issue and calling for a study on the radioactive waste at West Lake and for a barrier separating the two landfills, which the EPA has committed to building but would not begin until 2017. Koster also asked for simulations to be conducted, testing the effects of the waste and the fire meeting.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate has passed a bipartisan bill to transfer oversight of the West Lake Landfill to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The bill, authored by by Democrats Claire McCaskill and Lacy Clay with Republicans Roy Blunt and Ann Wagner (in an impressive and rare showing of bipartisanship), is being held up in the House, by New Jersey Democrat Frank Pallone, the Energy and Commerce committee ranking member. Since the EPA has missed deadlines in studying the landfills, some believe the Army Corps of Engineers will be more effective with its remediation program for radioactive contamination.

With the EPA also blamed by some for inaction in Flint, tensions are rising as the cleanup seems to stall and the effects of the fire remain unknown.