Teamsters’ teach-in spotlights environmental injustice at hazardous Missouri landfill

ST. LOUIS (PAI) — Corporate environmental injustice – in this case, Republic Service at its toxic waste landfill and Superfund site in Bridgeton, Missouri – led the discussion at an October 3 St. Louis teach-in on the dump, its future and responsibility for cleaning it up.

Speakers at the session, hosted by Teamsters Joint Council 13, emphasized that 1,600 Teamsters and tens of thousands of other workers live within a short radius of the West Lake Landfill in the suburb of Bridgeton.  The landfill contains 8,700 tons of un-containerized radioactive waste.  They also noted there’s a fire at the site.  It hasn’t reached the waste, yet.

Together, that’s a high hazard to residents, one that Republic’s owners, who include multi-billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates, have a responsibility to clean up, speakers said.

The threat to workers in Bridgeton is just one of many that low- and moderate-income families face nationwide.  Large corporations typically site their wastes in those families’ neighborhoods, taking advantage of both the demand for jobs that work at such sites can meet and of the residents’ relative political invisibility or weakness with policymakers.

But the teach-in made clear that unionists, community residents, faith leaders, environmentalists and pro-worker attorneys in St. Louis were going to be anything but invisible.

They called on Republic, its owners, elected officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to care for the health and safety of the surrounding community.

“Republic has legal, moral and financial responsibility to keep workers and communities safe from its toxic landfills,” said Chuck Stiles, assistant director of the Teamsters Solid Waste, Recycling and Related Industries Division.  “If you can’t remove the radioactive waste, then you must pay to move people away from it.  If workers could be exposed, then you must pay to properly equip them, train them, and compensate them for the hazardous work they are doing.”

Stiles and other speakers urged people to sign on to an online petition to the Gates couple, demanding that he give up a little bit of his multimillion-dollar annual income to pay for moving the endangered families and cleaning up the mess. The speakers also called on the federal EPA to investigate and order the firm to act. 

“Teamsters are part of this community.  More than 1,600 Teamster families live in the toxic shadow of the Bridgeton landfill and hundreds work nearby,” Joint Council 13 President Marvin Kropp explained.  “This has to be taken care of.  Too much time has been wasted.  Too little attention has been paid to those who have to live side by side or downwind from it.”

There is precedent for relocating the threatened lower-income and working-class families, added Lois Gibbs.  That’s what the federal government did at her neighborhood, 44 years ago: Love Canal.  It was filled with toxic contaminants.

Now running the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, Gibbs led the Love Canal residents’ fight.  “West Lake Landfill is this generation’s Love Canal.  In Love Canal, we were told the thousands of tons of toxic chemicals were not causing any of our health problems. Does this sound familiar?” she asked. 

“In Love Canal we were told that putting a covering over the top of dump would protect us.  Does this sound familiar?

“When I see corporations like Republic downplaying risks to residents in order to save themselves some money and some trouble, I see history repeating itself.  You and your allies in this room will have to keep organizing and agitating until you and your families have been moved out of harm’s way,” Gibbs declared.

Missouri state agencies are also warning of the threat.  The Department of Natural Resources says the landfill fire is moving towards the radioactive waste and the state’s Health Department reports elevated cancer levels in neighborhoods around the landfill.

“At Republic’s landfills in Ohio, California, South Carolina, Vermont and other states, communities have been exposed to landfill fires, years of noxious odors and environmental violations for which Republic has been fined and sued for millions of dollars,” added Teamsters Solid Waste Division Director Robert Morales.

A Teamsters report on Republic’s nationwide operations, issued in late August, pointed out that its violations in Bridgeton are not the exception.  The firm has had to pay $219 million in remediation fees to governments that cleaned up its messes at other sites nationwide.

Republic also had personnel impersonate EPA inspectors, created a fake citizens front group to distract elected officials from the Bridgeton landfill’s threat, and lied to investors by minimizing the extent of its landfill problems nationwide, the report says.

“In Illinois, Republic’s Roxana landfill has been found by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to have accepted radioactive waste traveling in from Missouri in violation of its permit.  Meanwhile, the worst landfill fire in history, at Republic’s Countywide Landfill in Ohio, is still burning nine years later.  Sad to say, the list could go on and on,” the report adds.

“With over 9,000 Teamsters who work at Republic across the entire country, we are deeply concerned about mismanagement at the company.”

“Neither does Republic care about its workers. This company has locked out its workers and forced strikes that have led to major trash pickup disruptions across the U.S.,” Morales added at the teach-in.  “Republic consistently tries to take affordable health care and retirement security away from the front-line sanitation workers who risk their lives every day to protect the public health.”

Photo: Teamsters tell Republic Services and its owner Bill Gates – move the nuclear wastes or move people away from your radioactive landfill.  Republic Services Teamsters, Facebook.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.