Lest We Forget

“Drinking a glass of water shouldn’t be risky business,” I wrote in the previous issue of this magazine. Sadly, the unfolding crisis in Flint, Michigan – where people’s drinking water has been poisoned with dangerous levels of lead, where officials failed to notify residents for months after they learned of the problem – shows that a glass of water continues to be risky in many places across the United States.

We now know that anywhere from 6,000 and 12,000 children in Flint have been exposed to the contaminated water, which could leave them with irreversible developmental setbacks and other health complications.

I would like to say that it’s shocking how almost every level of government failed the people of Flint, but this kind of stuff happens too darn often for shock to be an adequate response anymore.

This issue’s cover story, “Collateral Damage” reveals a similar tale of negligence and denial by the very agencies charged with protecting the American public.

As reporter Lori Freshwater reveals, the people of St. Louis County have, for decades, been exposed to radiation from thousands of tons of World War II-era atomic waste that was dumped in the area some 70 years ago. Radionuclides from these wastes have leached into the local soil and waterways and could be the reason behind what seems to be an unusually high number of cancers and other rare illnesses afflicting the people there.

At one landfill, a 300-degree Fahrenheit underground fire smolders barely 1,000 feet away from where some 8,700 tons of this waste lies buried, posing the imminent threat of radioactive fallout. No one, it appears, has a clear idea what will happen if the underground inferno reaches the waste. Hopefully, we will never have to find out.

In Flint, it took resident Lee-Anne Walters’s amateur research into the chemicals the city was adding (or not adding) to its water for the whole can of worms to spill open.

In North St. Louis too, it’s been dogged research by an incredible group of local women and men that’s helped shine a light on a serious environmental problem that should have been addressed decades ago. Their persistence has paid off. Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers finally began testing the soil around their homes for radioactive contamination, and the Centers for Disease Control has just begun a public health assessment to evaluate people’s potential exposure to nuclear waste.

In Flint, the question of who’s ultimately responsible is still being parsed out. But in North St. Louis County, there’s little doubt: The area’s radioactive legacy is a byproduct of the US government’s nuclear war program. Ultimately, the buck stops at the White House.

But you and I have some responsibility in this too. We need to get out there and hold our government accountable. And we need to make sure that these stories of egregious injustice are not forgotten. That’s what Mary Oscko, who has stage-four lung cancer and is still fiercely fighting the powers-that-be, wants. “Please tell our story,” she entreated me recently. “Please tell it because our lives have worth.”

Maureen Nandini Mitra signature graphic

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