In north St. Louis County, between the airport and the riverfront casinos, there's a landfill you should know about.
In 1973 a sketchy hauling company illegally dumped waste from the construction of Little Boy, the nuclear weapon dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 and co-credited with ending World War II, at West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Missouri. Over decades, radioactive particles as fine as powdered sugar spread through the surrounding neighborhood, turning up in homes and parks. (Not all of the leftover uranium, thorium and radium made it to the landfill. Some spilled into nearby Coldwater Creek, a tributary to the Missouri River that flows through some of St. Louis' poorest and blackest neighborhoods. Rare cancers, immune diseases, reproductive disorders and death followed.)
There's another reason you should know about West Lake Landfill: It is directly in the path of an unstoppable underground garbage fire.
When I say "garbage fire," I mean it literally, not in the millennial sense of a bad situation that has grown irrevocably worse — though that definition undeniably applies. The fire burns 700 feet away from West Lake Landfill, too close to safely construct a barrier wall. No one is exactly sure what will happen if the seven-year-old fire and the radioactive contamination meet; first responders, especially the Pattonville Fire Protection District, have had to consider the worst-case scenario: nuclear fallout.
Residents say the only solution is full excavation. Predictably, no one — not the company that owns the landfill, not the government, which declared it a Superfund site, and not the defunct business that dumped the junk there in the first place — wants to pay millions to dig up tons of urban toxic waste and transport it somewhere safe and remote. North-county residents who ask for excavation have been met with dismissal or cruel silence.
There's one more thing you should know. Something unexpected happened, something that has the potential to save this tragic story from its predestined ending (but probably won't):
Donald Trump got elected president of the United States.
"LET'S GET ST. LOUIS CLEANED UP"
It's May 17, 2017. America is reeling from news that former FBI Director James Comey kept memos of his private conversations with Trump, including one where the president asked him to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. While other morning news shows excitedly debate the likelihood of impeachment, Fox & Friends has invited Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and America's top environmental official, to promote draining the metaphorical swamp.
"The press made President Obama out to be the environmental savior," co-host Steve Doocy begins, "and yet when you look at the number of toxic dumps left on your plate, it's a big number."
"Absolutely," Pruitt responds earnestly.
He illustrates the problem with an example. "We have a site just outside of St. Louis called West Lake," Pruitt stresses the name as though to say, If you haven't heard of it yet, you will soon, "that's taken the EPA 27 years just to make a decision. Not to clean it up, but just to make a decision on what should be done to clean it up. That's unacceptable."
"These Superfund sites that need to be cleaned up, what's your first target?" asks co-host Brian Kilmeade.
"Well, we're very focused on West Lake," Pruitt says.
"Do you know how to do it? Have you decided on a way?" Kilmeade asks rapid-fire.
"We have a plan in place that we're going to announce very soon on West Lake. It's very, very important to make those citizens know that we're going to take steps to clean it up and clean it up quickly," Pruitt answers.
A rare second of dead air hangs as the men on the couch turn to co-host Ainsley Earhardt, who's been mostly silent throughout the interview. Pruitt flashes a nervous smile as Earhardt deliberates on what to say next.
"We're talking about memos and what's happening in the White House," Earhardt says, her voice dismissive. She continues animatedly: "This is what the American public needs to be focused on, right? Jobs, personal safety, protecting our kids from cancer!"
"They want leadership, and this president is providing leadership," Pruitt answers.
"Providing leadership to do what with the environment?" Doocy asks.
"Clean up these sites," Pruitt says, referring to sites on the National Priorities List, or Superfund, designated the nation's most contaminated places. "You know, actually set a goal to say 13,022 sites is unacceptable. Twenty-seven years to make a decision is unacceptable. Let's get St. Louis cleaned up."
"How much is that going to cost?" Doocy asks.
"The great thing about this is we have private funding," Pruitt says, still referring to West Lake. Doocy nods, visibly pleased, as Pruitt continues: "There are people out there responsible for these sites to clean up. The monies are there to do so. It's not a matter of money, it's a matter of leadership and attitude and management, and we need to do it much better."
The interview ends with a brief mention of the 2015 Paris Agreement, from which Trump will withdraw the U.S. — with Pruitt's support — two weeks later.