‘The illnesses are ongoing’: Tempered celebration, as Hawley bill to compensate St. Louis-area radiation victims put into defense act

Dawn Chapman was pregnant with all three of her children while living near WWII radioactive waste in a landfill outside of St. Louis. Today, she says while breaking down, one of them “is really, really sick,” and his doctors believe it’s because of exposure to the radiation.

Her husband also suffers from “severe autoimmune illnesses and is very sick right now,” she says.

“I wish that somebody like Sen. (Josh) Hawley would have been around 20 years ago to stand up and protect us then,” Chapman said on a press call with the Missouri senator, after his bill providing compensation to victims of the radiation became an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act late Thursday.

“We saw a chance to move quickly on this and to make it part of this broader bill, and we’re delighted by a strong bipartisan vote,” which was 61-37, Hawley told reporters. “This is a first step, I want to emphasize. We’ve got to see this pass the House. And of course, even beyond this compensation fund there’s going to be more to do, but this is a very, very big step today, a major step forward.”

Oddly, Hawley says Republican Senate leadership, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, voted against his bill.

“The impact of this has been catastrophic to all of our families,” says Chapman who, with Karen Nickel, founded the West Lake Landfill advocacy nonprofit “Just Moms STL” in March of 2013. “We’ve all spent the past 10-plus years, over a decade, fighting our federal government and just hoping and praying that something like today would finally happen. 

“To be very honest with you this is, to us, nothing short of a miracle.”

If passed by both chambers in Congress and signed by the president, Hawley’s bill opens up compensation for medical bills and even survivors’ benefits from an existing fund for victims of radioactive exposure. The fund is administered by the U.S. attorney general.

“Twelve years ago,” Nickel said, “I had no idea about the legacy of the Manhattan Project in St. Louis.” When she did find out about it, she learned “I am a sick victim from this waste. 

“I vowed to go to the ends of the Earth to protect my own children, and it’s nice to know that I now have the senator, Josh Hawley, and our other senator, Eric Schmitt, along with other senators across this nation that are now going to stand with me and our community to fight to get justice for our families. We deserve that.”

Nickel says she was exposed to radiation in her childhood through nearby Coldwater Creek, and now has several autoimmune diseases, one which is lupus. She says she played in a contaminated park cleaned up by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2015, but didn’t find out until later in life.  

“My parents had no idea that we were being exposed once they had moved us into the neighborhood back in 1973. One of my granddaughters, who is 5 years old now, was born with what started out as a cyst in utero and grew to be a mass that had to be surgically removed when she was 3 weeks old.”

All four of Nickel’s children have suffered their own effects of the radiation, she says. Her sister, meanwhile, had cysts covering her ovaries at the tender age of 11. Her next-door neighbor did too, at the age of 9, she says. 

“The illnesses are ongoing. And you know, I’m afraid every time one of my kids gets pregnant and/or gets sick with even the slightest headaches. We never know when the other shoe is going to drop.”

State Rep. Tricia Byrnes, who participated in the senator’s press call with Nickel and Chapman, said she met the two women at a meeting about West Lake to see if the contamination “could have anything to do with why my kid had cancer.”

“It’s been at least five years that I’ve known about this,” Byrnes told reporters, “and I would tell people the federal government put an atomic bomb plant next to our high school. And then they left it there” to avoid alerting residents to the danger. 

“And then you look at Coldwater Creek, and they allowed a place (for) kids to swing from the trees on rope … into the creek. And this whole time … they knew that it would probably kill these kids.

“We have a lot of parents who’ve lost children, we have children who’ve lost their parents – and, unfortunately, we have some families where Mom, Dad and all of the siblings have died. 

“That is our reality.”


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