Q&A with Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel from Just Moms STL

By Kate Dickman

Just Moms STL was formed in 2014 by Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel to raise awareness of the issues their community was facing regarding the nuclear and other hazardous waste at West Lake Landfill in North St. Louis County, and they have been a valued partner of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE) from their founding. The following question and answer session will give you an overview of their work and the issues they are helping address in North St. Louis County alongside MCE.

How did you learn about this problem?

Dawn – I had been smelling an odor, but nobody would answer about what it was. No members of the community knew what it was. I decided to call the city, and I was told to call the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). That’s when I knew we’re in trouble. The person from DNR spoke with me for two hours providing information. I learned that nuclear waste was sitting open in the community for decades, and it was government owned. 

Can you tell me a little bit about the Coldwater Creek community?

Karen – Coldwater Creek, which has been contaminated since the 1950s, was a suburb which people moved to when they were looking for more space outside of the city. It had beautiful parks and green spaces that kids played in all the time. It was the place to grow up, but we didn’t know it was poisonous.

My family moved from the city to Hazelwood, only a few houses away from the creek. There were lots of parks, and kids played in them all the time. We lived our lives outside. In 2012, I was diagnosed with lupus, which made me look for a cause. That’s when I found the connections between West Lake Landfill, Coldwater Creek, and health. I reached out to old friends and neighbors, only to find that many young people had passed away from rare diseases and cancers. Four other women my age were diagnosed with lupus and other rare health problems. My sister had ovarian cysts at age 11, and my neighbor had them when she was only 9. I began to connect the dots, and I realized other parents didn’t know that their children were slowly being poisoned.

Simple, everyday tasks like riding bikes, eating food from our garden, and playing in parks were now dangerous. How many times was I being poisoned? 

Can you tell me about how being a woman affected you during your search for answers and justice?

Dawn – It’s so hard. Many people use condescending language. Many people consider us to be “bored stay at home moms.” Also, cost benefit analysis for communities with these types of sites literally puts a price tag on them and affects the type of clean up done. Some communities with a “lower value” are given less of a cleanup. Stay at home moms like myself are given ZERO. Many people on government committees do not represent “regular” people that have actually been harmed, there are still a significant amount of people being left out of the conversation.

What led you to create this organization?

Dawn – There was nothing out there when I started. There were no community organizations at that point and no community voice at the table. We named ourselves to separate and organize people in our community around the issue, and we quickly grew to over 22,000 followers. We didn’t think this issue would need us involved for this long.

What gives you hope for solving this problem?

Dawn – The people that Just Moms STL works with gives me hope. We have seen people face tremendous odds and overcome them. Small groups of people can make such a difference. Once you understand this, you can go into smaller communities and make change without a lot of manpower. Communities learn from each other and build each other up. Many become accidental activists. 

What do you think has been the biggest triumph to come out of Just Moms?

Karen – The things that the affected communities knew to be true were acknowledged by agencies. Change has been made. The EPA has decided to remove the waste. When they remove the waste, it will go somewhere else, and we will make sure it won’t hurt other people. We have been able to assist other communities and help the EPA with how to communicate risk to the public. We are succeeding!