When human rights hit home.

A landfill threatens your family, your home and life. How your human rights can be denied with inaction.

by Chuck Ramsay

How often have you shrugged your shoulders, raised your eyebrows when hearing or seeing a news report about a group of people complaining that their basic human rights have been denied to them? I have. Probably because my empathy level was low, or because I didn’t realize that their concerns were that important. What brings these things home is when something happens to you that takes away your own human rights.

Case in point is the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo. The good people in that suburban community are currently (and for quite a while now) being threatened with health hazards, and the possibility of having to evacuate their homes because the corporate interests and their local and state governments are dragging their feet in resolving a big problem. The massive landfill there harbors an underground fire that has been burning for years. And it is growing and moving toward an area that is the storage site for nuclear waste. When the fire meets that storage, radioactive particles can be released that would cause health hazards for these residents, but also probably render their homes worthless as they abandon them.

Before this new threat, the massive landfill emitted a stench that could be smelled miles away in Maryland Heights. So its existence as a source of irritation has been known for years. But, our civic leaders were not sympathetic to citizen complaints.

Of course, this doesn’t have to be. But for years now the owners and managers of the landfill, aware of this potential hazard, have procrastinated. One can speculate that is because reigning in the fire would not only be a huge expense for them, but also because they were hoping for government to rush to their aid. Why local and state government hasn’t pushed to have this resolved yet is a mystery. Again, speculation could be that somebody has been paid off to ignore the situation, or maybe they just don’t care. Their homes are safe and sound. Why should they worry about one little municipality where they do not live?

But, as Americans we expect “certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as the Declaration of Independence states and our U. S. Constitution guarantees. Having a large corporations and other business interests operate in any manner they deem appropriate, but harms one’s health and could steal away what amounts to most family’s single largest investment, their home and shelter, is wrong. We have laws against it. Yet, so often, special interests lobby their way to sway government officials (even those we elect) to act in their best interest instead of the  best interest of the general public.

During this election cycle, we will hear a lot of politicians declare that businesses are over-regulated and how that is bad for you and me because it will reduce employment and raise prices and all other ills. Of course, history has shown that this is largely untrue. It is introducing fear into the argument for businesses behaving responsibly and with the safety of consumers in mind. Regulations are created to protect people and businesses have shown over the years that they can still operate profitably while following the rules. Without regulations, our cars would not be as safe as they are today, the pharmaceuticals we take could provide more harm than help, industrial enterprises could be dumping poisons into our water supplies and the air we breathe, and so on. Think about it.

Then think about this: if that underground fire reaches the nuclear, radioactive storage area adjacent the homes in Bridgeton, and harmful fumes are released that could kill or sicken wildlife, plants and trees, and the people who live and work there, and you were one of those people, how would you feel? Would you feel that you had been denied your human rights to live without this fear and potential threat to your health from a business that obviously doesn’t care?

So, what can be done? As in all human rights issues, the fastest and best way to get government officials to act is through legal action and public pressure. Lawyers, I am told, are already at work to get corrective action from the courts. But, the wheels of justice turn slowly too often and these good people may not have that luxury. The other way is for the people of Bridgeton and allies from outside their area to organize and make their desires known to government officials – especially those who have been elected to serve them. This pressure, when reported in the media, can usually expedite action and put the business concerns in a position where they must take action to remedy the situation.

We know that today there is an official evacuation plan developed by St. Louis County. So we also know they are aware of the impending threat and danger to the populace.

I remember a small, sleepy town on the Meramec River just 17 miles west of St. Louis called Times Beach. It was a nice, little river town inhabited to a great extent by folks who had weekend clubhouses where they could fish, barbecue and relax on weekends. There were also some who lived there year round; at one time as many as two thousand people lived there.  In 1983 the entire town of Times Beach was evacuated because a company (one individual in this case) who was hired to spray oil on the dirt roads there to reduce the dust when vehicles drove on them sprayed oil tainted with dioxin on the roads. It was the largest civilian exposure to dioxin in the country's history. The contaminated roads posed a huge health hazard to the entire area.

In 1985, the State of Missouri officially disincorporated the city of Times Beach. Today it is a park of sorts. No one lives there. The once inhabitants were forced to seek new homes elsewhere and were uprooted unceremoniously. This could be the fate of those in Bridgeton.

But it doesn’t have to be if people unite and take on those responsible for this threat to their Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

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