Imagine waking up to find men in hazmat suits on rooftops and station wagons in your neighborhood, spraying an unknown chemical into your front yard. While this sounds like the plot of a horror movie, it’s the very real recollection of former residents of a St. Louis housing complex. These residents are seeking reparative compensation after reports found that the U.S. government secretly tested a potentially carcinogenic chemical in their community over 60 years ago.
An ongoing investigation by The Missouri Independent, The Associated Press and independent media outlet MuckRock has uncovered substantial evidence indicating that during the rush to create the atomic bomb, the government and private companies covertly tested and dumped nuclear waste in neighborhoods of St. Louis near a Uranium processing plant.
Hundreds of pages of internal memos recently analyzed by the AP revealed “inspection reports and other items dating to the early 1950s, [that] found nonchalance and indifference to the risks of materials used in the development of nuclear weapons during and after World War II.” A book published in 2017 found evidence that pregnant women and school-age children were also subject to secret radiation testing during this time.
One affected area was a predominantly Black public housing complex called Pruitt-Igoe Housing. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, when the Army was conducting various secret tests related to the creation of the atomic bomb, residents thought the zinc cadmium sulfide sprayed into their community was mist or smoke from chimneys.
Now, former Pruitt-Igoe residents are now mobilizing with members of other disenfranchised communities impacted by radiation testing during the Cold War who have not received support from the government.
Zinc cadmium sulfide was also reportedly tested in at least three dozen other communities throughout St. Louis, which the army referenced as “densely populated slums,” shedding light on the socioeconomic makeup of areas selected for testing. We can all agree that this phrasing reflects the age-old American tradition of deeming Black lives disposable.
The residents, specifically, are demanding the government expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, a reparative justice measure aimed at compensating those exposed to radiation during the creation of the atomic bomb. The Act is meant to facilitate health insurance and financial resources to individuals who develop certain illnesses and cancers who lived and worked downwind of testing sites. These regions include parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, South Dakota, Washington, Utah, Idaho, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas. Areas such as St. Louis, where residents were also exposed to radiation and other chemicals, are not included.
What’s happening in St. Louis right now is particularly fraught because of the current conversation around both climate justice and reparations for Black Americans. Denying people of resources they are owed because of a traumatizing and dangerous event at the helm of the government should be deemed criminal. Injustices such as the contamination of Pruitt-Igoe prove that Black Americans historically bear the brunt of the U.S.’s violence toward humans and the environment and deserve reprieve.
The fact that what happened in St. Louis slid under the radar for so long is evidence that not enough is done to track how Black and Brown communities experience environmental racism. The truth is, the longer it takes to repair our most vulnerable communities, the further we stray from a healthier future for everyone.