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EPA skips West Lake meeting after online threats

A worker does maintenance on a wastewater pump at the Bridgeton Landfill on Aug. 28.
Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio
A worker does maintenance on a wastewater pump at the Bridgeton Landfill. The West Lake Landfill lies adjacent.

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency did not attend a public meeting to share updates on the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton late Monday after someone made threatening comments in a Facebook group for local advocates.

“We thought this was not an acceptable risk for our group, nor the community,” said EPA Region 7 spokesperson Ben Washburn, as he and his coworkers drove back to Kansas City on Tuesday morning.

Representatives from EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry had gathered in St. Louis to go over new updates on cleanup at the landfill before they were to speak at a regular meeting of hundreds of community members.

Buried in the landfill is radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb during World War II. Tensions have been high between nearby residents the EPA's regional division, which is overseeing the cleanup.

EPA officials expected a contentious meeting. An article published Sunday on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had sparked a heated discussion on the West Lake Landfill Facebook groupused by residents and advocates to organize efforts, share updates and air concerns. Before they went to the public meeting, the officials decided to check Facebook to see what questions were being asked, Washburn said.

That’s when they saw the threats — all from one account.

“One of the posts said that the EPA better come packing heat, and that we should remember Skidmore, Missouri — which was a reference to an unsolved murder case in the early 80’s, where the town bully was murdered in front of a bunch of witnesses and they all went silent," Washburn said. “It also referenced, ‘This is how Missouri justice is done.’”

Another post read “Let’s bury these murderers and put them in the ground." The threats have been reported to local authorities, Washburn said.

Dawn Chapman, an administrator of the Facebook group and a founder of the advocacy group Just Moms STL, quickly posted a note on the group's page warning that anyone who made threatening remarks would be blocked. Chapman said the threats came from an account she recognized, but she did not know the person.

“Nobody’d ever met him before," Chapman said. "He’d never come to any meetings, nobody ever even knew who he was. So we don’t even know that he was a real person, or that he was even from here."

Facebook may be a good place to share information, she said, but the often uninhibited nature of social media posts can make people think they have a platform to act inappropriately without fear of repercussions.

“This is why it’s important for people to show up and get together and talk about things," she said. "That’s where people can become part of the solution."

The meeting of the Community Action Group, or CAG, went as planned, but without the input of federal officials. Advocates said the tone of the meeting was calmer than usual, almost like a “group therapy session.”

EPA spokesperson Washburn said he hopes to be back in St. Louis soon.

“We remain committed to the CAG process and being there in person,” Washburn said. “We hope this is an isolated incident, and that we’ll be able to return to the CAG and participate in this process.”

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB