Harvey Ferdman: Fighting for public safety in north county

Harvey Ferdman has spent almost four years warning of the dangers lurking in the Bridgeton and West Lake landfills and pushing for permanent solutions.  Behind him is part of the Bridgeton Landfill South Quarry off Old St. Charles Road. Photo: Barry Gilbert


Harvey Ferdman of Chesterfield is surprisingly calm for a man dealing with officialdom’s glacial response to what everyone agrees is a serious, perhaps imminent threat: a fire under a landfill that is adjacent to a radioactive waste site. 

He sighs; he shakes his head; he laughs a disbelieving, frustrated laugh — but he doesn’t get angry, at least not in public. And it’s that demeanor, in tandem with his acquired expertise, that has made him a go-to expert on the vexing issue of what to do about the Bridgeton and West Lake landfills.

Ferdman, 63, a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth, is one of this year’s Jewish Light Unsung Heroes, nominated for his tireless volunteer work informing the public about the health threats buried in the ground in Bridgeton and pushing for remediation. 

The work is not without its physical challenges for Ferdman. 

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“I’m actually medically retired,” he says. “I had a run-in with (colon) cancer going on 11 years ago now, and I survived the cancer. But the treatments left me with a lot of damage.” He laughs quietly. “But I’m alive, so that’s good.”

If an even temperament and respect for the truth are job requirements for the role Ferdman plays, he is overqualified. 

“The man couldn’t be any nicer of a human being,” says McGraw Milhaven, KTRS (AM 550) radio’s morning drive-time talk host, who draws often on Ferdman’s expertise. “He’s a very unassuming man. He’s just very genuine, and he just wants the facts out. 

Milhaven credits Ferdman for publicizing the issue, adding: “Who gives those moms (activist neighbors of the landfill) a voice? Who alerted the media to all of this? … Not only has he brought attention to this, but he’s done it in a way in which we can understand it and we can try to do something about it.”

A Rhode Island native who moved here to attend St. Louis University, Ferdman had intended to have a career in physics but ended up in computers. He wasn’t looking to become an expert on St. Louis’ radioactive waste site, a legacy of the Manhattan Project and America’s push to be first with an atomic bomb. 

“Like many people in the St. Louis area, I was totally unaware that St. Louis played a key role in the development of the bombs that were dumped on Japan,” Ferdman says. 

Ferdman’s landfill activism dates back only 3½ years. That was when state Rep. Bill Otto, D-Maryland Heights, for whom he serves as campaign chairman, asked Ferdman to be his liaison with community groups concerned about the landfills. 

“Because Harvey is meticulous as hell, very studious, he’s able to look at information in a manner that I think other people don’t,” said Otto, whose involvement with the landfills goes back to his time on the Bridgeton City Council in the 1980 and ’90s. 

“Harvey is the perfect guy,” Otto says. “I don’t care if you want to dig a ditch in your backyard. If you’ve got tech questions, you ask Harvey.”

Otto asked Ferdman to connect with Just Moms STL, of which Dawn Chapman is a co-founder. Chapman has three young children and lives less than two miles south of the landfill. The Moms have been pushing for a permanent solution to the problem and for a buyout of residents within a mile of the landfill. 

“People thought we were crazy,” Chapman says. “But Bill Otto didn’t think we were crazy, and he’s like, I don’t understand this, but I know this guy, Harvey.”

Ferdman needed to get up to speed on this hugely complicated issue and quickly. How did he do it? 

“I read a lot,” he laughs.

Actually, he and Chapman read a lot. They studied thousand of documents going back decades and reached out to local, state and federal officials. Ferdman found documents nobody had seen before, and appeared before neighborhood groups, media programs and before political bodies.

Chapman says an element of Ferdman’s effectiveness is his moral authority. 

“He understands,” she says. “He’s been through cancer, he knows what’s at stake here, and he knows what it’s like to wake up one day and find yourself in a situation that you never dreamed you’d be in, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re in it, and you have to fight with everything you have.”

Ferdman says the activists were able to get the state to conduct health studies looking for cancer clusters. A preliminary study around the area of the landfill found a 350 percent increase in childhood brain cancers — “where they expected to find two, they found seven,” he explains.”

Chapman says: “This isn’t about science, this isn’t about picocuries and radioactivity. This is about humans and what it’s doing to them living next to this site. (Harvey has) been able to bring that out and say, ‘Listen, I am a cancer survivor, and I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. Even if one person gets cancer from this, it’s too much.’ And they really do stop and pay attention because they understand that it has become very personal with him.”

The thrust of Ferdman and Chapman’s work currently is trying to get jurisdiction transferred from the EPA, which has been studying the issue since 2006, to the Army Corps of Engineers. A bipartisan effort led by Missouri’s U.S. senators, Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt, has cleared the Senate but is stalled in the House.

Asked how this work has affected him, Ferdman says: 

“It sure has reinforced what anthropologist Margaret Mead said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed  citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’ It’s reinforced that. If people decide that they care about something they really can have an effect on it. Now the bureaucracy, in this case, is moving very slowly, but national-level advocacy groups … are stunned that we’ve taken it this far and in that short a period of time.”

Adds Chapman, referring to Ferdman: 

“When we heard he was being honored … I can’t think of anybody else. Because he truly is an unsung hero. I don’t even think he realizes the impact. My kids are 10, 8 and 6. My kids are going to grow up knowing him and knowing what he did to try and keep them safe.”

Harvey Ferdman

Age: 63

Family: Married to Marti Ferdman, two adult 

daughters, one grandchild.

Home: Chesterfield

Occupation: Volunteer activist and adviser to state Rep. Bill Otto 

Fun Fact: Ferdman, a colon cancer survivor, practices the Chinese healing art of Qigong — in fact, he is a certified instructor of the “moving meditation” method.