- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

BRIDGETON, Mo. (AP) - The demonstrators hoist signs, march and chant near a landfill in suburban St. Louis. Later, many of them - nuns with the Franciscan Sisters of Mary - return to their retirement center.

Twice a month for more than a year, the nuns have gathered at an empty lot in Bridgeton for what they call prayer vigils, but would call protests, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (http://bit.ly/1AVUcZc ) reported.

The nuns are calling attention to the West Lake Landfill and adjacent Bridgeton Landfill, where a smoldering underground fire has raised environmental concerns because it’s near nuclear waste illegally buried 40 years ago. The Environmental Protection Agency is still deciding what to do with the waste.

The Franciscan Sisters of Mary have an environmental focus. Over the past two years, the nuns have invested more than $6 million in companies on the cutting edge of sustainability, and they plan to invest another $4 million. At the same time, the religious sisters have divested from investments in companies that rely on fossil fuels.

“I don’t have children, but I think about those who do,” said Sister Jeanne Derer, 72, a 54-year member who has been at the forefront of their environmental efforts. “If you have a sense of what’s happening around us, how concerned people must be not just for this generation but for their children and their grandchildren.”

The Franciscan Sisters of Mary had about 500 nuns in the 1960s, but are down to about 80 nationwide. They helped establish hospitals in the St. Louis region, a collection of facilities now known as now known as SSM Health, but no longer have a direct role or a paycheck.

Three years ago, they closed the convent in Richmond Heights and most now live in a retirement community less than two miles from the landfills.

Richard Callow, spokesman for landfill owner Republic Services, said, “Although the Sisters are not scientists or regulators, we sincerely appreciate their concern and prayers.”

Derer hopes the sisters’ dedication - including holding signs with slogans such as “Caution Ahead: 47,000 tons of radionuclide waste” - is rewarded.

“I think a lot of people have just gotten worn down,” she said. “The delays seem interminable, and that’s very discouraging.”

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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