Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

St. Louis landfill fire could reach radioactive waste in months

State-commissioned reports support residents’ fears about proximity of smoldering fire to Manhattan Project waste

ST. LOUIS — A fire smoldering underneath a landfill north of St. Louis since 2010 could reach radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project in as little as three months, according to a report released by Missouri’s attorney general.

Much of the uranium used to make the first nuclear weapons was processed in downtown St. Louis, and the waste was moved around the region for decades. In 1973 a private company that bought some of the waste from the U.S. government illegally dumped it at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Missouri, a northern suburb of St. Louis.

As reported in part three of Al Jazeera’s May series looking at the effects of the Manhattan Project on St. Louis and its suburbs, the extent of the contamination, in terms of severity and location, at the landfill remains largely unknown, but researchers have concluded that it is likely far worse than previously thought.

The underground fire was discovered in an adjacent landfill in 2010 and has continued to move toward the known radioactive waste, according to the state reports. The landfill’s owner, Arizona-based Republic Services, maintains that the fire is not spreading. A representative for the company told The Missouri Times that the state’s reports were scientifically inaccurate, overstated and irresponsible.

One of the reports released by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster concluded that the underground fire could reach the West Lake Landfill’s known radioactive waste in three to six months — the consequences of which remain largely unknown.

“I don’t understand why we’re just sitting back, as a city and as a nation, just letting this happen,” said Dawn Chapman, a resident who has been organizing to raise awareness about the situation.

More than 3 million people live in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

“Not only does the landfill emit a foul odor, it appears that it has poisoned its neighbors’ groundwater and vegetation,” Koster wrote in a statement released with the reports on Sept. 3. “The people of Missouri can’t afford to wait any longer — Republic needs to get this site cleaned up.”

He is taking Republic Services to court over the landfill, with the trial set to begin in March 2016, near the end of the state’s predicted three to six month window when the fire could reach the radioactive waste.

Nearby residents want to see the waste located, excavated and shipped out of the area before the smoldering fire hits it, while Republic Services and the Environmental Protection Agency have, so far, opted for containing the waste where it is.

“If you removed the radioactive waste from at least that portion of the landfill,” Chapman said, “it makes this site less complicated, and it also makes it so they can deal with this fire in an appropriate way. Everything is complicated with that radioactive waste. You take that off the site, and suddenly you just have a landfill fire.”

Calls to transfer the site from the EPA’s Superfund program to the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers have continued to grow. Under the formerly utilized sites remedial action program, the Corps is locating and cleaning up other areas of St. Louis contaminated by radioactive nuclear weapon waste from the Manhattan Project.

Over the past 17 years, the Corps has located, unearthed and shipped more than a million cubic yards of contaminated material out of St. Louis to modern storage facilities in Western states.

The Corps has been successful, but the EPA has “continued to fail,” said Robbin Dailey, who lives less than half a mile from the landfills. “And not only us, but as many people can see over the news, they are failing other communities, such as those along the Animas River” in Colorado, which EPA workers in August accidentally contaminated with 3 million gallons of mine wastewater laden with heavy metals.

In a statement emailed to Al Jazeera in May, a representative for the EPA wrote, “There is no credible scientific data indicating off-site human exposure to radiological contaminants from the West Lake Landfill” and “if off-site contamination of the groundwater exists, there is currently no documented evidence of exposure to that groundwater nor definitive confirmation of the radium source.”

There is no lining between the waste and the groundwater or any cover on the surface of the landfill’s contaminated areas, which are feet from an artery road and a quarter-mile from the nearest residential area.

The EPA dismissed results of a 2014 test at a neighborhood ballfield, commissioned by residents, which found a radioactive form of lead that can result from decaying uranium particles.

However, the new state reports, which will be used as expert testimony in the state’s lawsuit against Republic Services, found that trees on neighboring properties contain radioactive materials and that chemicals, including carcinogens, were found at elevated levels in groundwater beyond the perimeter of the complex and can be traced to the landfill’s leachate.

“We had pretty much assumed that, but this was confirmation,” Dailey said. “It made us feel more desperate than we have felt in the past five years. We felt more on our own. And even though the reports confirmed, we have heard nothing since the release of all that information. We have heard nothing from the attorney general or the governor.”

“It seems like business as usual,” she added.

“If trees and plants are absorbing it, then you know human beings have potential to have this in their bodies as well,” Chapman said. “I couldn’t help but picture my daughter and imagine it in her body, in her bones and in her lungs.”

Recent studies from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services have found that residential areas near several contaminated sites in northern St. Louis County have higher rates of cancers and autoimmune diseases. The areas adjacent to the West Lake Landfill turned up rates of a type of childhood brain cancer more than 300 percent higher than expected. In a normal population of that size, one would expect to see only two cases. The study observed seven.

“We’re out of time with this fire. We really are,” Chapman said. “[Nearby residents] feel like they’ve been absolutely abandoned.”

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