Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

St. Louis anxious about EPA plan for barrier between fire, toxic waste

Statement on barrier between underground fire and radioactive waste comes after study shows contamination is spreading

Those living near a landfill complex in suburban St. Louis where an underground fire is burning near Cold War-era nuclear weapons waste say they remain afraid and frustrated despite a government pledge to build a barrier between the two.

In the past, tests have found radioactive materials in the complex that were previously unknown to regulators, raising fears that the extent of the contamination — in terms of severity and location — remains unclear. Maintaining that its data is sound, the EPA, which has regulatory oversight over the West Lake Landfill, announced on Dec. 31 that it is moving forward with a plan to build an isolation barrier between the fire and known waste, but many residents and environmentalists are worried that is too little too late.

“I think this was an announcement about an announcement,” said Dawn Chapman, who lives near the site and is one of the most vocal residents calling for a “safe and permanent solution” to the landfill’s radioactive contamination. “There’s no details in it.”

A largely unknown amount of radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project was illegally dumped at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton in 1973. In 2010, an underground fire was detected in the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill. Reports ordered by Missouri’s Attorney General — who has sued the landfills’ owner over the state of the complex — suggest that the fire could reach the known radioactive waste in a matter of months.

Echoing Chapman’s concerns, Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment said any barrier would be “a joke” so long as the extent of the radioactive contamination at the site remains unknown.

The EPA, however, is confident in the characterization of the site, according to EPA Region 7 spokesperson Chris Whitley. The agency oversaw additional testing to characterize the extent of the contamination in 2015, but the results are not being released to the public at this time.

“We believe that we have the scientific data necessary at this time to make a responsible decision in terms of the placement and construction of an isolation barrier,” Whitley said.

“The only way to guarantee the radioactive content will never come in contact with the subsurface fire in the future is to remove the radioactive material,” Smith said. “We’ve watched the EPA work on the barrier plan now for almost two years, whereas they could have been planning for the removal of the radioactive waste.”

“Finding a solution to mitigate the potential impacts of a subsurface smoldering event is a top priority for the community, and a top priority for the EPA,” EPA Region 7 Administrator Mark Hague said in a press release.

In response to the announcement, Russ Knocke, a spokesperson for Arizona-based Republic Services, which owns the landfill complex, offered a simple reply to Al Jazeera: “Ready.” The company will partner with EPA to build the barrier. No specific plans, location, or timetable regarding the barrier are being released at this time. The agency made a similar announcement in 2013.

Through its lobbying group — The Coalition to Keep Us Safe — Republic Services has long advocated that the radioactive materials be contained at the West Lake Landfill, not unearthed and transported to modern storage facilities in other parts of the country. The organization, saying that unearthing and transporting the waste through Missouri would be costly and pose a risk to public health, mobilizes legislators and residents from other parts of the state to push for containment in St. Louis.

However, as part of its own cleanup program, the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over most of the other contaminated sites in St. Louis, has already unearthed and transported more than a million cubic yards of materials contaminated with radioactive waste out of the area and through Missouri without incident. Many residents living in north St. Louis County want to see the same done with the radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill.

“It’s looking more and more like removal is the only way to guarantee [a safe and permanent solution,]” Chapman said. “Life’s over for [people] in this community. They can’t [safely] live where they are. They can’t enjoy it’

EPA’s announcement regarding the barrier came just days after a new study was released, showing that radioactive materials are migrating from the landfill into the surrounding area.

The peer-reviewed study — published in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity last week — analyzed nearly 300 soil and dust samples collected from drainage ditches, former storage sites, and residential properties around north St. Louis County. Researchers found that many of the samples contained levels of a radioactive form of lead higher than the Department of Energy soil quality guidelines established at the Fernald, Ohio, uranium-processing plant.

This type of radioactive lead forms decaying uranium or radon particles. Long-term exposure to low level radiation has been linked to cancer, infertility, and autoimmune diseases.

“Because of the population density of this area, this is a huge concern,” said Lucas Hixson, one of the study’s co-authors. Nearly three million people live in the greater St. Louis metropolitan area.

As the debate surrounding West Lake Landfill rages, the cleanup of other contaminated sites throughout the area is chugging along. Earlier in December, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it had discovered an additional seven contaminated sites along Coldwater Creek in St. Louis County, including on residential properties, bringing the total number of sites found by the Corps so far in that creek’s floodplain to 11.

Coldwater Creek is known to have been contaminated by a large nuclear weapons waste storage site near St. Louis’ airport and has routinely flooded residential and commercial properties over the past seven decades. The Corps has been cleaning up sites contaminated by St. Louis’ Manhattan Project operations for the past 17 years, but had only begun testing the creek’s floodplain for radioactive contamination earlier in 2015.

Samples taken near Coldwater Creek were among those analyzed in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity study.

“More disturbingly, indoor dusts in homes adjacent to Coldwater Creek have potentially higher levels of uranium and thorium than those found in sediments at known disposal sites,” the authors wrote in the study.

“I am not surprised,” said Angela Helbling, who grew up near Cold Water Creek. Years ago, she developed a rare salivary gland tumor. Her mother passed away at 39 due to a brain tumor.

The Center for Disease Control is now investigating a potential cancer cluster in north St. Louis County. Data from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has shown statistically significant higher rates of cancer and other diseases in zip codes adjacent to known contaminated sites in St. Louis County, including the West Lake Landfill.

The study Hixson co-authored linked the presence of the radioactive lead to radon gas coming from the West Lake Landfill. There is no lining separating the radioactive waste and contaminated soils from the groundwater or air, and all that separates the landfill from a public road is a chain-linked fence.

“What we found is that the mere fact that these materials are present in the environment is going to lead to offsite contamination by way of the radioactive gases,” Hixson said. “And that spreads farther and faster than the offsite particle transport, and it’s in such volume that offsite properties are showing levels … beyond cleanup levels.”

Knocke declined to comment on the study, deferring the question to the EPA.

EPA Region 7 spokesperson Angela Brees said that the agency received the new study and is currently reviewing it. In a statement emailed to Al Jazeera in May, an EPA representative wrote: “There is no credible scientific data indicating off-site human exposure to radiological contaminants from the West Lake Landfill.”

These latest developments also came as St. Louis was overwhelmed with historic rainfall and floods. Coldwater Creek again spilled into public parks and basements, and residents filmed streams of rainwater pouring off the West Lake Landfill into a drainage ditch along a public road.  

Officials maintain that Coldwater Creek’s waters are not an immediate danger to residents. Runoff from the Westlake Landfill is being tested by the state for radioactive contamination.

“They’re not cleaning up North [St. Louis] County like they should,” Chapman said. “And there’s nobody championing that fight right now.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter