St. Louis burning: A ticking time bomb beneath the city?

by @RyanSchuessler1 May 1, 2015 5:00AM ET

Nobody is really sure what is buried at the West Lake Landfill – or where

Dawn Chapman recounts learning of her friend and neighbor's daughter being diagnosed with appendix cancer.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

This is part three of a three-part series investigating the effects of radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project on St. Louis and its suburbs. Part one examined the health problems impacting those who lived near Coldwater Creek. Part two looks at residents' fears that a spate of infant deaths might be linked to toxic waste.

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. — If it were any other morning after six inches of overnight snow in St. Louis, Dawn Chapman probably would have been sledding with her three kids.

But one phone call from a distressed neighbor at 6 a.m. changed that. A 21-year-old who lives nearby — their friend’s daughter — got the biopsy results from her ruptured appendix. The tests confirmed everyone’s fears: appendix cancer.

Chapman lives near the West Lake Landfill, a site located in the heart of metropolitan St. Louis that increasingly appears to have a much more ominous past than many thought. Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services data from 2014 has also shown increased rates of rare cancers near the site.

In 1973, radioactive waste a private company had bought from the government was illegally dumped at the landfill. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended the waste be removed in 1988, but the company that now owns the land has — with EPA approval — opted for containment as opposed to removal, maintaining that the waste there is low-level when it comes to radioactivity, and not a threat to public health.

But it may not be that simple. Government documents unearthed by residents suggest that the extent of the contamination may be far worse — perhaps at an unprecedented level, some experts say. Following a largely broken or incomplete paper trail, residents and activists have found evidence that there may be soil laced with uranium, thorium and radium buried there.  

And there is another problem: the fire. It smolders underneath an adjacent landfill, burning at some 300 degrees and slowly moving toward where the waste is thought to be.

Nobody is quite sure what will happen if the two meet, but locals and the county are preparing for the worst: a nuclear emergency in the middle of St. Louis.

Twice a month, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary hold a vigil near an abandoned gas station to call attention to the possible dangers posed by the West Lake Landfill.
Chapman is comforted by one of the Franciscan sisters, Jeanne Derer, at a vigil in March.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

The truth is that nobody is really sure what is buried at the West Lake Landfill, or where — and that’s the problem. The historical record regarding the site is broken, inconsistent, and largely based on hearsay. What is known for certain is that the radioactive waste was disposed of illegally. The private company that bought much of the government’s waste in St. Louis violated its license in 1973 by dumping it there.

Arizona-based Republic Services, which now owns the site through a subsidiary company, maintains that the waste is mostly 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate (which the company calls a low-level radioactive material) mixed with tens-of-thousands of tons of soil, then dumped at the landfill. What has come into question is what was in the tens-of-thousands of tons of soil, sometimes referred to as “clean fill” in government documents.

Documents obtained from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Nuclear Regulatory Commission show that the “clean fill” may have also been contaminated, and researchers have concluded that there has never been an accurate analysis of what exactly was dumped at the West Lake Landfill.

The soil came from another radioactive waste storage site in St. Louis, currently being cleaned up by the Army Corps of Engineers. A 2013 report by a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies found that the “clean fill” dumped at West Lake was composed of 12-18 inches of topsoil scraped from this other site.

The remaining soil at that storage site — the soil left behind after the “clean fill” was removed and dumped at West Lake — was found to be highly contaminated with thorium and uranium. If what was left behind was highly contaminated, residents and activists ask, what was in the soil moved off the top — the “clean fill?”

“You can only imagine what was in that top 15 to 18 inches,” said Lucas Hixson, a Chicago-based nuclear researcher who has been doing research around West Lake for three years. “There’s never been an accurate characterization of [contamination at] the landfill.”

Hixson was part of a team that analyzed archived Nuclear Regulatory Commission data from samples taken at the West Lake Landfill in the 1980s. Their analysis of the data found dangerous levels of thorium, uranium, and radium at the landfill, which, due to the nature of radioactive decay, will only become more radioactive over time. Its radioactivity has already increased four-fold since it was dumped there, according to Hixson.

“None of the data that has been released is indicative of the 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate,” Hixson said.

When asked about the potential misidentification of radioactive materials at the landfill, Republic Services spokesperson Russ Knocke referred questions to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Since that time [of initial characterization,] analysis of the additional data collected has demonstrated the need for further characterization of the radiologically impacted material,” EPA District Seven spokesman Benjamin Washburn said in an emailed statement to Al Jazeera. “In response, EPA has directed the responsible parties to perform an additional round of site characterization to identify locations of [radiologically impacted material]. EPA is overseeing this additional work.”

Locals aren’t satisfied with that answers they’re getting, and are increasingly angered by what they see as a lack of accountability and action.

“Where are the responsible parties?” Chapman said, banging her hand on her coffee table. She lives less than two miles from the site. “Where is the guy who authorized the waste to be dumped at West Lake? I want to know where he is.”

Did the DOE avoid responsibility?

Chapman wears a t-shirt calling attention to the potential hazards at the West Lake landfill.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

As part of its initial report on West Lake, the EPA determined that the Department of Energy was one of the parties responsible for the contamination, since one of its predecessor organizations — the Atomic Energy Commission — had produced and sold the waste to the company that dumped it. But when pushed to incorporate the landfill into the DOE’s cleanup program — the Former Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) — officials resisted, according to documents residents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

In files dated to 1992, the DOE pushed back after an unnamed Missouri official suggested that the site be incorporated into the department’s cleanup program. The DOE official claimed that because the government’s radioactive waste had been sold to a private company for its commercial value before it was dumped at the landfill, the department retained no legal responsibility over the contamination of West Lake.

West Lake Landfill was never incorporated into the DOE’s program — now under the operations of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — and it remains under the jurisdictions of the EPA’s Superfund program, having been added to the National Priority List in 1989.

“It was an arbitrary judgment,” said Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “Not only are we concerned about the overall Superfund program and that concern as it relates to the West Lake landfill, but we’re also dissatisfied with how the EPA’s handling of West Lake has gone over the past couple decades.”

The documents also suggest that the DOE knew of the severity of the site’s contamination.

In one 1992 file, an official from the DOE’s Office of Environmental Restoration wrote, “the West Lake Landfill is likely to have significant contamination from a wide range of sources and that it is not in the best interest of DOE to be the deep pocket for cleanup of sites at which it has no legal responsibility or authority,” then suggested that the EPA seek funding from the owners between whom the property had passed since contamination.

In a letter to a St. Louis environmental activist dated 1995, that same official wrote, “budgetary issues have never played any role in the designation of [FUSRAP] sites, nor have I ever heard anyone suggest that budgetary issues should be a factor in the designation of sites.”

But locals aren’t buying it, citing the first letter, and many of them want the West Lake Landfill to be transferred to the Army Corps by way of the FUSRAP program, saying the EPA is too bogged down by bureaucracy and politics to effectively monitor the site. It would take an act of Congress to transfer the site to FUSRAP.

Chapman at the Bridgeton landfill.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

Neighborhood Exposure?

The EPA and Republic Services have also maintained that the contamination has not spread beyond the landfill, but evidence is beginning to emerge that may contradict that claim.

Missouri Department of Natural Resources reports from the 1980s detailed that the waste was left on the landfill’s surface, exposed by erosion, or shallowly buried. The landfill has no lining between it and the groundwater, nor is the top covered. The landfill is in the floodplain of the Missouri River, and several tornadoes have come very close to the site in recent years.

All that separates the landfill from the public street is a chain-linked fence marked with signs. Some residents sarcastically call it the “magical fence” that is meant to keep them safe.

“The chain-link fence is not going to stop debris or dust from leaving that site,” Hixson said. “That’s something that needs to be investigated. You’re never going to know what’s out there until you look.”

Not satisfied with the response they were getting from the EPA, community members commissioned their own analysis of samples taken from a baseball field — the one their kids’ use — near the landfill in 2014. The Massachusetts lab contracted to analyze the soil samples found elevated levels of a radioactive form of lead, which can form from decaying radon or uranium particles. The EPA, which conducted follow-up testing, said nothing was out of the ordinary.

Inhaling radon particles is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.

Sitting on her couch in Bridgeton, about two miles from the landfill, Meagan Beckermann pointed in the direction of her neighbors’ houses. “Her husband died of lung cancer. Her’s died of some kind of cancer, kidney I think. And he just died of lung cancer right next to us.”

Meagan Beckerman talks with children of Bridgeton, Missouri residents before a meeting to raise awareness of the potential dangers of the site.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

In 2013, Bob Criss, a geochemist at Washington University in St. Louis, determined that groundwater in St. Louis County had come into contact with radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill.

“All available data show that radionuclides are actively migrating in groundwater, and that off-site groundwater investigations are absolutely necessary,” Criss wrote in his report.

“What frustrates me about these sites is the attitude that nothing ever leaves these sites,” Criss told Al Jazeera. “The persistent denial that these contaminants don’t migrate is wrong.”

The zip codes near West Lake were part of the 2014 Missouri Department of Health study that found statistically significant higher rates of cancer in North County. Specifically, there was a higher rate of childhood brain cancer in the two zip codes near the landfill. Statistically, there should have only been two or three cases. The study found seven.

The St. Louis County Department of Health, which has become increasingly vocal about the threat of the waste, has hired three epidemiologists earlier this year to do an in-depth study into health problems in the region.

It is a legitimate concern,” said Faisal Khan, director of the St. Louis County Department of Health. “Both from the environmental health perspective and the community’s perspective.”

Also living less than a mile from the landfill are the Franciscan Sisters of Mary — nuns who moved to the area in the mid-2000s and hold a protest and prayer vigil near the landfill twice a month.

“Our belief is that our God wants a helpful, wholesome life for all,” Jeanne Derer said after a vigil in early March. “That possibility is severely compromised by the presence of radioactive waste in that landfill. So we take our stand, and we’re in it for the long haul.”

The Bridgeton Landfill.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

'Shelter in Place'

Since 2010, an underground smoldering fire has been burning in Republic Service’s adjacent Bridgeton Landfill, approximately 1,000 feet away from the known radioactive waste at West Lake. The state and its consultants believe the fire is moving towards the waste — Republic Services and its consultants say it is not.

One thing is for certain: around 2012, residents who lived near the landfill started noticing a potent odor, likely the product of the fire burning through the landfill.

“We’ve contained the gases that are coming off the landfill,” said James Getting, Republic Service’s site engineer for the Bridgeton Landfill, who spoke to reporters after responding to an odor report in March. “That’s an every day job. We collect those gases, they’re taken over to the flares and they’re incinerated in accordance to the permits that we have.”

However, in March, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources notified Republic Services that it had violated state law regarding the management of the Bridgeton Landfill, writing that “analysis continued to show that emissions of [sulfur dioxide] exceeded levels as considered in the landfill’s permits.” Later that month, the department, in another letter, said that sulfur dioxide emissions exceeded the annual 250 tons allowed under Republic Service’s permits.

Short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide, according to the EPA, is linked to respiratory illness, bronchoconstriction and asthma.

“Like any manufacturing facility — or the bakery down the road — there’s an inherent odor sometimes in the process,” Getting said when asked about the source of the odor. “A piece of equipment goes down, or something like that, and we respond to that immediately.”

Chapman holds her nose at the smell at the Bridgeton landfill in March.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

But for residents, collecting most of the gas isn’t enough, especially when tests have shown the gases contain toxic chemicals and carcinogens. The Missouri Attorney General has brought a lawsuit against Republic Services for the odor.

“It is beyond anything you have smelled,” said Robbin Dailey, who lives less than half a mile from the landfill, comparing the odor to nail polish.

Dailey recalls her and her husband running around at 3 or 4 a.m., turning off their fans and shutting windows when the smell came back. She has a picture of her husband putting up Christmas lights while wearing a gas mask.

After spikes in odor reports to the state or Republic Services, the company frequently releases statements attributing the odor to other sources. The smell, however, is stronger closer to the landfill. Residents who live nearby said it was the same odor as those that are confirmed to have come from the Bridgeton Landfill.

Beckermann says she can’t go 30 seconds without clearing her throat. She and her family moved to the area in 2010, and never had health problems before. Within a year of moving into their home, Beckermann developed asthma for the first time in her life. She and her two sons now have necrosis of their noses, reoccurring bronchitis and laryngitis, and her youngest son has alopecia — an autoimmune disease that causes patients to lose all their hair.

She suspects the fumes are to blame.

“It’s constantly on my mind,” Beckermann said of the landfill. “It’s just always there. I don’t know what to do.”

Meagan Beckerman's son Trevor has alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes patients to lose all or part of their hair. Beckerman believes that the disease was caused by their living close to the area where the radioactive waste has been disposed.
Alexey Furman for Al Jazeera America

Several parents in the area reported that their children suffer from bloody noses during and after bouts of the odor, with some even taken to the hospital because the bleeding is so intense.

The EPA also reportedly found radioactive waste beyond where it was previously believed to have been located in the landfill — closer to the fire — suggesting that the agencies monitoring the West Lake Landfill, in addition to not knowing the type or extent of the contamination, may not know what areas are contaminated.

“They need to find a way to not let that fire hit that waste,” said Chapman, who has three young children and lives about a mile from the landfill. “That needs to be the priority.”

Earlier this year, the Pattonville Fire District said it discovered heat signatures closer to the known radioactive waste than previously thought, raising fears that the fire is getting closer to the waste. The Fire District has maintained vocal concern that the smoldering fire is moving closer to the known radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill.                                              

“Unfortunately, that was totally inaccurate,” Getting said, explaining that the heat signature was not anywhere near the fenced-in area that contains radioactive waste.

In a statement after it’s release, Republic Services called the video of the heat signatures “another false alarm.”

Indeed, residents are alarmed — and so are the county and state governments. The Local Emergency Planning Committee of St. Louis County has released a pamphlet entitled “Shelter in Place: A Guide to Keep you Safe During a Dangerous Chemical Emergency.” They are planning to distribute a version to children at area schools.

While it does not mention the situation at the Bridgeton Landfill specifically, the pamphlet advises residents on what to do in the event of a “an accidental release of dangerous chemicals from a nearby business,” suggesting that residents “shelter in place” — bring pets inside, close and lock all doors and windows, close all air vents and fireplace dampers, and turn of air conditioning or heating systems, among other measures.

“I’m not sheltering in place,” Dailey said, hypothetically discussing what she would do if she got that order as a result of a hazard from the landfills.

“Everybody says they’re not sheltering in place,” Beckermann added.

But most of all, it’s the uncertainty of what is to come that scares residents the most. What happens if the fire reaches the waste? What could be released into the air? Which way will the wind blow that day? Different agencies are giving residents different answers, none of which have eased their fears.

Within a few miles of the landfill are thousands of residents, an industrial area, schools and a hospital. In 2013, Peter Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for a Competitive Waste Industry, likened the potential release of radioactive particles into St. Louis’ air as a “dirty bomb” that could impact a 10-mile radius of the landfill. Residential areas begin less than half a mile from the site. Nearly 3 million people live in the greater St. Louis metropolitan area.

“I couldn’t believe that in St. Louis, they let nuclear weapons waste just sit out on the ground, for 40 years,” Chapman said. “If I get the warning, I’m gone.”

In line with what many residents have said about when they first moved to the area, Chapman added: “I didn’t even know I lived next to a landfill.”