Paul Charp, a health physicist with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, faced a tense crowd of about 250 people at the West Lake/Bridgeton Landfill Community Advisory Group last night (Oct. 26).
Charp authored the report that the Environmental Protection Agency has been referencing recently to say that the West Lake Landfill – where radioactive waste has been illegally buried since 1973 – poses no health risks to the community.
“It has not migrated offsite,” said Mark Hague, the EPA Region 7’s acting administrator, at a press conference earlier in the day on Oct. 26. “The groundwater is not moving in a direction towards any residential areas.”
Charp had just begun his presentation when a woman shot up from her seat and asked where the data for the report came from. He said it came from EPA, other federal agencies and the state of Missouri – and it did not come from the landfill owner Republic Services. Another woman called out that two of the names listed in the reference section were subcontractors paid for by Republic Services.
“I didn’t know they were folks from Republic,” Charp said. “I stand corrected.”
He told the audience that he found some mistakes in the data. At that, a woman pointed out that much of the information was reported in 2000 – 15 years ago. He acknowledged that was true but said it doesn’t make much difference that it is old.
In the report, he said he recommended that the EPA sample offsite for contamination. EPA is responsible for monitoring West Lake Landfill because it is a Superfund site.
“We are the public health service,” he said. “We have no regulatory authority. We cannot tell the EPA, ‘You must sample.’”
And that’s where public pressure would come in, he said. He also seemed to tell the audience that his report should not be the end of the conversation.
“You guys know a lot more about what’s been going on here because you’ve been living it,” he said. “All I’m trying to say is what we have looked at, what we have noticed in the data. A lot of that information can be modified, massaged, treated and you can come up with different analysis.”
Dawn Chapman told Charp that he did his job by looking at the data that he was given. She said Charp gave the same recommendation that the community has been demanding – that the EPA test offsite.
“Here’s the issue,” she said. “You can’t 100 percent say that we are okay. If this is in pockets offsite, like it’s gotten offsite every other place in St. Louis, then this data doesn’t do anything to reassure people.”
Chapman was referring to the site on Latty Avenue, which was also a dumping ground for the 1940s waste from Mallinckrodt’s uranium production for atomic bombs – the same waste that’s buried in West Lake. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) is overseeing the clean-up of that site, and Chapman is among many who believe FUSRAP would be better fit to be in charge of West Lake, as well.
This summer, FUSRAP engineers found contamination in people’s backyards, away from the Latty Avenue site. A 2014 state report showed high rates of leukemia, breast, colon and other cancers in eight zip codes related to this site. The report also found high rates of brain cancers among children in the 63043 ZIP code, which is near the radioactive West Lake Landfill.
At the press conference, Hague said that there is a “broad body of evidence” that shows the contaminants at West Lake haven’t moved off site.
About a year and half ago, the EPA tested the Bridgeton Municipal Athletic Field using 58,000 data points and over 100 soil samples, he said, and found nothing out of the ordinary. They also flew a plane that took “signatures” for radioactive materials.
“What we saw was consistent with what we knew was on the site, where we knew contamination exists, and in other areas there were no contamination,” he said.
However, in water tests, radioactive nuclides were found in the groundwater, he said, “but what might be from the West Lake facility and what is naturally occurring might require some further investigation.”
Ed Smith, of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said in tests commissioned by the EPA, one well has been consistently shown to be impacted by radioactive material through the groundwater. “That’s significant because that particular well is not in the area that is confirmed to be contaminated with radioactive materials,” he said.
The number of wells that have been contaminated have also significantly increased, he said.
At the community meeting, Charp told the audience that the contaminated water on the site was moving northwest, away from residential areas.
“That’s not exactly comforting because our tap water – 80 percent comes from the Missouri River, which is northwest,” one resident said. “The water company is getting it from the northwest, how do we not know that it’s already contaminated?”
Charp said that the water companies are remove any radioactive particles, and they are required to tell the public what they remove. But Charp said EPA would be better fit to answer that question.
At that point the shouts for Hague to get on the microphone and answer questions had already been going on for about an hour. He finally took center stage at 8 p.m.
One of his first sentences was met with the crowd’s shouting response.
“There is a desperate need for more dialogue,” he said.
“No, no, no, we don’t any more words,” yelled Paul Berry III, a small business owner who grew up in Bridgeton. “We need action.”
Hague’s next message received some applause.
“We need to investigate the groundwater more thoroughly,” he said. “We are in the process of looking at that more carefully. It deserves more investigation.”
He couldn’t give a date on when they would start but promised to release that information soon.
Someone yelled out, “Put out the fire.”
He said he wanted to talk about the “subsurface smoldering event” at the Bridgeton Landfill as well. What people have referred to as an “underground fire” is a high-temperature chemical reaction about 1,000 feet from where the radioactive waste is buried, and it has been smoldering underground since December 2010. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) monitors the Bridgeton Landfill, where the fire is burning.
Hague said during the press conference that the fire was not moving “rapidly” towards the radioactive waste, but he could not say if it was moving at all. In 2013, MNDR said the smoldering event was moving towards the radioactive waste at a rate of 1 to 2 feet a day. The St. Louis American asked the department if the high-temperature chemical reaction is still moving, and a representative said that they could not answer because Attorney General Chris Koster is current suing Republic Services for negligence.
Hague said at the community meeting that they were working diligently to put in a break or barrier between the smoldering event and the radioactive waste.
“We owe you a decision and we are going to make one by the end of this calendar year,” he said.
That was not soon enough for the crowd, who roared in response.
In the press conference, Hague said the agency would not have a plan for a “final remedy” for the landfill until the end of the calendar year 2016. That plan, meant to control the contamination, could mean capping or removing the waste.
Kirbi Pemberton said she was born and raised in Spanish Village.
She wore a button of her young daughter, who died from one of the 27 diseases confirmed from “ionizing radiation,” she said.
“I have a 15 year old who attends Pattonville High School, who had to quit field hockey because she missed five days of school from playing outside with headaches, sore throats and bloody noses,” she said. “And you want to tell me this is a safe environment. This is not safe for us. This isn’t right.”