West Lake Landfill

Many residents cheered on February 2 after the U.S. Senate passed a bill to give the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the authority to clean up the radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton.

The bill now puts the Army Corps in charge of the landfill’s remediation and takes that responsibility out of the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been criticized for negligence. Community members said they have more confidence in the Army Corps to manage the site’s cleanup.

“The families living near the West Lake Landfill have made clear that they are fed up with the EPA’s long delay in implementing a plan to clean up the site,” said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) “The EPA has lost credibility within the community and left parents living in fear for their children’s health and safety. That’s completely unacceptable.”

U.S. Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) and Blunt filed the bill 2306 after the community’s repeated asks for the landfill to be put in the Corps’ Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). Missouri U.S. Reps. Wm. Lacy Clay and Ann Wagner have introduced companion legislation in the House. It will need to pass before President Obama signs the transfer into law.

“With the passage of this legislation today, the Senate has demonstrated that voices of the community around West Lake Landfill are being heard,” McCaskill said.

However, she said the plan isn’t a “silver bullet” and will take longer than she’d like to resolve the issue.

“But it’s a concrete, positive step forward,” she said.

The Just Moms STL community action group helped lead the grass-roots campaign lobbying for the transfer legislation.

“We have sacrificed so much and we still have work to do, but for now, we will take this victory,” said Karen Nickel, cofounder of Just Moms STL.

Nickel said her group will go to Washington D.C. next week – “and to the ends of the earth to protect our children” – to make sure the House companion legislation passes.

Although the mothers group and activists have long been fighting for this action, most St. Louisans didn’t know about the radioactive waste at West Lake until last fall. For the first time, community members learned that St. Louis County has had an emergency plan silently in place since October 2014 for a potential “catastrophic event” at the Bridgeton and West Lake landfills – which are located northwest of the I-70 and I-270 interchange.

At any moment, an underground high-temperature chemical reaction in the Bridgeton Landfill could reach the wastes from 1940s atomic bomb production that are buried only an estimated 1,000 feet away from the fire, said Nickel during an October community meeting where hundreds of concerned residents attended.

If that happens, toxic fumes – and possibly particulate matter – could spread throughout the region and potentially force people into shelters or to evacuate, according to the county’s emergency plan. Those who live in Bridgeton, Hazelwood, Maryland Heights, the Village of Champ and the city of St. Charles are directly affected, the plan states. The first response would be for people to “shelter in place,” by closing windows in their homes, schools or workplaces.

On September 3, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster released a report where an expert argued that the chemical reaction could hit the radioactive waste within three to six months.

The expert’s initial estimate is the worse-case scenario, said Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. The best-case scenario is that the chemical reaction ends within five years, like landfill owner Republic Services hopes, Smith said.

However, residents say they can’t wait five years. They have already been feeling the effects of the awful-smelling odor that the landfill fire has been releasing for the past five years. In 2013, Missouri Department of Natural Resources conducted air tests and found that the fire was indeed letting off harmful gases. The air testing showed increased levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, and hydrogen sulfide, a neurotoxin.

A resident of Spanish Village said she has been “sheltering” in her home for more than five years.

“We can’t open our windows,” she said at the October community meeting. “Our eyes burn when we walk outside. We vomit when we get out of our cars. We know there’s something in that dirt.”

Koster is currently suing the landfill owners for alleged violations of law associated with the still-smoldering reaction – which was first detected in December 2010 in the north quarry of the inactive 52-acre Bridgeton Landfill.

Republic Services has still not built an “isolation barrier,” as owners promised in 2013 in an agreement with Environmental Protection Agency. Koster sued the company to order them to comply, and the case is scheduled to go to trial in March 2016. But some fear that it’s too late to build a barrier because they can’t find a place that doesn’t have radioactive waste to construct it.

“We are calling for a safe and permanent solution for the radioactive waste,” Nickel said. “It can never again come in contact with a fire. That can never be allowed to happen.”

Follow this reporter on Twitter @RebeccaRivas.

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