A group of mothers who live near the West Lake landfill in North St. Louis County were outraged at a recent letter from an Environmental Protection Agency official, who claimed that the agency has no authority to relocate families affected by the landfill that contains radioactive waste.

EPA Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks stated that either temporary or permanent relocation are “inconsistent with agency authority,” in a Nov. 14 letter to Lois Gibbs, who leads the Center for Health, Environment and Justice – a Washington-based environmental group.

For decades, the landfill, west of Interstate 270 on St. Charles Rock Road, has been under the EPA’s jurisdiction.

The EPA has led the effort to build a landfill “isolation barrier” – which is meant to keep a smoldering underground fire from contacting the radioactive wastes illegally dumped at the West Lake landfill in 1973.

In December 2010, an underground fire was detected in the “north quarry” of the inactive 52-acre Bridgeton Landfill. Residents and environmental activists started complaining about an awful odor and raised questions about health concerns. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources conducted air tests and found that the fire was letting off harmful gases. The air testing showed increased levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, and hydrogen sulfide, a neurotoxin.

“After a recent exposure to the toxic odor, I was forced to call the paramedics and transport my four-year-old son to the emergency room,” said Dawn Chapman, a member of the Just Moms STL group. “It’s unfair that my children are trapped living in this community in harm’s way and their lives are being jeopardized.”

Gibbs said she believes Brooks is wrong about relocation.

“They do have authority to evacuate families immediately,” Gibbs said, “and he has the responsibility to do so. I will accompany Just Moms STL to meet with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to get her interpretation of the law.”

In the letter, Brooks also stated that he doesn’t believe an underground fire smoldering at the Bridgeton Landfill is moving towards the radioactive waste. And even if the fire came into contact with the radioactive material, he stated, “We do not believe it would become reactive or explosive at temperatures typically observed in a SSE (subsurface smoldering event.)”

The agency also doesn’t expect any gases released from the landfill to contain radioactive materials, he stated.

However, Ed Smith, safe energy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, has highly criticized the EPA for ignoring signs of potential disasters at the landfill.

EPA tests have shown that the radioactive waste is “hotter” in certain areas than expected, Smith said. The results also showed that the radioactive material exists in places the EPA didn’t expect, he said.

“The Gamma Cone Penetration Tests really show that the EPA didn’t have a great understanding of the extent of the radioactive material when it made its decision to leave it there and cap it forever,” he said. “It goes to show why the Army Corps of Engineers needs to be put in charge.”

The coalition has been long advocated for the federal government to remove the radioactive waste, which is located in the river floodplain. Smith said the removal of the radioactive wastes “is the only guaranteed plan to ensure the current, or future subsurface landfill fire, will not hit the concentrated volumes of the originally deposited radioactive material at the Bridgeton/West Lake Landfill.”

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