Hundreds packed into a church in Bridgeton on Thursday, October 15 to find out why 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 Karen Nickel, a mother in Bridgeton who founded the West Lake Landfill Facebook page.
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.
Nickel and Dawn Chapman, co-founder of their group Just Moms STL, led the community meeting at the John Calvin Presbyterian Church of Bridgeton.
Many in the audience wanted to know why the people working hardest to spread awareness about the issue are local mothers through their Facebook page – not St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and other local government leaders. This week, several school districts send out notices that they are developing emergency plans, which further worried audience members.
“If this emergency plan existed, why are we not aware of it?” said Cole Kelley, a mother of three. “Even five miles away are Maryland Heights, Ladue, Frontenac. This is not just limited to Hazelwood and Bridgeton. You have highly densely populated areas of St. Louis, and people aren’t even aware this is existing.”
Mark Diedrich, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management, attended the meeting and responded to Kelley by saying, “We won’t know how far anything is going to reach until it happens. I know that’s not the answer you want to hear.”
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. This same expert, Tony Sperling, under cross-examination in a deposition, sounded much less alarming, saying he was not sure about the movement of the fire.
Sperling’s initial estimate is the worse-case scenario, said Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE). The best-case scenario is that the chemical reaction ends within five years, like the landfill owners, Republic Services, hope, Smith said.
Koster is currently suing Republic Services for alleged violations of law associated with the still-smoldering reaction. Nickel read a line from one of his recent reports.
“Republic Services does not have this site under control,” Koster reported. “Not only does the landfill emit a foul odor, it appears that it has poisoned its neighbors’ groundwater and vegetation.”
In December 2010, an underground chemical reaction was detected in the north quarry of the inactive 52-acre Bridgeton Landfill. In his September report, Koster said that the radioactive waste is moving closer to the north quarry and the waste exists in more places than previously thought.
Nickel also said that Republic Services never 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 Nickel said now 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.”
Already ‘sheltering in place’
Many people in the audience said 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.
Shhdwafi Youssef, 16, a student at Pattonville High School, said that she is part of the marching band. During morning rehearsals, they breathe in the odor.
“Our eyes burn, and it’s not a comfortable thing for any student to experience,” she said.
She was recently diagnosed with MS and an auto-immune disease, and doctors can’t tell her what led to the illnesses.
“I’m angered,” she said. “Just a Facebook page doesn’t help out. If you know this is affecting your generation and also your future generation, why don’t you stop it?”
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. “Our eyes burn when we walk outside. We vomit when we get out of our cars. We know there’s something in that dirt.”
She said no one has tested the landfill area that is currently burning.
“Why would it not be in the middle?” she said. “We don’t know what’s burning right now.”
Ama Vasilenok said she lived 200 miles from where the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine took place in 1986. There, an explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere.
Many in her family died of brain cancer, though they were told that they were too far to feel the effects. Sweden, 700 miles away, felt the effects too, she said.
“Our distance in St. Louis County is much less than 800 miles,” she said. “We will not be talking about a Rams stadium, or if the state can afford to put millions of dollars into that. They have no money to save two million people. Who will pay for all of those expenses for the cancer, for lupus, for breathing problems?”
She said they will go bankrupt paying to clean up this mess if elected officials continue to stand by silent.
One man said he worked with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan in identifying similar airborne hazards.
“Particulate matter is the scary name of the game,” he said. “From just what this lady said earlier – that when she gets out of the car, it’s bad enough to where her eyes are burning and she’s feeling sick – that’s very scary. Is the state, or whatever appropriate authority, checking on the air samples for quality and what particulate matter is found in this immediate vicinity?”
Chapman said not for particulate matter.
At the meeting, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal slammed Diedrich for not contacting organizations like the American Red Cross. Chappelle-Nadal, who represents the area, said she recently spoke with all of the leadership at the Red Cross office off of Lindbergh Boulevard.
“They knew nothing about Bridgeton,” she said. “Now why is that important? It is important because if we are talking about sheltering in place, we need to have areas that are specific to radioactive airborne waste.”
Corps urged to act
Community members and MCE have sharply criticized the EPA for failing to be transparent in the agency’s methods for handling the potential crisis overall. For many years, citizens have been asking the EPA to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to lead the waste cleanup.
On February 28, 2014, U.S. Senators Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, along with U.S. Representatives Wm. Lacy Clay and Ann Wagner, sent a letter to EPA Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks urging him to engage the Corps in the landfill’s remediation.
In the letter, the legislators urged the EPA to work with the Corps’ Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) operations in the St. Louis area. They said the Corps has successfully handled other sites impacted by radioactive waste material, including an area downtown and at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
However, EPA did not take their suggestion, and now the legislators need to do more than just write letters, Nickel said. They need to demand that the waste be removed.
“This can be stopped,” she said. “It can be prevented.”
Smith said demanding the removal is something that has to be done before the end of the year.
“Next year is a presidential election year, and ain’t nothing getting done,” he said.
He encouraged everyone to call both McCaskill and Blunt, along with Clay and Wagner.
He said, “Ask for them to put the Army in charge, include it in the budget, and make sure it happens this year.”
For more information, visit MCE’s website http://moenvironment.org/program-areas/radioactive-landfill-fire-risks or the Just Moms STL website http://www.stlradwastelegacy.com/.
For information on the county’s emergency plan, visit http://www.stlouisco.com/LawandPublicSafety/EmergencyManagement/Hazards/westlakelandfill.