Residents near the West Lake Landfill, a 200-acre site in Bridgeton where a smoldering underground chemical event is within 700 feet of known radioactive waste, got some hopeful news on December 8.
The landfill made it on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of Superfund sites targeted for “immediate and intense attention,” which includes 21 sites across the country.
Resident Dawn Chapman went through multiple different emotions upon hearing the news, she said. She was happy, but at the same time, she was also angry.
“I live in a community near one of the most dangerous Superfund sites in the nation, and finally someone is saying it,” Chapman said. “So why did we have to fight the former EPA administration so goddamn hard? Finally, it’s validation.”
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the list came out of the recommendations that the agency’s Superfund Task Force issued this summer.
“By elevating these sites, we are sending a message that EPA is in fact restoring its Superfund program to its rightful place at the center of the agency’s mission,” Pruitt said. “Getting toxic land sites cleaned up and revitalized is of the utmost importance to the communities across the country that are affected by these sites.”
Pruitt said he has charged the Superfund Task Force staff with immediately developing plans for each of these sites to ensure they are addressed “with urgency.”
In December 2010, an underground chemical reaction was detected in the north quarry of the inactive 52-acre Bridgeton Landfill. This landfill is adjacent to the West Lake Landfill, and they are located northwest of the I-70 and I-270 interchange.
The chemical reaction is particularly dangerous because over the years it has been getting closer to the wastes from 1940s atomic bomb production that are buried only an estimated 700 feet away in West Lake Landfill.
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 an emergency plan that St. Louis County issued in 2014. Those who live in Bridgeton, Hazelwood, Maryland Heights, the Village of Champ and the City of St. Charles are directly affected, the plan states.
“As unfortunate as it sounds, we consider this a victory,” said Karen Nickel of Just Moms STL. “It isn’t a list we ever wanted to be on, but more we knew we needed to be on. Sites are not included on a list like this if everything is A-OK. The responsible parties can no longer stand idly by and continue to say everything is fine.”
Just Moms STL began five years ago as a Facebook group to educate and inform the community and officials. At its onset, few people were aware of the dangers the landfill poses to the community’s health and the region’s natural resources, Nickel said. Since then, the group has grown to over 18,000 members.
Chapman, also with the group, said, “While it is very heartbreaking and scary having your fears and concerns validated, it is also great knowing what has been allowed to occur within our community is finally being recognized and action to remediate seems to be on the horizon.”
Originally used for agriculture, the West Lake Landfill land became a limestone quarrying and crushing operation in 1939. Beginning in the early 1950s, portions of the quarried areas and adjacent areas were used to dispose of municipal refuse, industrial solid wastes, and construction/demolition debris. Radioactive waste from Mallinckrodt Chemical Works’ production of uranium for atomic bombs was illegally dumped there in the 1970s. The entire 200-acre facility was listed on the National Priorities List (NPL) in 1990.
The EPA’s news is particularly welcome after the nearby community lost hope in legislators’ ability to come to their aid. In the past year, two bills have failed. One federal bill would have transferred authority of the site’s cleanup to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). A state bill would have helped as many as 91 families in the Spanish Village subdivision, the neighborhood closest to the landfill, sell their homes to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
Lawmakers and residents are worried that the Superfund site has caused local cases of cancer and autoimmune disease. Such claims have been disputed by federal regulators and Republic Services, the landfill’s owner.
Pruitt told the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee that he plans to release the Record of Decision on whether to cap or excavate the wastes at West Lake this coming January.
Just Moms STL does not want it capped, Chapman said, because it would become “a nuclear storage site in the middle of our community.”
“It’s hard to go through the holidays with that hanging over our head,” Chapman said. “This administration is very difficult to read. We do see movement, but is it in the right direction?”
Chapman said that this EPA administration has been better at communicating with the community and answering their calls. The moms group said they do not intend to ease the pressure until the waste is fully removed. Other groups also support this fight.
Ed Smith, policy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment said, “The voices of the community have been ignored for too long, and it’s time for the EPA to fully remove the radioactive wastes from the unlined landfill in the Missouri River floodplain.”
To see the EPA’s list, visit https://www.epa.gov/superfund/superfund-sites-targeted-immediate-intense-action.