Bill to transfer West Lake Landfill oversight from EPA to Army Corps hits opposition in D.C.

Mar 7, 2016

A federal proposal to remove the Environmental Protection Agency from the helm of remediation efforts at the West Lake Landfill is hitting some opposition in Washington, as an underground, high-temperature chemical reaction (typically referred to as a fire) continues to burn in the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill.

Senate Bill 2306 and its House counterpart would transfer oversight of the West Lake Landfill to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ remediation program for radioactive contamination. The legislation passed the Senate with unanimous consent in February, but after a month the proposal is still sitting in a House subcommittee, waiting on a hearing. Meanwhile, fears back home that the fire will reach radioactive waste are growing, and faith that the EPA has the ability to do the job seems to be bottoming out.  

"There are people in D.C. that hold our community, and the lives of our children—they’re holding them hostage right now by pausing on this bill," said Dawn Chapman, a resident and organizer for Just Moms STL. "What we’re looking for is a second opinion, and we’re looking for an unbiased opinion."

To some, passing a bill unanimously and without a hearing is rushing it. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has offered pushback.

“Both EPA and the Army Corps have repeatedly raised substantive concerns with this proposal, and based on those concerns, we have questions about whether this bill will lead to a faster, more robust cleanup process,” Christine Brennan, Pallone’s spokesperson, said in a statement.     

Brennan declined to offer any further information on the record. 

A spokesperson for the Army Corps' Kansas City District said they hadn't heard any of those concerns.  

“The Corps has not been made aware of any issues with this legislation from our administration,” said Trisha Dorsey. 

One potential point of contention would be determining funding for the project.

Superfund sites, which are overseen by the EPA, use the "polluters pay" principle, which identifies parties responsible for hazardous waste and makes them manage the cleanup, with oversight from the EPA. The Army Corps’ program, known as the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, was created to remediate contaminated areas left over by the Manhattan Project or Atomic Energy Commission and is funded by appropriations from Congress.

The proposed legislation recommends that the EPA and Army Corps coordinate to recover costs the same way they would be if overseen by the EPA. Those funds, however, would pay for work carried out by the Army Corps.

Republic Services, which owns the landfill and is one of the potentially responsible parties, opposes the bill.

"Attempts to move the site into the FUSRAP program only serve to delay the fix for the West Lake site. The EPA should be allowed to finish its work, quickly," Republic’s spokesperson, Russ Knocke, wrote in a statement.

Moving S. 2306 to the debate calendar would require an action from the Republicans, who hold a majority in the House. Among Missouri’s delegation, there is a significant amount of support, including from Rep. Ann Wagner, a Republican from Ballwin. 

"The EPA had a chance to solve this problem and has failed," Wagner wrote in a statement. "It is time for the trusted Army Corps of Engineers to take over. My first and foremost concern is the safety, security and well being‎ of the families in the West Lake area. I will continue fighting on their behalf until the situation is properly managed."

The bill, sponsored by Missouri’s Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, does not affect the site’s Superfund designation. A House version is sponsored by Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City.

In the meantime, regional Superfund Division director Mary Peterson said her office will focus on their task at hand: managing four simultaneous cleanup projects at the West Lake Landfill. Three new project managers have been appointed to the task, which has allowed the EPA to accelerate their pace of work, she said. One major project has been the removal of vegetation to prevent surface fires, scheduled to finish in April.

Last week, Peterson visited St. Louis for an open meeting with stakeholders and residents at the Bridgeton Community Center. It was not widely advertised — fewer than a dozen residents attended.

Asked if a loss of faith after the EPA’s initial lack of action in Flint, Mich., affected her agency’s work, Peterson said "we have a credibility problem in this community as well."

"That’s why we’re here tonight. That’s why we’re setting up the dialog framework, to open up that exchange of information. And by showing progress I think is the best way we can build trust with the community," Peterson said.

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