Confused About The Bridgeton And West Lake Landfills? Here's What You Should Know

Mar 2, 2014

On Friday morning, NPR reported that 13 employees at the only dedicated nuclear waste dump in the U.S. had inhaled radioactive material after a major accident earlier this month.

The incident happened at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. It's designed to store radioactive material left over from nuclear bomb production during and after World War II. Radioactive material that dates that far back is frequently called "legacy nuclear waste." 

St. Louis has plenty of legacy nuclear waste of its own. Some of it is in Bridgeton, at what's known as the West Lake Landfill. In the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill, an underground fire has been smoldering for more than three years.

The situation has caused a lot of fear and confusion. St. Louis Public Radio has started this FAQ to help answer some of your questions. We'll add to it, based on your input. For now, you can use the comment field below, but we'll be reaching out to you in other ways, too.

View Bridgeton and West Lake Landfills in a larger map

Where are the West Lake and Bridgeton landfills?

The Bridgeton and West Lake landfills are really part of the same complex of landfills, located in Bridgeton a couple of miles west and slightly north of the St. Louis airport. The map to the right (from p.15 of this U.S. EPA report) shows the two landfills.

This map shows the West Lake and Bridgeton landfills.
Credit U.S. EPA

The area commonly known as the West Lake Landfill includes two known areas of World War II-era radioactive waste. On the map, these are labeled as “Operable Unit 1 Area 1” and “Operable Unit 1 Area 2.”

The Bridgeton Landfill is labeled “Former Active Sanitary Landfill.” It stopped accepting waste on Dec. 31, 2004. The Bridgeton Landfill has two distinct parts known as the “north quarry” and the “south quarry” which are separated by a narrow area known as the “neck.”

Who owns and oversees the West Lake and Bridgeton landfills?

The West Lake Landfill is listed on the National Priorities List, making it a Superfund site under the regulatory authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The landfill contains World War II-era uranium processing residues, illegally dumped there in 1973. Under Superfund, the “potentially responsible parties” for the West Lake Landfill are General Atomics affiliate the Cotter Corporation; Republic Services subsidiaries Bridgeton Landfill LLC and Rock Road Industries LLC; and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Bridgeton Landfill is under the regulatory oversight of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). It is owned and managed by Bridgeton Landfill LLC, a subsidiary of Republic Services Inc.

How and when did the fire start at the Bridgeton Landfill?

On Dec. 23, 2010, Bridgeton Landfill LLC reported to the MDNR that elevated temperatures had been detected in some gas extraction wells at the landfill. The facility began testing the landfill gas and found high levels of hydrogen and carbon monoxide and low levels of methane. All these conditions are indicative of a “subsurface smoldering event” or underground fire. It’s located in the southern part of the landfill, known as the “south quarry.”

Technically, this is not a “fire” in the traditional sense with smoke and flames. Rather, it’s a chemical reaction that produces temperatures higher than 170 degrees. At Bridgeton, temperatures as high as 300 degrees have been detected.

The Wilfong Family lives in Bridgeton, within smelling distance of the landfill. They're concerned about the landfill's effects on their health. Three of the Wilfong children have asthma.
Credit Véronique LaCapra/St. Louis Public Radio

It is impossible to know how the fire at Bridgeton started, but the most common cause of such fires is that too much gas is drawn out of the landfill through a gas collection system. This allows oxygen to get underground, one of the conditions needed for combustion to start (see p.5 of this report).

Is the fire dangerous?

Underground landfill fires produce potentially toxic gases, including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, aldehydes, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and benzene ― a known carcinogen.

Area residents first started noticing an increase in smelly fumes from the landfill early in the spring of 2012. Since then, air sampling conducted by Republic Services and the MDNR ― as well as more frequent monitoring starting about a year later ― has occasionally detected unsafe concentrations of some compounds.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services recommends that when landfill odors get bad, “sensitive individuals should stay indoors as much as possible, avoid outdoor exercise, and seek medical advice for any acute symptoms.” Those symptoms could include headache, nausea, and fatigue.

Some people are also concerned about the possibility of the fire reaching the radioactive waste.

Where is the radioactive material and how far is it from the fire?

The area of radioactive material closest to the fire was thought to be contained behind a chain-link perimeter fence in the West Lake Landfill’s Operable Unit 1 Area 1.

The underground smoldering fire extends throughout the south quarry of the Bridgeton Landfill and more recently has been detected in the narrow neck between the north and south quarries. In May 2013, Republic Services estimated that the fire was 1,200 feet away from the radioactive waste. But that same month, Attorney General Chris Koster said it was 1,000 feet away.

On this map from May 2013, the outline of the Bridgeton Landfill is shown in yellow. The underground fire is shaded in red and the closest area of radioactive waste in orange. More recent temperature and carbon monoxide measurements confirm that the fire has reached the neck of the landfill, about where the green line is on this map.
Credit Dave Drilling, MDNR

Carbon monoxide data collected by Republic Services in January 2014 suggest that the fire is in the south quarry and neck of the landfill, but has not reached the north quarry, the part of the landfill closest to the radioactive waste.

But in March 2014, the EPA said recent tests had detected radioactive waste farther south than expected, about 100 feet inside the north quarry of the Bridgeton Landfill. That would mean the fire is 900 feet from the waste.

How quickly is the fire spreading towards the radioactive waste?

According to one report produced for the MDNR in June 2013, the underground fire was spreading north at a rate of 1-2 feet per day. That was down from an estimated rate of about 3 feet per day a few months earlier.

Assuming the fire continued at a similar rate in the north quarry, it would take about 1-3 years for the fire to reach the radioactive waste. However, that time frame assumes that the north quarry contains similar materials as the south quarry and will burn at the same rate.

In March 2014, a spokesperson for Republic Services said the fire's spread had slowed to 6 inches a month. The MDNR said it could not confirm that rate, other than to say that based on physical observations of the Bridgeton Landfill and evaluation of temperature data provided by Republic, the northward movement of the subsurface fire into the narrow neck of the landfill had "slowed substantially."

What could happen if the fire were to reach the radioactive material?

That depends on whom you ask.

A report produced for the EPA in January 2014 by a contractor working for Republic Services and the other West Lake Landfill "responsible parties" said that even if the underground fire reached the radioactive material, nothing serious would happen. It concluded that there would be “no long-term additional risks to people or the environment.”

At the request of the regional EPA office in Kansas City, EPA scientists in Cincinnati reviewed that report. According to their March 2014 analysis, if the radioactive waste is left in place and capped, a subsurface fire could crack that cap, potentially releasing radon gas, radioactive dust, and other contaminants into the air. Groundwater could also be contaminated.

A landfill fire expert previously interviewed by St. Louis Public Radio said the greatest risk would be if the chemical reaction consumed a large amount of material quickly enough to cause a big hole underground. That could cause the landfill surface to cave in. Under those conditions, the smoldering reaction could break through to the surface as an actual flaming fire and spread much more quickly.

Both the EPA regional office and Republic Services maintain that it is "highly unlikely" that a subsurface fire could come into contact with the radioactive waste.

But some area residents, environmental groups, and local officials are convinced the threat of the fire reaching the radioactive material is real, and have called for the waste’s removal.

A nuclear policy analyst has voiced more general concerns about the safety of having radioactive material at the West Lake Landfill, since it was not designed as a nuclear waste disposal site.

Why don't they put the fire out?

This photo shows part of the plastic (EVOH) cap extending over the south quarry of the Bridgeton Landfill.
Credit MDNR

High subsurface temperatures have been measured at depths of more than 150 feet below the ground surface, over an area of at least 15 football fields (that was in March, 2013). Excavating such a large area would be difficult, if not impossible, and would likely increase toxic fumes and the risk of the fire breaking through to the surface.

In August 2013, Republic Services finished covering the south quarry with a plastic cap. One of the goals of putting a cap over the landfill is to keep oxygen from getting underground (see p.26 of this report). The cap should  help slow the fire’s spread. A similar cap is planned for the north quarry.

Republic Services also committed to build a fire break in the north quarry of the Bridgeton Landfill, to keep the fire from reaching the radioactive waste.

All of this came in the wake of a March 2013 lawsuit filed by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster against Republic, alleging numerous environmental violations at the landfill.

Why can’t they just remove the radioactive waste?

They could ― and that’s one of four options currently under consideration by the EPA. But moving the waste would be very costly and would have its own risks for both workers and area residents.

A little background: in May 2008, the EPA issued its Record of Decision for the West Lake Landfill, saying it planned to leave the radioactive waste in place and cover the landfill with a “cap” of rock, clay and soil.

In this photo from late January, workers repair a flare used to burn off gases from the Bridgeton Landfill.
Credit MDNR

Following backlash from area residents and government officials, the EPA decided to reconsider its 2008 decision, and asked the West Lake Landfill’s “responsible parties” to conduct a Supplemental Feasibility Study. That study evaluated two other options for dealing with the nuclear waste: excavate it from the landfill but store it onsite protected by a liner and cap; or remove it from the landfill and store it elsewhere.

Each option has its pros and cons, but in the finalized study, released at the end of 2011, there were no specific recommendations on what to do with the waste. The EPA is also considering a fourth option: removing only the radioactive "hot spots" from the landfill, and leaving the rest of the waste where it is. For more on that option, you can watch this video of EPA's Dan Gravatt speaking to the Bridgeton City Council on Sep. 19, 2012; he mentions it just after 6 min. 53 sec.

As of early 2014, the EPA had conducted more groundwater and radioactivity testing at West Lake, but had still not reached a final decision on what to do with the radioactive material.

Why do some people want the authority over the West Lake Landfill transferred from the EPA to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers?

Other than West Lake, almost all of the other legacy nuclear waste sites in the St. Louis area are being cleaned up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). The one exception is Weldon Spring, whose clean-up was overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Some area residents have been lobbying for decades to have the Corps take over West Lake. Those people believe that the Corps will be more likely to excavate and remove the radioactive waste than the EPA will, since that is what the Corps is doing at other St. Louis sites. The fire at Bridgeton has increased the sense of urgency and renewed interest in removing the radioactive material from West Lake.

In late February 2014, members of Missouri's congressional delegation sent a letter to EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks, asking him to contract with the Corps to take over the clean-up at West Lake.

Koster followed up with his own letter to Brooks in March, urging the EPA to start building the long-awaited fire break.

Brooks responded that his agency would contract with the Corps to build the fire break at West Lake. But first, the EPA needs to finish testing to figure out where all the waste is located. Brooks said that would likely take three months, which would mean construction of the fire break would begin in late June.

Brooks said although his agency would continue to work with the Corps and rely on its technical expertise, the ultimate decision about what to do with the radioactive material at West Lake would remain with the EPA, not the Corps.

Officially transferring the authority for the site from the EPA to the Corps would take an act of Congress.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter@KWMUScience