The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to soon announce its plans to clean up the waste in West Lake Landfill. For people who live near the landfill in north St. Louis County, the decision couldn’t come soon enough, as the waste sits approximately 600 feet from an underground smoldering fire.
The landfill has been on the EPA’s National Priorities List since 1990. Eighteen years later, the EPA under the administration of President George W. Bush recommended capping the landfill. The waste has sat at the site since its former owner, Cotter Corporation, dumped it there in 1973.
EPA officials may decide to remove the waste entirely, remove it in part, or cap the site.
When residents expressed concern about the site in 2010, the EPA reopened its review of the landfill. Waste management company Republic Services, which owns West Lake Landfill, then discovered an underground fire in another landfill that it owns in nearby Bridgeton. It’s not clear if the underground fire will meet the contaminated waste, or what would happen if it did.
The lack of certainty concerns residents, especially after nearby schools alerted parents of emergency plans in case it happened during schools hours. Residents who have complained the landfill is a health hazard hope for a full removal. But officials at Republic Services, which would bear much of the costs, have long said it doesn’t pose a hazard.
Republic Services and Cotter Corporation both declined to provide comments. Exelon, which owned Cotter and retained financial obligations for Cotter’s actions, has not responded.
When will the EPA decide?
Last month, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt confirmed that the announcement would come in January. Pruitt included West Lake on a list of priority cleanup sites in a news release.
But Ed Smith, policy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said that he wouldn’t be shocked if the EPA announces that it needs a few more weeks to make a decision.
“I think the administration bit more it can chew with these timeline promises, given the previous problems the EPA’s had with delivering on their self-imposed deadlines,” Smith said.
The EPA has been responsible for fixing the problems at West Lake for decades. Residents have unsuccessfully lobbied to transfer responsibility for the site to the Army Corps of Engineers because they say the EPA has misled the community and mishandled the cleanup. The relationship between the EPA and St. Louis residents grew strained under President Barack Obama, but President Donald Trump’s overhaul of the agency has brought a renewed focus on Superfund sites such as West Lake.
What do residents want?
Dawn Chapman lives near the landfill, where she said she and many of her neighbors want the EPA to remove all the waste. That’s the most expensive option, which the government has resisted in the past.
“I want a cleanup. I don’t want a Band-Aid. I want a cleanup,” said Chapman, who founded the advocacy group Just Moms STL when she first learned that the landfill contained toxic materials in 2012. Since then, she’s fought for testing, buyouts, and solutions.
Chapman acknowledges that all of the discussed solutions — partial or complete removal and a cap — are feasible. But to her, there’s only one right choice for the community.
“You have to remember that a cap or a partial removal still leaves some of this waste behind. It still leaves it in the groundwater,” Chapman said. “It leaves it exposed to this fire or the potential for future fires, exposed to earthquakes in the future. There’s a lot of things, like floods, that can happen at this site.”
Chapman said that she does put some faith in Pruitt’s promises to clean up the landfill. But after years of working with the EPA and being disappointed, she’s not counting on her ideal outcome.
“For Scott Pruitt, he can choose the most expensive and the most protective. Or he can chose the least protective and the cheapest,” Chapman said. “Either way, we know he will be the one making the choice.”
The impending announcement won’t end the struggle, Chapman said. Just Moms has fought for a government buyout so families can move to safer neighborhoods without incurring debt or dumping their homes on unsuspecting buyers. Missouri state lawmakers have filed bills to allow buyouts, but despite bipartisan cooperation all efforts failed. No matter what the EPA decides, Chapman said that she and her community will keep working to make their homes safe.
People who live near the landfill or who were exposed to the contamination have described many serious health complaints on top of chronic stress. Some residents have found contamination in their homes.
What are the options?
The EPA is considering seven options, which fall into several general categories.
Cap the waste — There are two cap-only models, which would cover sites with clay and other materials without removing any waste. One is based on the Bush administration’s 2008 recommendation, with some modifications; the other meets standards laid out by a 1978 environmental law called the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act.
Remove the waste partially — The EPA has considered several partial removal methods that would also involve covers — one that removes only chemicals within a certain depth, and another that removes all those chemicals regardless of depth. These options could involve capping the remnants and transporting the waste to two disposal facilities named in the Supplemental Feasibility Study, one in Idaho and one in Utah.
A third partial removal method, described as “risk-based,” would let the land be used after excavation without a cover.
Remove the waste entirely and cover — If this method is used, the EPA could transport the waste elsewhere or consider on-site storage.
Smith, of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said he’s concerned that because West Lake is above an alluvium — fine dirt, sand, other earth materials that could liquefy in an earthquake — partial removal might not be enough.
“Our concern is that over the next several thousands of years, which is how long the site will be dangerous, we will experience another earthquake out of New Madrid,” Smith said. “Given its proximity to the Missouri River, we expect that that contamination would further seep into the groundwater and have the potential for airborne contamination.” Smith does not expect the proposed remedy to address contamination in the groundwater.
“What people need to remember is that the site’s radioactivity will increase over the next 9,000 years,” Smith said. “And that’s a long time to bet on a cap being protective of human health.”
What happens next?
After the EPA announces its recommendation, the public will be allowed to comment on its proposals before administrators make a final decision.