Updated at 3 p.m. to clarify how much waste would be removed and with additional reaction — The Environmental Protection Agency has decided on a partial removal of World War II-era radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill, in northwest St. Louis County.
The EPA proposed a remedy that would remove “the majority of the radioactive material” and construct a cover system to “best protect the community of Bridgeton over the long term,” the agency said today in a news release.
EPA officials said the proposal would remove 27 percent of the waste — or 70 percent of the total radioactivity at the site, which is about 600 feet from an underground smoking fire at the Bridgeton Landfill.
“The people of the St. Louis region deserve clarity and answers with respect to the remediation of the West Lake Landfill,” Scott Pruitt, the EPA's administrator, said. “I promised them an answer, and today I am making good on that commitment.”
Related: "St. Louis on the Air" host Don Marsh talked to reporter Eli Chen about the EPA proposal:
Residents who live near the site praised the proposal.
They said EPA officials informed them that the plan would remove much of the waste.
"“The acknowledgement from EPA that this waste is harming people," said Dawn Chapman, who leads the Just Moms nonprofit group. "It has the ability to harm people and it probably has harmed people and it has to leave this community. That was an incredible feeling of validation.”
The public will be allowed to comment on the agency's proposals before administrators make a final decision. Landfill owner Republic Services noted that excavation could take years to begin. The proposed remedy document will be published to the Federal Register on Tuesday.
The proposal should take about five years and $236 million to implement. EPA officials said that the remedy would decrease odors, limit the chance of a new underground smoldering fire, and protect workers on the site.
The decision is the latest chapter in a longer history for the landfill, which the federal government deemed safe in the 1970s — only to discover later that the pollutants could be leaching into groundwater and contaminating nearby residents’ homes.
Nuclear waste has sat at the site since its former owner, Cotter Corporation, dumped it there in 1973.
The West Lake Landfill has been on the EPA’s National Priorities List since 1990. According to Republic Services, the site has awaited a remediation plan for more than 40 years.
After residents expressed concern about the site in 2010, the EPA reopened its review of the landfill. Waste management company Republic Services 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.
In recent years, residents have complained that that exposure to the radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill has put them at risk of developing cancer and other serious illnesses. They also worry that the fumes from the underground fire at the Bridgeton Landfill have caused asthma and other respiratory problems.
Where will the waste go?
Missouri state Rep. Mark Matthiesen, R-Maryland Heights, said there are two proposals: store the waste at the landfill in a safe container, or ship it somewhere else. Both plans cost about the same.
“EPA wants to know, if we store [the contaminated waste] on site, can the community accept that?” Matthiesen said.
While Matthiesen still has concerns about protecting groundwater and residents’ homes from contamination, he’s pleased with the move toward excavation.
“We are ahead of where I thought we’d be today,” Matthiesen said. “This is a really good thing for the region. But then I bring myself back to Earth; this is a win, but it’s not the final victory. I expect some level of opposition” from the landfill’s owner, Republic Services.
Matthiesen said the head of the EPA Superfund task force Albert Kelly met today with Missouri officials “face to face” about the decision to remove an estimated 84,000 cubic yards of radioactive contamination from the landfill.
“[Kelly] looked us in the eye and told us, if somebody takes us to court and challenges this, we will will because we have the science to back this up,” Matthiesen said. Even if Republic Services sues to stop the excavation, “the science will prevail.”
Still, Matthiesen objects to the term “partial removal” to describe the EPA proposal, saying that even “full” removal often leaves behind as much as 20 percent of the material behind. “Full removal is never really full removal. Seventy percent is a whole lot more than partial to me.”
Matthiesen has already filed a bill, HB1804, to establish funding for radioactive testing. “The whole St. Louis area took part in the Manhattan project. We’ve got Coldwater Creek cleanup going on right now,” he said, referring to additional contamination from the same source in a north St. Louis county waterway.
Republic Services said in a release that it is “pleased that the EPA has finally ended decades of study and again is issuing a proposed plan for the site” and committed to participating in the EPA’s decision.
Cotter Corporation officials released a similar statement. "Cotter is pleased the EPA is issuing a proposed plan that will move the process forward for the community," the statement said.
Learn more about the landfills' histories:
Missouri’s Congressional delegation expressed support for the EPA’s decision.
U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City, called the announcement “a huge victory” and a “major step towards long-delayed environmental justice.” U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., echoed those sentiments.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said that families should not have had to wait decades for a decision, jabbed at the administration of President Barack Obama, and thanked Pruitt for making a plan to clean up the site. U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, criticized past administrations and called Pruitt’s proposal a “viable, permanent solution.”
Some local environmental advocates and politicians still say that full removal is the only option.
“Partial removal is not acceptable. It means high levels of radioactivity will be left behind with the potential for water or airborne contamination into the future, creating unnecessary long-term risks to the St. Louis region,” said Ed Smith, policy director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. . “People throughout St. Louis need to rise up and flood the EPA with public comments for full removal and offsite disposal unless they want to continue living alongside this radioactive threat.”
St. Louis County executive Steve Stenger released a statement that said, “I am disappointed in the EPA’s decision” because it doesn’t remove all waste. He said that the county will continue to monitor the site, as well as the health and safety of the community nearby.
The EPA’s decision to propose an excavation remedy is validating for the community, which has long fought to have its concerns heard by the federal government, said Matt Lavanchy, the assistant chief for the Pattonville Fire Protection District.
“The EPA has said, ‘You’re right, we need to do more than what is happening,’" he said. "That was very rewarding.”
LaVanchy never expected the EPA to choose full removal.
“In a perfect world, full removal is the thing that you want,” he said. “We all have to realize, there is no such thing as a perfect world. Even if they said they were going to remove everything, there are things that missed or get left behind because it’s not safe to remove.”
Now that removal is on the table, LaVanchy wants to make sure that residents near the landfill can be temporarily relocated during excavation.
“If it’s bad enough that we have to remove it, then it’s bad enough to temporarily relocate people,” he said.