Missouri attorney general slams EPA for missed deadlines at West Lake Landfill

Mar 9, 2016

Missouri’s attorney general is publicly chiding the Environmental Protection Agency for its “repeated missed deadlines" in its oversight of radioactive contamination at the West Lake Landfill in north St. Louis County. An underground chemical reaction, commonly referred to as a fire, has been smoldering in the landfill next door since at least 2010.

In an open letter, Attorney General Chris Koster detailed three instances where EPA has promised information that it failed to deliver:

1)      A comprehensive survey of where radioactive contamination is within the West Lake Landfill, requested in late November, 2013.  On Wednesday, the EPA promised the information would be made public “in the coming days.”

2)      In January of 2015, the agency promised to conduct “pyrolysis testing” to figure out what could happen if the underground fire reaches the contamination. The regional administrator at the time estimated it would take six months to complete. According to the EPA, field samples have been collected and are currently being analyzed.

3)      The EPA is now three months late on its self-imposed deadline to deliver detailed plans for an isolation barrier that would separate the fire from the waste. The previous administrator, Karl Brooks, had publicly indicated the agency would start construction two years ago. Last week, the EPA released a “2016 Action Timeline” that said designs for the barrier would be final and available for public comment in “Winter 2016.”

Koster, a Democrat who is running for governor, wrote that these issues have “caused the public to doubt the capability of the EPA to resolve the problems at the landfill, and have led my office to view EPA as an unreliable partner in this endeavor.”

“We will not compromise on our commitment to complete, fully reviewed and scientifically sound decisions,” EPA’s Region 7 responded in a statement Wednesday afternoon. In addition, the EPA provided estimates for when the information would be available, and two graphic timelines for the their estimate of when work will be completed over the next year.  (The full statement, and Koster’s letter, are below.)

The push may add more fuel to an already heated debate over whether the EPA should be taken away from the helm of the West Lake Landfill cleanup. A bill to transfer oversight of the project to the Army Corps of Engineers passed the U.S. Senate unanimously last month, and now sits in a House subcommittee. Because the West Lake Landfill is designated as a Superfund site, the EPA serves an oversight role for contracted companies that do the actual cleanup of hazardous waste. Those entities are paid by “potentially responsible parties;” in this case, the Department of Energy, Rock Road Industries, Cotter Corporation and Republic Services, which owns the Bridgeton Landfill.   

“These sites are very contentious and they try to avoid litigation as much as possible. And then you reach a point where career bureaucrats are conditioned to keep their heads down and not do anything that would be considered a career limiting gesture,” said Bob Alvarez, a nuclear scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and a former policy advisor to the Department of Energy.

Alvarez is one of the independent scientists commissioned by resident advocates to conduct soil testing in the West Lake Landfill area.

“This is one of these big problems that has slipped through the bureaucratic cracks, where EPA doesn’t really have a lot of leverage to begin with to do things,” Alvarez said. “At the same time, it has no resources.”

Full statement from the EPA:

“We are committed to providing the public accurate and complete information about our progress at the West Lake Superfund site.  Most recently we held a public meeting to build relations with the community and to provide a framework and timeline for our upcoming decisions regarding the final remedy at West Lake.  

“EPA, the Missouri Attorney General’s office and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources agreed in the fall of 2015 that it was important for us as government agencies to ensure we collectively address the many environmental issues at the site, including management of the air quality concerns from the Bridgeton subsurface smoldering event and the remedy for the radiologically-impacted material at the West Lake Landfill.  The public relies on us to work together to solve problems when there are multiple jurisdictions involved.

“We’ve continued to engage with the state and federal partners regularly on reviewing the substance of the draft workplans and data reports provided by the Potentially Responsible Parties. 

“Regarding our plans to release the extent of RIM and associated maps from the comprehensive radiological survey at West Lake/Bridgeton, we expect to make that information public in the coming days.   The report continues going through detailed reviews by EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the State of Missouri. 

“We will release that report as soon as we are confident in its completeness and accuracy. 

“We have also publicly shared a detailed schedule for the proposed isolation barrier.  When we announced that we would proceed with installation of an isolation barrier and other engineering controls we noted that we would share the specific details once we have a final agreement on the alignment and an enforceable order in place to ensure implementation.  That work continues and is moving at a deliberate pace.  We have been collaborating extensively with the USACE and the State of Missouri on our final plans to ensure that all matters relating to controlling the subsurface smoldering event are being addressed by the State and/or EPA, in its federal regulatory oversight role.  As soon as that work is concluded and we have a signed agreement, the information will be released to the public. 

“The pyrolysis testing is underway.  Samples from the field were collected and sent to a laboratory for analysis.  Those samples are being analyzed consistent with a detailed quality assurance plan, which is a fundamental underpinning needed to ensure that data collected by EPA is accurate.  Samples are currently being analyzed and once those validated data and a complete comprehensive report are available they will be released. 

“This agency is committed to making sound scientifically valid decisions for the community.  While projected deadlines must sometimes change due to the complexity of a scientific review or negotiations, we endeavor to be clear when those adjustments are necessary.  We will not compromise on our commitment to complete, fully reviewed and scientifically sound decisions."   

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