The Environmental Protection Agency proposal to partially remove nuclear weapons waste from a northwest St. Louis County landfill marks a major shift in approach to a problem that’s plagued residents for decades.
Since 1990, federal officials have either passed the buck on remediating West Lake Landfill or proposed building a cap over the site, which does little to prevent the tons of radioactive waste from contaminating groundwater.
On Thursday, EPA head Scott Pruitt announced his “Excavation Plus” proposal to remove much of the waste, which is about 600 feet from an underground fire in the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill, and permanently cover the rest.
Here's a guide to our coverage.
Pruitt has publicly criticized previous presidential administrations for failing to decide on a remedy for West Lake Landfill. He’s repeatedly named the landfill in interviews with national news outlets as an example of governmental delay and ineptitude.
“It’s taken 28 years just to make a decision — not clean it up, not remediate it, just decide how we’re going to do it,” Pruitt said about West Lake Landfill in a CBS News interview that aired Jan. 18. “That’s unacceptable.”
In Thursday’s announcement, Pruitt said his response to West Lake is representative of his approach to the entire Superfund program.
“I am pleased to announce a proposed remedy that will strategically excavate and remove within five years all the radioactive material that poses a risk to public health,” Pruitt said in a statement.
Decades of problems
After purchasing chemicals that came from Mallinckrodt Chemical Works’ nuclear weapons research, a contractor for Cotter Corporation illegally dumped contaminated uranium processing waste at West Lake Landfill in 1973. Today, the waste remains buried in the unlined quarry where it is exposed to groundwater. The federal government put West Lake low on a National Priorities List, making it a Superfund site, in 1990, and it’s climbed the ranks since then. But there’s never been consensus for a remedy.
In December 2010, officials discovered that an underground fire at adjacent Bridgeton Landfill is smoldering at temperatures as high as 300 Fahrenheit. Nearby residents first noticed an increase in smelly fumes from the landfill burning early in the spring of 2012. Since then, air sampling has occasionally detected unsafe concentrations of toxic gas.
No one knows for sure if the underground fire will meet the contaminated waste, which is about 600 feet away, 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. Read more in our story for NPR from 2015: Landfill Fire Threatens Nuclear Waste Site Outside St. Louis
This FAQ guide is a good place to start if you’re new to the issues at West Lake and Bridgeton landfills. We first published it in 2014 to answer questions about the north St. Louis County complex, where an underground fire has smoldered near World War II-era nuclear weapons waste for years; then we updated the FAQ in 2015 when new warnings from federal officials caused awareness of the landfills — along with fear, confusion and misinformation — to spike.
Catch up on who’s who with this handy breakdown and infographic. (Note: The story is from 2015, so the State & Regional Officials section is a bit out of date.)
In 2014, on "St. Louis on the Air," host Don Marsh moderated a conversation on the landfills with St. Louis Public Radio’s then-science reporter Véronique LaCapra along with Ed Smith, safe energy director at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Russ Knocke, public affairs director for the company that owns both landfills, and Dawn Chapman, a resident who lives near the landfills.
We’ve also organized previous coverage by topic:
The last time West Lake Landfill was in the news was October 2017, when Albert Kelly, senior adviser to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and the head of the agency's Superfund Task Force, came to Bridgeton for a forum with residents and announced that the EPA would conduct further testing for radioactive contamination. Since then, the EPA released a list of priority projects that includes West Lake. The agency said it would release a remedy proposal by January 2018.
What to watch
- HBO will screen a documentary about West Lake Landfill called Atomic Homefront on Feb. 12. You can learn more about the documentary from "St. Louis on the Air" with director Rebecca Cammisa: HBO’s 'Atomic Homefront' explores the citizen activist movement around nuclear waste in St. Louis.
- The Safe Side of the Fence is a documentary that explores first-hand accounts of former employees of Mallinckrodt and residents who live near sites contaminated by Manhattan Project waste. Also on SLOTA, Marsh interviews director and St. Louis native Tony West: New documentary explores St. Louis' connection to nuclear waste contamination.
Frustrated by delay at the federal level, Missouri lawmakers have filed bills to buy homes affected by West Lake contamination so families can move to a safer neighborhood without incurring debt or passing the problem along to the next homebuyer. Despite bipartisan cooperation, all attempts have failed.
- State Senate passes bill to buy homes near West Lake Landfill
- Missouri lawmakers demand passing bill to buyout residents near West Lake Landfill
- Failure of bill to buy out homes near West Lake Landfill leaves Bridgeton residents dismayed
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.
- Fighting for answers, residents near West Lake landfill suffer chronic stress
- Former McDonnell Douglas workers, residents file suit over radiation exposure
- EPA to clean radioactive contamination found on private property next to West Lake Landfill
The EPA is responsible for fixing the problems at West Lake, but so far there has been more confusion than progress. Residents have unsuccessfully lobbied to transfer responsibility for the site to the Army Corps of Engineers. The relationship between the EPA and St. Louis residents grew strained under President Obama, but President Trump’s overhaul of the agency has brought a renewed focus on Superfund sites like West Lake.
- EPA won't meet end of the year deadline to propose remedy for West Lake Landfill
- Residents demand that EPA fully remove radioactive waste from the West Lake Landfill
- EPA report from 2013 calls West Lake Landfill waste removal 'feasible'
- EPA skips West Lake meeting after online threats
- EPA, residents discuss capping West Lake Landfill ... again
- What The EPA Has To Say About The West Lake Landfill ― And Why Everything Is Taking So Long
- Bill to transfer West Lake Landfill oversight from EPA to Army Corps hits opposition in D.C.
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