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University City meeting scheduled to discuss latest events at Bridgeton and West Lake landfills

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 25, 2013 - The controversy over the still-smoldering Bridgeton Landfill and its proximity to nuclear waste is apparently spreading, with a public meeting set up for Thursday in University City.

The meeting gets underway at 7 p.m. at the Heman Park Community Center, 975 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The hosts are state Reps. Rory Ellinger, D-University City,  and Bill Otto, D-Maryland Heights.

Ellinger said that the session underscores that issues related to the landfill are regional ones. “It’s not just a problem in Bridgeton,’’ he said. “University City is just five miles away. And this firewall may or may not work.”

Ellinger was referring to the latest news, in which Republic Services Inc. – the parent company of the two firms that own the neighboring Bridgeton and West Lake landfills – announced that it is going ahead and installing a proposed “isolation barrier” that would separate the two landfills.

Why?  The Bridgeton landfill – subject of controversy over its odor -- also has been plagued for several years by an underground fire.   Environmentalists, officials and area residents have feared that it might travel the 1,200 feet north to the West Lake Landfill – now a federal Superfund site – that for decades has housed radioactive-contaminated material. 

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been monitoring the situation, as has Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who most recently said that the underground fire has been moving away from the radioactive waste.  However, all sides had agreed that a barrier might be needed as a safeguard.

Republic has caught some officials off-guard with its decision within the past week to announce that it will go ahead and install the barrier, as it continues to also install an Ethylene Vinyl Alcohol (EVOH) cap over the landfill’s North Quarry, to stem the odor issues, and to construct “collection surface trenches that allow for liquid and gas collection under the cap.”

The total cost for all the measures: about $10 million.

The EPA has lauded the decision.

In a statement late Friday, Republic spokesman Richard Callow said, “Bridgeton Landfill is electing to take these additional actions because it is a responsible company that cares for its more than 300 local employees, their families and the entire Bridgeton community. For far too long, fears of an unlikely unknown have concerned our community, and today we are taking action so that our neighbors and concerned citizens can rest assured that they are safe.”

Residents and environmentalists have long said they’d like to see the radioactive material removed, although a federal study several years ago concluded that it’s probably safer to leave the waste in place and further isolate it.

Ellinger said that one of the issues discussed at the meeting will be whether there should be some sort of contingency plan in case it appears that the barrier isn’t enough to protect the West Lake landfill from the underground fire in the Bridgeton section.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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