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Area members of Congress move to shift federal oversight of radioactive West Lake Landfill

Map of the West Lake Landfill
Provided by the EPA

A rare bipartisan coalition of the region’s two members of the U.S. House and both of Missouri’s U.S. senators has filed legislation to transfer authority for the West Lake landfill from the Environmental Protection Action to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Reps. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, and Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, have filed a bill in the House. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have filed a companion measure in the Senate.

But it's unclear if their quest will get anywhere.

The move to Corps control has been sought for decades by some homeowners living near West Lake. The landfill contains radioactive waste from the 1940s, when some local companies were part of the effort to develop the atomic bomb.

The Corps opted in 2014 against putting West Lake in its “Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program,” commonly called FUSRAP.

The EPA earlier had called for keeping the radioactive material at West Lake, contending that would be safer than moving it out of state – which the homeowners have been seeking for decades. That decision is being revisited because of concerns of some experts about the dangers an underground fire at the neighboring Bridgeton landfill could pose to West Lake.

In March 2014, federal officials and Republic Services – the parent corporation for the firms owning the landfills – agreed to construct a fire break.

In a joint statement issued Thursday, all four members of Congress blasted the EPA, saying their decision to file legislation was partially fueled out of frustration over the agency’s failure to take action concerning what to do about the radioactive waste.

“The EPA’s unacceptable delay in implementing a solution for the West Lake landfill has destroyed its credibility and it is time to change course,” said Blunt. “The Corps has the knowledge, experience and confidence of the families living near the site. Transferring clean up efforts to its control will help move the process forward and finally give these families the peace of mind they deserve.”

Clay’s district includes much of the landfill. “Over a year ago, I called for the transfer of West Lake to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' FUSRAP program,” he said. “…This is a 70-year-old problem and the federal government has a duty to finally do the right thing. I am totally committed to removing all the nuclear waste from West Lake landfill.”

McCaskill and Wagner offered similar sentiments.

It’s unclear how much chance their legislation has, since some believe shifting the oversight to the Corps could cost more federal money. And at the moment, Congress is in a cost-cutting mode.

That view appears to be shared by Republic Services, which is against moving the landfill’s oversight away from the EPA.

In a statement, company vice president Russ Knocke said, “A transfer to FUSRAP control would add more delays to a decision and permanent solution for West Lake, turning five years into 20 or more years. This move would shift the initial outlay of costs to the U.S. taxpayer, sending a bill for tens of millions of dollars of remediation costs to an already underfunded and budget-strapped FUSRAP program.”

Knocke then added, “Going back to the drawing board on investigation and design work on a site with decades of data and study is not the answer.  It would be a set-back for a community that's tired of waiting.”

Blunt told reporters in a conference call Thursday that the legislators mainly are seeking action -- by some federal agency.

“The major motivation to do this is the EPA’s failure to come up with a plan," the senator said. “If the EPA has a plan, we’d still like to see it. And if they have the capacity to execute a plan, we’d still like to see that.”

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