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Government, Politics & Issues

U.S. Senate approves bill to put Army Corps in charge of West Lake landfill

This radiation warning sign is one of many posted on the chain link fence surrounding part of the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo.
File photo | Sarah Skiold-Hanlin | St. Louis Public Radio

Residents near the West Lake landfill who have long sought a change in federal oversight are closer to getting part of their wish granted, with late Tuesday’s Senate passage of a bill that would transfer authority of the radioactive site to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Senate action came as a result of a bipartisan push by U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

The duo had cosponsored S2306, which would remove the Environmental Protection Agency’s jurisdiction on the landfill, which contains radioactive material stemming from World War II’s nuclear program.  In a statement, the senators noted that the bill "does not change the liability of potentially responsible parties at the site nor its designation as a Superfund site.”

“The families living near the West Lake landfill have made clear that they are fed up with the EPA’s long delay in implementing a plan to clean up the site,” Blunt said in a statement. “The EPA has lost credibility within the community, and left parents living in fear for their children’s health and safety. That is completely unacceptable. The Senate has taken an important step by voting to give the Corps the authority to utilize its knowledge and expertise on clean-up efforts, which I hope will begin to give families the peace of mind they deserve.”

McCaskill added that the Senate action – unanimous on a voice vote – “has demonstrated that that voices of the community around West Lake Landfill are being heard. This plan isn’t a silver bullet, and will take far longer than we’d like to resolve these issues—but it’s a concrete, positive step forward. Now it’s up to the U.S. House to take up this issue so that we can get the legislation across the finish line.”

Attention will now shift to the U.S. House, where a companion bill has been filed by U.S. Reps. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and William Lacy Clay, D-University City. The duo’s districts share the neighboring West Lake and Bridgeton landfills.

Blunt and McCaskill, along with Wagner and Clay, have said for months that they shared the residents’ frustration over the apparent lack of adequate action  to protect the nearby neighborhoods.  

Some residents have long believed that the Army Corps of Engineers could better handle the situation, by shifting the site to the Corps’  Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP).

Many nearby residents want the radioactive waste to be moved, while the EPA and the current owners -- Republic Services -- concluded several years ago that it was best to “cap’’ the sites and leave the waste where it is.

Republic spokesman Russ Knocke said the waste company still believes that capping is the best option, and has opposed shifting control to the Corps of Engineers. "Talk to people in Pennsylvania or Massachusetts," he said in a statement after the Senate vote. "The last time Congress tried this, remediation work took more than a decade. Costs shifted from private parties to the taxpayer, and the government has recouped just pennies on the dollar."

The Army Corps already has signaled that money might be an issue.

Local emotions have gotten even higher in recent months, because of concerns from residents and their allies that an underground fire smoldering deep in the Bridgeton landfill could move to West Lake and possibly reach its radioactive material.  A barrier has been constructed to try to prevent that from occurring.

Reports on possible radiation migration

Those concerns were heightened after the release of a radiological report by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster back in September. Koster, a Democrat now running for governor, has been an outspoken champion of the residents’ fears for several years. The state had sued the landfills’ owners several years ago over problems at both landfills.

As part of that lawsuit, state experts tested neighboring properties around the West Lake Landfill and found radiation had spread, including onto nearby trees.

Four months later, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources released an interim report also suggesting radiological material from the landfill had migrated. The department said those results, from samples collected last November, must still be "verified."

According to the report, a dust sample on a sign on the perimeter fence around the landfill showed radiation levels more than two times higher than a blank sample. 

Additionally, soil samples on restricted private property adjacent to the landfill showed radiological levels "approximately 20 percent to 30 percent higher than other readings within the same area." However, the report notes that those sample spots could be within landfill property, "as they were at the unmarked perimeter of the facility and neighboring private property.” 

"While West Lake Landfill has a perimeter fence, the actual property line between West Lake Landfill and the two other businesses is not clearly marked," the Missouri department spokesman Tom Bastian said in an email. "Out of precaution and due to its location, the department informed all property owners."

But EPA spokesman Ben Washburn said in an email that the agency "agrees with MDNR that the field screening observations did not identify any areas of health or safety concern." He also said that "buffer zone" area in between the landfill and private property had previously been identified. 

Washburn said the EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources "are working closely together" regarding the site, and that the state agencyhad given the results of its sampling.

The EPA, he wrote, has undertaken several "significant assessments" to see if radiological material from the landfill had moved offsite, including:

  • a 2013 fly-over of the site and nearby residential and commercial properties that detected no radiological emissions of surface soil off-site
  • off-site groundwater testing by the EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey of private wells in 2013 that found no readings exceeding drinking water standards
  • collecting air samples in nearby Spanish Village in July to create a baseline for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with which to compare future air monitoring samples 
  • testing in 2014 at the Bridgeton Municipal Athletic Complex found no excess levels of uranium, thorium, or radium
  • off-site air monitoring showing no potential hazards to human health from volatile organic compounds, radiation or other compounds, similar to results from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services

Still, Koster said in an emailed statement that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources report provided "additional evidence" to back the state experts' earlier findings.
"Despite denials and delays from Republic (which owns the landfill) and EPA, the public has a right to demand remedial action be taken swiftly and to hold Republic accountable for its role in the contamination," he said.

Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment said he has long disagreed with the EPA's method of looking for radioactive materials outside of the landfill.

"They find an area of radioactive waste and then they step out, and they do that until they find an unimpacted area," he said. "What that means is if there is some on the other side of that area where they found it, they will never find it."

He said he believes the interim state results and earlier Koster reports show the need for another agency, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, to be in charge of remediation. 

"The AG found it in trees and now they are finding it on signs and dirt outside the fence line at the landfill," he said. "For any agency to say that they know where all the radioactive wastes are at this landfill is not truthful, because each time there are new tests, each time there are new positive results of finding radioactivity."

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