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EPA will take a new look at alternatives to clean up West Lake landfill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2010 - The Environmental Protection Agency is taking the unusual step of re-evaluating two alternatives for dealing with radioactive materials in the West Lake landfill.

EPA officials had rejected the two possibilities -- either excavating the material at the north St. Louis County site and shipping it elsewhere or excavating it and building a safe storage site at another spot in the landfill -- in a decision issued in December 2008.

The final conclusion of that decision was to leave the radioactive material in place.

 

 
But earlier this month, the EPA in Kansas City released a new work plan for the site that said the two alternatives would receive further study.

The decision heartened Kay Drey, a longtime environmental activist from University City who has worked to have the material removed from the site altogether.

"I was surprised and very pleased," Drey said Wednesday. "I knew there was a new person in charge, under a new administration, so I was hopeful they would take another look. I think it may be because they have heard from a lot of communities -- Florissant, Hazelwood, the city of St. Louis, Bridgeton. There has been a lot of public concern.

"Maybe because they weren't as wedded to it, they were able to take another look."

The material in question is left over from nuclear weapons produced in the 1940s at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works. Since it was taken to the Bridgeton landfill, in the Missouri River floodplain, environmentalists have sought to have it removed and shipped to a licensed radioactive waste-disposal site.

That option was rejected in the EPA plan released two years ago. Instead, the agency said the site should be covered to contain the waste and monitored to make sure that the area remains safe. Several layers of material would be placed on top of the radioactive soil; then, that would be covered by a surface cap of more soil and vegetation.

But that plan did not stop environmentalists and others from complaining that the solution was still not safe. Now, it appears those objections have been heard, at least to the extent that the EPA is willing to take another look at the rejected options.

It's not a question of improved methods of dealing with the material, said spokesman Chris Whitley for the EPA in Kansas City. Instead, it's a case of reacting to public concern.

"Those are both pretty basic straightforward technologies," he said.

"This is not something we would ordinarily do, but there has been considerable public interest in this record of decision, and we felt it was the responsible thing to do to take a little bit deeper look."

Whitley said the agency hopes to have a draft version of the review late next month. Then it will be studied and put out for comments before a final report is issued.

"If somehow this new analysis brought us to the conclusion that hey, maybe one of these remedies could be a reasonable alternative, at that point the EPA might consider changing the remedy," Whitley said. That course would involve a new plan and a new public comment period, he said.

EPA geologist Dan Gravatt said the re-evaluation would include questions of costs, time and feasibility -- issues that were looked at before, but not in the kind of depth that they will be studied this time around.

"We did back-of-the-envelope estimates before," he said. "Now we're going to have actual cost estimates. Before, we just estimated 'years.' This would have a schedule with a couple of different estimates.

"We are not really going to include new remedies. We are just getting more specific on remedies we have already looked at."

"We just want to be thorough about this," Whitley added. "It's an exceptional step, but it's an exceptional site, and there has been an exceptional amount of public comment in both directions, so this additional analysis is the right step."

Drey agrees with that assessment, but she doesn't agree with those who say that moving the waste is dangerous and the best course is to let it stay where it is.

"I can't think of a worse place to have a radioactive dump than the flood plain of the Missouri River," she said, noting that the Bridgeton site is upriver from where much of the St. Louis area gets its drinking water. She said the material is most dangerous if it is swallowed or inhaled.

She noted that facilities in Utah or Idaho are receiving waste safely from sites all over the country, including other radioactive sites in the St. Louis area at Weldon Spring and Latty Avenue. She said the excavation and transportation can be done -- and should be.

"They should dig the stuff up carefully and take it away from the flood plain to a licensed disposal facility where it would be monitored," Drey said. "This is very hot stuff.

"It's a really exciting thing that's happened, that they are going to re-examine this. If they are able to clean up radioactive waste in other places, they can do it here, and they absolutely have to."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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