Residents fear for West Lake Landfill plan after Superfund chief resigns
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Task Force resigned Tuesday after one year in the role, leaving residents in northwest St. Louis County unsure about the fate of a proposal to clean up West Lake Landfill.
Albert Kelly, former EPA senior advisor, did not immediately return a call for comment. Media reports say the ex-banking executive resigned after relentless bad press about his financial dealings. Before he joined the EPA, Kelly helped administrator Scott Pruitt get financing to pay for a mortgage and to buy a minor league baseball team. Later, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. banned Kelly from the industry because of a previous banking violation.
“Kelly’s service at EPA will be sorely missed,” Pruitt said in a statement. “In just over a year he has made a tremendous impact on EPA’s Superfund program. … He has helped EPA professionals find solutions to moving languished sites down the path to clean up, including San Jacinto in Texas, Portland Harbor in Oregon and West Lake in St. Louis.”
Pruitt is facing his own bad public image over a growing list of ethics and spending violations, though he has resisted calls for his ouster. Last week, Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat and the ranking member of the House Committee on Energy, told Pruitt during a tense hearing: “In any other administration, Republican or Democrat, you would be long gone by now.”
The EPA proposed in February plans to remove 70 percent of the radioactivity at West Lake Landfill. Residents hailed the announcement as a victory after years of pushing the agency to clean up the site, especially since the discovery of an underground fire 600 feet away at Bridgeton Landfill.
The West Lake Landfill proposal was a hallmark of Pruitt’s efforts to make Superfund clean-ups a top priority. The administrator has said he will personally oversee any remediation costing more than $50 million; the proposal for West Lake would require about $236 million. EPA took public comment on the proposal until April and promised a decision by September.
Uncertainty in St. Louis
But with Kelly gone and Pruitt on shaky ground, residents who live near West Lake say they fear the clean-up plan will be delayed or dropped altogether. Previously, EPA proposed to place a cap on the site and leave the hazardous waste in place, an option residents say is unacceptable.
“It’s this sinking feeling — who’s next? What are the chances this guy is going to allow this site to get cleaned up? It is the devil you know,” said Dawn Chapman, co-founder of Just Moms STL, a grassroots group of residents who support fully remediating West Lake Landfill. “All we want is to be kept safe and for our children to be kept safe. We now have to work twice as hard to get something accomplished.”
Chapman and Just Moms STL co-founder Karen Nickel traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with Kelly less than two weeks ago to discuss the Superfund program. She said Kelly showed a political willingness to clean up West Lake Landfill that she never witnessed during the Obama administration.
"What I think everyone is missing and what he brought to the table is, he was not from EPA,” Chapman said. “He was not a bureaucrat. He entered this agency with fresh eyes and with no science background. He’s able to wade through the (expletive) and see straight to the logical, which is: There are a million things that could go wrong at [West Lake Landfill] and it has to get cleaned up."
Kelly was well-known among West Lake Landfill activists for passing out his cell phone number and answering calls from residents.
“If I call him up right now, he’d answer,” Chapman said in an interview before her trip to Washington to meet Kelly. “It’s as close as we’ve ever gotten and as high as we’ve ever gotten.”
Kelly traveled to Bridgeton in October 2017 to hear from residents who live near West Lake Landfill, which is contaminated with World War II-era nuclear weapons waste and sits adjacent to the other landfill where an underground fire has burned for more than six years. During the visit, he announced that he would conduct more tests on the radioactive contamination at the landfill — something residents requested repeatedly.
Kelly also put West Lake Landfill on a list of 21 Superfund sites nationwide targeted for “immediate intense action.”
Chapman said she’s watching to see if Pruitt meets a similar fate. “It literally could mean going back to ground zero” if Pruitt resigns, she said. “We just keep waiting for this one person who will put on a superhero cape; Pruitt is doing that.”
Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @StLouisLindsay