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St. Louis County enters debate over future of West Lake landfill's radioactive waste

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 24, 2009 - The half-life of the radioactive material in the West Lake landfill in northwest St. Louis County is thousands of years. The controversy over how to deal with it is heading in that direction.

The latest development is a resolution by the St. Louis County Council asking that jurisdiction over the site be transferred from the Environmental Protection Agency, which came up with a plan for the site last year, to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Environmentalists who have campaigned for what they consider to be a safer way to contain the material say the Corps will be a better manager for the project.

But the EPA says that because the landfill is a Superfund site, it is the agency mandated to handle the situation, and its plan is the proper way to proceed.

From the '40s

At issue is thousands of tons of radioactive material left over from nuclear weapons production at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in the 1940s. Since it was taken to the West Lake landfill in Bridgeton, in the Missouri River floodplain, environmentalists have campaigned to have it removed and shipped to a licensed radioactive waste disposal site.

Last year, the EPA released its plan, which calls for covering the site and installing monitoring wells to protect against any harmful effects to nearby residents.

Unhappy with that solution, opponents have kept up their drive to have the material taken elsewhere. Their latest effort was the resolution passed unanimously by the County Council on Tuesday. Council chairwoman Hazel Erby, who co-sponsored the resolution with Barbara Fraser, said the resolution now goes to members of the Missouri delegation in Congress as well as to Gov. Jay Nixon.

She said she hoped that with the Obama administration taking over in Washington and her moving into the chairmanship of the council, such changes might lead to new approaches in how West Lake could be handled.

"We're hopeful, so I was willing to try it," Erby said. "I think that's about all we can do. I don't have any other plans right now. I guess we'll stay on top of it."

New Administration 

Kat Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, also hopes the atmosphere of change in Washington extends to plans for the landfill.

"What's important about the resolution is that it reminds everybody what we want here," Smith said, "including the people who are carrying the risk for this thing and the people who will pay if something goes wrong.

"Our children and our grandchildren will be dealing with whatever happens at that site. We're letting them know that it's not acceptable to leave that there."

Pointing to the federal stimulus package and other administration efforts to deal with the economic crisis, Smith said spending money to deal with West Lake would be a worthwhile investment.

"If we have to go into debt to pay it off, like we are for so many other things, at least there will be a benefit for it.

"We're at the point now that we really really really need to do it right. It's not going to be cheap to do it right, but it's certainly not going to be cheap to do it wrong, either."

Future Containment

The design phase for the EPA approach is currently under way. Spokesman Chris Whitley at the agency's office in Kansas City, Kan., said the plan calls for several layers of material to be placed on top of the radioactive soil, then a surface cap of more soil and vegetation.

Whitley bristles at the suggestion that, as the environmental opponents put it, the EPA will just be putting a bunch of rocks on top of the site to contain the problem. He said the design is configured to protect the material from wind, water and the elements.

"Some folks have tried to simplify this by saying we're just taking a few dump trucks filled with rocks and dumping them on top of the garbage," he said. That's not even close to the process involved.

"To say that the EPA remedy is just piling stuff on top is a gross mischaracterization."

Whitley also refutes allegations that once the containment process is complete, the EPA will consider its role over as well. He said the Superfund regulations require that the site be thoroughly reviewed over a five-year period, including monitoring the wells regularly.

"This is not a casual affair," Whitley said. "It's not something we take lightly, and it's not something we are doing capriciously. This has involved a lot of science, a lot of study and a lot of sound judgment.

"We obviously can't lift all the material in the landfill and slip something beneath it that would be a 100 percent assurance that nothing would ever leach. But the engineering of landfills in general does provide a certain amount of protection against that."

Leaching is one concern, but for hydrologist Robert Criss at Washington University, the main worry is flooding. He says an unlined landfill is the worst possible spot for the material that is at West Lake, and the solution proposed by the EPA does not really address the problem.

"It's like putting shingles on your house when you need a basement," Criss said. "A top cover would help, but that's not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is that the landfill is unlined. The stuff's in the wrong place. We have poorly characterized radioactive waste in the floodplain in an unlined landfill. There is no putting stuff on the top that changes that."

Criss echoed hope that the money flowing from Washington could help solve the longstanding problem.

"It's going to be an expensive proposition, no doubt about it," he said. "But we would not even allow our municipal domestic waste to be placed in that landfill today. It's frankly an outrage this material is situated where it is.

"What would be a more shovel-ready and more worthy project than getting radioactive waste out of a populated metropolitan area that is interred in an unlined landfill that is situated in a floodplain?"

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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