There is increasing concern about the status of two landfills in Bridgeton as a slow-moving underground fire in the Bridgeton Landfill edges towards the adjacent West Lake Landfill. Radioactive waste left over from World War II was illegally dumped at West Lake in the 1970s.
Now it’s believed similar material is included in the Bridgeton Landfill and in the path of the fire. A plan is being considered to build a barrier to prevent the fire from spreading from one landfill to the other. Residents and environmentalists are concerned that the area, and perhaps communities miles away, are threatened by a potential toxic contamination above and below ground.
The underground fire at times emits a strong odor. Residents of the area report that the smell causes headaches, nose bleeds, nausea and asthma attacks.
There are many players in the situation, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which oversees the radioactive waste at West Lake, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), which oversees the air and water quality of Bridgeton, and Republic Services, which owns the Bridgeton Landfill and is listed as a “potentially responsible party” of the West Lake Landfill.
St. Louis Public Radio Science Reporter Véronique LaCapra has been covering the story, and joined host Don Marsh in studio to help moderate the discussion. For more background information, see her previous reporting on the topic.
Also joining the conversation was Ed Smith, Safe Energy Director at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Russ Knocke, public affairs director at Republic Services, and Dawn Chapman, a resident who lives near the landfills.
The guest for the second half of the show was EPA region 7 administrator Karl Brooks. The EPA is in charge of deciding where to build the barrier isolating the underground fire from the radioactive material.
Experience of residents
“I think a lot of times we feel like we’re being held hostage,” said Dawn Chapman. “You wake up in the morning and you don’t know what it’s going to be like outside. Are you going to drive your kids to school? Are you going to let them wait outside for the school bus?”
“It’s a really horrible situation just with the smell, and then you take into consideration … the radioactive waste part of it. We’re scared to death. Every time we turn around there’s a new report coming out saying they’ve found something new. And it’s very difficult for anybody who lives around the site to feel like anybody has this situation, anybody is in control.”
“Both sites have been a significant source of public concern and frustration, particularly in the last year,” Russ Knocke said. “We share that frustration. We’ve had a team of more than 80 contractors and 12 landfill professionals, environmental managers that are out there working the site even in the extreme winter 24-7 to make site improvements.
“What I mean by that are digging new wells to help mitigate odor, we installed a cap by working from both sides in, which is abnormal in the landfill management space, we are putting in a state-of-the-art leachate pre-treatment facility…. that even includes the installation of an isolation barrier.”
As reported today in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there has actually been an increase in odor complaints since Republic put a cap over the Bridgeton Landfill. In the article, Republic Services spokesperson Richard Callow credited the increase in complaints to more mobilized efforts on the part of residents.
During the show, Russ Knocke said that increased odor complaints do not necessarily mean an increase in odor occurrences.
“If you look at the actual MDNR data, which is made public on their website … you’ll see that going back to the spring there’s been … a significant decrease,” Knocke said.
When asked about health risks, Knocke deferred to the regulating authorities in charge of monitoring the landfills, MDNR and the EPA.
“Those authorities continue to say that there are no health risks,” Knocke said.
Dawn Chapman, whose daughter has asthma, disagrees. “The smell can trigger an asthma attack,” she said. “I consider that a health effect.”
Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment said that the 2008 report from the EPA was too narrow in scope and didn’t address the possible effects of the underground fire reaching the radioactive waste. He also noted that no study has been done on the consequences of long-term exposure to the chemicals released by the underground fire.
“I challenge the understanding of the health impacts here,” said Smith. “The only report on what happens if a fire hits those radioactive wastes or vice-versa has been conducted by the contractor hired by Republic Services, which found no environmental or health impact …This is a report that we challenge.”
“What’s important is the opinion and the scientific study of people’s whose job it is to interpret health data,” said Karl Brooks of the EPA. “There’s continuous air monitoring of the site. Our partners with the Missouri Department of Health, as well as the Department of Natural Resources, say that that monitoring establishes that the air is meeting all applicable limits that are essential to protect public health. It’s clear that the drinking water that folks use throughout that part of the metro area is safe; it comes from a completely different aquifer. And it’s also clear that the RIM, the radiological material, remains within the boundaries of the site. It’s not migrating off-site. The groundwater testing establishes that.”
Timeline to building an isolation barrier
In a letter to the EPA dated March 18, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster called for the immediate construction of an isolation barrier to separate the underground fire from radioactive material. According to EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks, the EPA will determine the best location and method of construction within 90 days.
“The key thing to remember is that the location needs to be placed in an area that we know will separate that subsurface event from the radiological material. We need to make sure that alignment fits, and we need to make sure that the barrier construction is feasible,” Brooks said. “Getting all of those disparate technical pieces together to satisfy the scientists and engineers of the EPA will take some time.”
And, he said, the EPA’s information indicates that there will be enough time to construct the barrier before fire gets too close to the radioactive waste.
“The RIM [Radiological Impacted Material] that has been identified is still a substantial distance – over 900 feet away – from what’s thought to be the edge of that subsurface event, giving the engineers plenty of time under EPA direction to get that isolation barrier established,” Brooks said.
Note: Because the underground fire has no flames and isn’t exposed to oxygen, it is often referred to as a smoldering or subsurface event. However, the chemical reactions present make the temperature in excess of 170 degrees.