Dozens of people who live or work near the Bridgeton Landfill demanded answers late Monday from state health officials they met with to discuss a recent study on the harmful effects of odors caused by an underground fire.
The report released last September by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found that sulfur-based compounds detected in the air near the landfill may have harmed people living and working near the landfill. Officials found that emissions from the Bridgeton Landfill between 2013 and 2016 were high enough to harm those with respiratory illnesses and chronic health conditions.
The conclusion did not surprise area residents and activists, many of whom expressed anger at the meeting the state health department hosted in Bridgeton to discuss the study. Residents have long blamed the Bridgeton Landfill for foul odors and respiratory illnesses.
“What are your studies doing to help us in our community, other than tell us, ‘Yes, you’re right, you’re being poisoned?’” said Tonya Mason, who has lived near the landfill for 12 years, “when we sat there for years telling you guys that our eyes are burning, we’re vomiting, our throats are hurting.”
State officials said that sulfur-based emissions from the landfill have decreased significantly due to equipment installed to reduce odors. The study concludes that current levels are not hazardous to human health.
Several people who attended the meeting said they were dissatisfied with the state’s findings. Some wanted health officials to explain why they did not notify people who live near the landfill about potentially harmful emissions when the concentrations of sulfur-based compounds in the air exceeded safe levels.
“I know that for your agency, you have to see an exceedance and really look at it and determine what it means for us,” said Dawn Chapman, a local activist and Maryland Heights resident. “But I think that you are taking a critical part of our job as parents away when you don’t let us know immediately that if you guys are walking around and there’s any exceedance.”
The Bridgeton Landfill is a 52-acre solid waste dump that closed in 2004 and was acquired by Republic Services in 2008 when the Phoenix-based corporation merged with Allied Waste, the landfill’s original owner. A subsurface smoldering event has been occurring there since 2010. Landfill company officials expect the fire to keep smoldering until 2024.
It also is located 600 feet from World War II-era radioactive waste at the adjacent West Lake Landfill Superfund site. The Environmental Protection Agency announced a cleanup plan for the West Lake Landfill last September. The plan calls for removing 70 percent of the contamination over the next five years.
The source of strong odors are sulfur-based compounds that include hydrogen sulfide, a gas that smells like rotten eggs. People exposed to hydrogen sulfide can experience headaches, difficulty breathing and irritation to the eyes, nose and throat.
The state’s analysis also notes that many residents are suffering from increased stress partly due to the experiencing bad odors. Multiple studies about community health near toxic waste sites recommend that government agencies prioritize addressing chronic stress.
State officials still recommend that residents, especially children and the elderly, stay indoors on days when odors are strong. They also recommend that residents and nearby workers seek medical advice for any respiratory symptoms.
The Department of Health and Senior Services will continue to review air monitoring data, said Jonathan Garoutte, administrator of its Section for Environmental Public Health.
“We think [the study] is a milestone for us,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere, the oversight of this site will continue.”
While environmental activists believe that there were many gaps in the state’s report, they think it could be useful in supporting their efforts to ask for funding to buy out residents who want to move away from the Bridgeton Landfill.
“It’s going to be a tool for the community around the landfill that has long supported relocation,” said Ed Smith, policy director at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “The risk of these odors is still there. It may not be as frequent, but the chronic stress of the people there completely remains.”
Previous health research
In 2016, St. Louis County released a health assessment that showed that people living within two miles of the landfill reported slightly higher rates of asthma and chronic lung disease compared to other county residents.
However, county health officials published findings from that survey in the journal Environmental Research last October, concluding that there was not a significant difference in the frequency of respiratory illnesses near the landfill and the rest of the county.
The county and the state’s findings are comparable, said Garoutte.
“We saw a potential for respiratory concerns in the past, especially for those with pre-existing conditions,” he said.
The study also noted that attributed 52 percent of the odor complaints reported by residents to Champ Landfill, an active landfill located nearby in Maryland Heights.
Landfill company’s perspective
In a 38-page letter sent on Dec. 19 to the Department of Health and Senior Services, a consultant for Bridgeton Landfill LLC wrote that the company disagreed with the state’s findings that sulfur-based emissions from the landfill may have harmed residents in the past. Deborah Gray, a toxicologist with Statenac Consulting Services, reported that the state misrepresented air monitoring data from previous years.
“Results have consistently demonstrated the air did not in the past pose a health risk to our workers or our neighbors,” said the letter from Bridgeton Landfill.
Bridgeton Landfill LLC has spent more than $200 million investing in infrastructure, such as its gas collection system, to manage foul odors.
A St. Louis County circuit judge ordered Bridgeton Landfill to pay $16 million last summer to settle a lawsuit that former Missouri attorney general Chris Koster filed against the company in 2013. Koster alleged that the landfill broke state environmental laws for allowing the underground fire to harm residents.
The landfill company was required to put a portion of the settlement, $12.5 million, into a “community project fund.” The St. Louis Community Foundation is determining this year what projects that fund will support. However, none of those funds can be used to relocate residents.
The Department of Health and Senior Services will collect public comments until Jan. 18, and use them in a final version of its health report.
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