Something’s Burning

A fire’s been burning away for five years at a landfill in Bridgeton, North St. Louis County. No one can see it, but there’s no escaping the nauseating smell permeating the air for miles around. “It’s kinda like a rotten cabbage odor. On some days it smells like a house is on fire,” says Dawn Chapman, who lives about two miles south of the landfill. “Even when it goes away you can still smell it on your clothes.”

Technically speaking, the chemical reaction letting off the fumes isn’t a “fire.” It’s a “subsurface smoldering event” – a self-sustaining, high-temperature reaction deep inside the waste pile that’s consuming the waste and causing the landfill’s surface to settle.

photo of a capped landfill under a threatening skyphoto Lori FreshwaterAbout 87,000 tons of atomic waste lie buried in West Lake Landfill in the City of Bridgeton. An underground fire in a neighboring landfill is headed towards the radioactive material.

This particular “event” is smoldering at some 300 degrees Fahrenheit, emitting toxic gases such as sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and benzene – a known carcinogen. Short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide is linked to respiratory illnesses. People living by the landfill have been complaining of nosebleeds, asthma, and lung and eye infections. The fire, state officials say, could continue to burn for another 6 to 10 years.

Terrible as this is, it’s only part of the problem. The other part is that the fire is slowly moving towards the adjacent West Lake Landfill – a Superfund site where thousands of tons of radioactive waste lies buried. Right now, the two are less than 1,000 feet apart.

Consultants for Missouri Attorney General Kris Koster said last November that the fire could reach the radioactive material within a few months. But, Republic Corporation – the owner of both sites in this complex of landfills – insists the fire is moving away from the waste. It’s not clear what will happen if the fire reaches the radioactive debris, but local residents, and some county officials, fear it could set off a nuclear crisis.

A St. Louis County emergency evacuation plan in place since 2014 – accidentally leaked to the media – doesn’t do much to allay these fears. It considers the possibility of “radioactive fallout to be released in the smoke plume and spread throughout the region.” That same year, letters to parents of children in four school districts explaining evacuation contingencies, intended to reassure them, instead spread panic by alerting them to the dangerous situation.

“It’s really a big mess,” says Chapman, cofounder of Just Moms STL, a nonprofit pressing for a solution to the fire, and a cleanup of the radioactive waste. The group also wants the EPA to offer buy-outs of homes around the landfill.

As in the Coldwater Creek area, studies have reached differing conclusions about the cancer rates and risks to residents.

Bob Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies says the nuclear wastes “don’t just pose the potential danger of the spread of radioactivity by fire; chronic low-level exposure of nearby residents to radioactivity is also of concern.” After analyzing hundreds of soil and dust samples in and around the landfill, Alvarez, who’s also a former advisor to the Energy Department, and his colleagues wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences that “the wastes had likely migrated off site.”

The St. Louis County health department has said that it will soon start a health survey of any respiratory symptoms experienced by residents living within two miles of the landfill.

Chapman hadn’t even known about the nuclear waste until she called to complain about the smell in 2013. Neither had she known that the original source of this contamination in her neighborhood – World War II-era uranium-processing waste – was the same as that in the neighborhoods by Coldwater Creek.

In 1973, Cotter Corp., a company that was drying and shipping some of this waste to Colorado, illegally dumped an estimated 8,700 tons of it at West Lake, where it has remained since.

The EPA listed the unlined, uncovered landfill as a Superfund site in 1990, but after more than half-a-century of arguing about who is responsible and how the cleanup should be done, it has yet to undertake any remediation work. On December 31, it finally announced that it would build an underground protective barrier between the two landfills.

Local residents, however, are frustrated with the EPA’s long delay in starting the cleanup. Many want responsibility transferred to the Army Corps by way of the FUSRAP program, which would take an act of Congress. On February 2, the US Senate began this work, passing a bill that transfers remediation authority to the Army Corps. A similar bill has been introduced in the House.

After the Senate victory, Karen Nickel, another cofounder of Just Moms STL, said, “We have sacrificed so much and we still have work to do, but for now, we will take this victory.”

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