Contractors conduct a survey at the West Lake Landfill, an EPA Superfund site in Bridgeton, Missouri, in October 2013. U.S. EPA Region 7

The release of an emergency plan in case of “a catastrophic event” has locals understandably on edge.

Deep underground, the Bridgeton Landfill has been smoldering for a full five years. And for five years, the people of the St. Louis County neighborhoods surrounding the site have endured noxious smells released by the combusting waste.

Now, concerns about the fire—specifically, about its proximity to radioactive waste illegally buried more than 40 years ago at the adjacent West Lake Landfill—are growing. The recent release of a county emergency plan that lays out a course of action to be taken in “a catastrophic event” has many locals on edge.

The news that the government is preparing for a scenario in which the creeping underground fire could reach the radioactive waste understandably caused anxiety in the surrounding communities. The plan, from St. Louis County officials, is blunt and terrifying:

If the “sub-surface smoldering event” reaches the radiological area, there is potential for radioactive fallout to be released in the smoke plume and spread throughout the region. …

This event will most likely occur with little or no warning.

That plan is actually a year old, but it only came to light this month after a few local residents received brochures with instructions on “Where to go in a radiation emergency.” County officials said they mailed the brochures just to people who had requested information.

Following up, a local radio station obtained and released a copy of the government disaster plan formulated in October 2014 to prepare for the possibility that the fire will reach the radioactive waste at West Lake, which is now a federally designated Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site.

A larger nuclear history

This is hardly the first sign of potential trouble at the site. The radioactive materials in the West Lake Landfill are part of a larger nuclear history—the lethal legacy of uranium processing that happened in the St. Louis area during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear bomb. Dangerous waste that resulted from that effort eventually was illegally dumped in the West Lake Landfill at a time when the area, not far from the main St. Louis airport, was much less populated.

Now, thousands of people live in developments in this part of St. Louis County. In early September, Chris Koster, the Missouri attorney general, released some disturbing engineering and scientific reports about conditions at the landfill.

An aerial schematic of the West Lake Landfill; dangerous waste was dumped here during the Manhattan Project. (EPA)

The most recent reports released by the AG say radiation at West Lake is spreading beyond the boundaries of the landfill, and has been detected in groundwater wells and trees outside of the site. They also state that the underground fire is getting closer to the area where radioactive materials are being stored. According to one scenario, it could reach that site in as little as three to six months.

The AG’s office is pressing a lawsuit against Republic Services, the company that is managing both the Bridgeton and West Lake landfills, to have it clean up the site and construct barriers that prevent the fire from reaching the radioactive waste. The case, which seeks penalties and damages, is expected to go to trial in March 2016. In a statement, Attorney General Koster said the situation was untenable:

Republic Services does not have this site under control. Not only does the (Bridgeton) landfill emit a foul odor, it appears that it has poisoned its neighbors’ groundwater and vegetation. The people of Missouri can’t afford to wait any longer — Republic needs to get this site cleaned up.

“Bridgeton Landfill is safe”

Russ Knocke, a spokesperson from Republic, rebutted the AG’s characterization of the situation at the landfill. “Bridgeton Landfill is safe,” Knocke tells CityLab via email. “It is intensely monitored. It is in a managed state.” Furthermore, he said, what’s happening underground at the Bridgeton Landfill shouldn’t be called a fire at all, but rather a “subsurface (exothermic) reaction,” because it is happening deep underground, without any oxygen to cause it to burst into flame.

“The reaction is occurring at a depth of 150-200 feet, within a limestone quarry,” writes Knocke. Citing reports from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that he says directly contradict the AG’s assessment, he added: “It is moving away from, not toward, the radiologically impacted materials (“RIM”).”

According to Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, years of mismanagement of the site by various government and non-government entities have resulted in a confusing and frustrating situation for local residents of the blue-collar neighborhoods around the landfill. Those people are now not only dealing with odors that affect their daily lives, their health, and their property values, but also with the fear that the situation has the potential to escalate dramatically.

Smith says MCE has been working for years to help neighbors who have been plagued by the smell from the landfill fire, which is likely to burn on for another five years or so. “Imagine the worst smell you’ve ever smelled and multiply it by three or four,” he says by phone. “It’s one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had. It’s literally an incinerator of smoldering garbage.”

Smith’s organization maintains that the best way to address the problem and its long-term threat to public health would be to excavate and remove the waste to a facility designed for the long-term disposal of nuclear materials. Republic’s Knocke says his company has invested more than $150 million to manage the odor problem and “the subsurface reaction.” In 2014, he notes, the company reached a $4.7 million settlement with nearly 1,000 households in the area, compensating them for “any loss of use or enjoyment of their property” that resulted from the odors.

“Odor at Bridgeton Landfill is largely a thing of the past,” Knocke writes. “Today, only 1 in 10 of the odor concerns promptly investigated by the landfill are found to be potentially associated with the site. There are many other known odor sources in the area, to include the largest active landfill in the State of Missouri as well as several neighboring industrial locations.”

Dangerous for 9,000 years to come

Regardless of the current odor levels, for local residents, the latest developments have been a reminder of just how devastating a worst-case scenario could be.

Drilling and core sampling take place at the West Lake Landfill in January 2014, to determine an isolation barrier between the site and the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill. (U.S. EPA photo)

Smith says that, according to scientists, the waste will likely remain dangerous for at least 9,000 years to come because of the particular combination of radioactive materials at West Lake. MCE wants the Army Corps of Engineers to take charge of the site, believing it can do a better job of getting the situation cleaned up than the EPA Superfund program that has been in place.

The site is particularly vulnerable, says Smith, because—fire aside—the landfill is in a seismically active area, and also sits in a regular pathway for tornadoes. West Lake Landfill was not designed as a secure disposal site for radioactive waste, he says, and the stuff needs to be removed and properly disposed.

“This radioactive material, over the next 9,000 years, is going to move,” says Smith. “The question for our government right now is: Are we going to put together a plan, or do we allow it to move off the site through nonhuman intervention, like a fire or a flood or an earthquake or a tornado? That’s the real question.”

In the meantime, out of sight, the landfill smolders on.

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