Ever complained about the constant reminders to put your trash in the correct receptacles? Well, placing garbage really is important, as exemplified by the current condition of the Westlake Landfill. Out of use since the 1970s, the landfill remains radioactive. It currently sits in proximity to an underground fire that simmers in another landfill adjacent to Westlake Landfill. Locals worry about numerous long-term and immediate health concerns for the residents in the surrounding areas, the environmental impacts, and whether this issue will ever be resolved.
Located in Bridgeton Missouri, 16 miles northwest of downtown St. Louis, Westlake Landfill began as a limestone quarry in 1939. In the 1950s, the quarry was converted into a landfill; the landfill closed in the late 1970s. In 1973, Cotter Corporation secretly dumped nuclear active waste, byproducts of the nuclear enrichment program for the Manhattan project. As a result, the landfill is radioactive, which has lead to health concerns. The negative effects of long-term exposure to radioactive material pose the most immediate threat to locals’ health because chemicals such as radium, uranium, and lead can cause kidney or brain damage, anemia, and lung or pancreatic cancer.
In 1990, the site was declared a Superfund site. Superfund is a Federal government program that aims to clean up or control sites with hazardous wastes. The government thus listed four main parties that were potentially responsible: The US Department of Energy, Cotter Corporation and two sub-companies of Republic Services, the current owner of Westlake Landfill. The four parties were thus required to investigate the area by law and to come up with an appropriate solution.
After years of investigation, in 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commissioned for a multilayer cover over Operable Unit -1 (OP-1) in order to contain the area with radioactive waste prevent further contamination. The landfill cover reduces the risk of gamma rays and prevents the wind dispersal of contaminated soil and other particles in order to reduce the effects of radiation on the surrounding area.
To make matters worse, in December 2010, a gas extraction site in the nearby Bridgeton Landfill noticed a rise in temperature. Upon further investigation, elevated levels of carbon monoxide and hydrogen were discovered. This indicates an underground fire. This fire, a subsurface smouldering fire, is virtually undetectable, as there is no visible smoke or flame, but is estimated to have burned for three and half years. It burns a mere 1000 feet away from OP-1, the nuclear active waste zone. It is estimated that the fire spreads north by one to two feet per day. Carbon monoxide data collected in early 2014 suggests that the fire remains in the south of the landfill, decreasing its chances of reaching the waste. However, the radioactive waste has been detected in areas further south than expected. This means that the fire could reach the radioactive waste earlier than expected. Furthermore, tests conducted by the Department of Natural Resources have shown that harmful substances travel in the air. An increase in smelly fumes to areas further downwind from the landfill suggests that emissions of toxic substances from the fire have already reached the surface.
The landfill’s geographical situation is also hazardous. The area is prone to earthquakes. If an earthquake occurs, the radioactive material may seep into the groundwater, contaminating the drinking water. Westlake Landfill is also located on the Missouri River floodplain. As such, it has no layer protecting the river’s water table from the radioactive waste; it thus seeps into the river’s groundwater.
With these possible health and environmental hazards in mind, members of the Missouri Congress Delegation sent a letter to EPA in late February 2014 to ask for the contract of the Army Corps to take over the cleanup process. This lead to the launch of a thorough investigation intended to determine the radioactive waste’s exact location and construct a fire-break wall.
In October 2014, a report commissioned by the Bridgeton landfill for the EPA was released, detailing several options for how to prevent the spread of the underground fire from reaching the radioactive material. In the report, they recommended a heat extraction barrier be built along the northern boundary of the landfill. In order to decrease the excavation of waste, it was proposed that the wall be built on existing roads. The wall, which has a predicted service life of approximately 35 years, will reduce the temperatures as the fire moves closer to the waste. This plan is yet to be executed, but is the most plausible option as of this moment.
Overall, while there has been an increase in awareness of the dire situation in Westlake Landfill, little action has been taken to resolve the situation. The residents living in areas around the landfill are constantly exposed to health hazards that may cause cancer and organ damage due to the long term exposure of nuclear-active waste left in the landfill. Coupled with the threat of an ongoing underground fire that burns closer and closer to the radioactive waste, the landfill is a constant threat to the health and safety for not only those in close areas but to everyone in the greater St. Louis region.