“Precautions and odor reporting are in order. Please wear a mask if in the vicinity,” cautions a Facebook post in the West Lake Landfill community Facebook group that links to a September 12 construction notice. A comment in response reads, “Why do innocent people still have to live next to this site?”
The West Lake Landfill Facebook page – a public, online manifestation of a group of thousands of concerned residents living in close proximity to the connected West Lake and Bridgeton landfills – is managed and moderated by the founders of Just Moms STL, a community group and non-profit organization started by three outraged, and determined, mothers in 2013. Just Moms’ mission statement is straightforward: to inform the public about the radioactive material housed inside the St. Louis metro area and achieve safe (and permanent) remediation of the toxic materials plaguing the community.
Yet through many episodes of bureaucratic mismanagement, this goal has grown increasingly complicated – and increasingly desperate, as residents continue to report heightened occurrences of cancers, birth defects, and autoimmune disease.
The radioactive material lying underground at West Lake dates back to St. Louis’ often forgotten history as a WWII-era Uranium-processing hub for the Manhattan Project. As tons of Uranium ore were processed and purified in St. Louis, thousands of barrels of radiogenic waste accumulated – and were hastily stored just outside St. Louis at a site adjacent to Lambert Airport when the designated St. Louis storage facility was filled to capacity. Abandoned in stacks sitting exposed to the elements, toxic waste slowly leaked from the rusting frames, infiltrating the soil and groundwater and eventually making its their way to nearby Coldwater Creek – where the current was able to transport the contamination for hundreds of miles before emptying into the Missouri River. Throughout the 1960’s, the waste was moved around the county, purchased at auction by a bidder that subsequently went bankrupt, and then acquired by Cotter Corporation, a Colorado-based uranium production company which shipped any valuable material back to Colorado. Unable to afford commercial disposal of the remaining waste in St. Louis, Cotter reportedly asked the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission for assistance, but received none.
In the 70’s, attempts to clean up the site that had been housing the waste since its original purchase involved the excavation of the uppermost one to one and a half feet of (toxic) dirt, which was illegally dumped along with 8700 tons of radioactive waste – believed to be leached barium sulfate – over compacted trash at an unlined quarry-turned-landfill: West Lake. West Lake Landfill closed in the late 1970’s. And so the waste was left to sit for decades.
Long before most residents suspected a problem, the EPA declared the landfill a Superfund site (1990), began a lengthy investigation that lasted throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and proposed a solution: a sediment “cap” to limit wind dispersal of contaminated soil and limit gamma radiation at the surface (2008). When environmental groups caught wind of this decision, they called upon the EPA for reevaluation: this would do nothing to prevent continued seepage into groundwater; the site remained vulnerable to natural hazards (tornadoes, floods) that could lead to further displacement of radioactive material and entry into groundwater.
Residents began to catch on around 2012. A “subsurface smoldering event” – an uncontrolled underground fire – had started at a gas extraction site in the nearby Bridgeton Landfill, releasing a toxic stench that reached all the way to the airport. Local residents, at times confined to their homes to avoid the oppressive odors, worried about the health impacts of breathing in this toxic air. And for good reason: underground landfill fires are known to produce toxic fumes including carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and carcinogenic benzene gas. As residents sought answers, the landfill and its toxic history were brought to public attention. Concerns grew not only about the waste itself, but the possibility that the fire might come into contact with the radioactive material, releasing airborne particles free to migrate far from the site.
A March 2013 lawsuit against landfill-owner Republic Services mandated the creation of a contingency plan to prevent contact between the fire and waste. Though originally proposed as a physical barrier, the discovery of radioactive material in the planned construction path initiated a change of course, and a series of cooling loops were installed instead. The contingency plan is also required to provide a course of action in the event the fire breaches the cooling loops. However, this appears to be missing. Harvey Ferdman, Chair of the West Lake Landfill/Bridgeton Landfill Community Advisory Group, voiced the community’s continued concerns: “While the specifications for this plan were issued over a year ago, to the best of our knowledge, there is not a final agreed-upon, signed, and implemented plan in place to protect this community from such an event.”
Additionally, should the fire come into contact with the waste, the consequences cannot be adequately predicted, as concerns have been raised about whether the radioactive material has been correctly characterized. A 2013 paper by Dr. Bob Criss, Professor in the Washington University Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, addresses a variety of risk factors associated with the landfill, first and foremost being that samples have the wrong composition and stoichiometric ratios to be indicative of barium sulfate waste. Criss posits the high likelihood that the waste could really contain other processing byproducts “that could be far more reactive, soluble and leachable than barium sulfate” (Criss 2013). Criss believes the lack of proper identification is the largest risk factor associated with the landfill: “We don’t know what it is, but we know it’s radioactive, and measurements show the radioactivity will grow for almost 10,000 years. … It’s all improper as far as I’m concerned. I’ll not be satisfied until they get the right people on the job and tell me what they did.”
Ferdman also expressed concern about testing practices and inadequate characterization of the site. “It is our belief that not enough is known about the extent of RIM (radiologically-impacted material) at this site to be able to issue a ROD (Record of Decision – an official EPA-issued plan for site cleanup) at this time.” Pointing out that the material was initially documented as “clean fill” when it was moved to the site – “to be used as daily cover wherever and whenever needed within the landfill complex” – he highlights ambiguities in the waste’s identity that align with Criss’s concerns. Ed Smith, Policy Director Missouri Coalition for the Environment, called attention to the current lack of knowledge of environmental factors that may have caused the particles to migrate offsite, distribution contamination far from the landfill: “I don’t think the EPA’s done a good enough job treating this site like a crime was committed. Meaning, they took over the site in 1990, 13 years after the RIM had been dumped. Rain, wind and other human activities could have/did lead to offsite migration of RIM. The EPA is mostly looking forward at risk, not at historic potential pathways.”
2017 groundwater testing resulted in the detection of radioactive material in the section of the landfill containing the fire, reinforcing the community’s fears. In reference to recently-released results, Ferdman states that “there is concern that RIM may be in the SSE (subsurface smoldering event) and also that it has a migration path through both the groundwater and stormwater runoff into the adjacent channel and other drainage facilities, ultimately ending up in a retention lake that is used for recreational purposes, including fishing.” He adds: “No testing of either of these pathways to exposure has been performed nor is it in the scope of the ROD as we understand it.”
Across the board, there is a common sentiment that a remediation strategy cannot be determined without further testing to assess whether (and how) the contamination has migrated from the site. Additionally, “capping” the radioactive material is not an adequate solution, given the unlined nature of the landfill and the unknown identity of the waste. Smith provided list of problems with a “capping” approach: “The site is not lined, sits in the floodplain, adjacent to a smoldering fire, and the radioactivity (Radium specifically) will become up to 100X more radioactive over the next 9,000 years. Leaving this type of waste at West Lake, with no protective liner, is inexcusable.”
After many years of waiting, a final resolution seems to be growing nearer – and activists desperately hope that the final outcome will be excavation of the contaminated materials instead of merely capping in place. Throughout the past year, the EPA has been reviewing documents prepared by the identified “potentially responsible parties,” which fully assess the site’s contamination and evaluate possible remediation strategies. In late August, the EPA informed residents that a decision was still many months away.
In the meantime, there is more to do than wait. Smith believes that “people need to tell the EPA right now that they support removal of the radioactive wastes. The EPA needs to hear that people around the landfill are suffering headaches, nosebleeds, and other problems and offer a voluntary buyout.” This is an environmental justice issue that affects the entire St. Louis community and calls attention to significant gaps in the ways that federal and private entities prevent and address environmental hazards that affect public health. Yet it is also an example of the power of community activism. At the most recent community meeting on October 19, EPA Senior Advisor to the Federal Administrator, Albert Kelly, attended to listen to residents’ concerns and experiences. In response to the community’s testimonies, Kelly voiced a commitment to proactive remediation. Through the community’s persistent efforts, government agencies have finally acknowledged their voices. Residents can only hope that this promise will come to fruition.