A debate is waging on whether the underground smoldering is moving closer to radioactive waste at West Lake landfill in Missouri. Let us take a look at the underground smoldering, the radioactive waste and what is being done about it.
West Lake Landfill
The West Lake Landfill comprises approximately 200 acres in Bridgeton, Missouri. In 1930 a limestone quarry and related operations began, and in 1950 it started to receive solid wastes and construction debris. No permits were required at this time.
The landfill consists of two Operable Units: OU-1 and OU-2.
OU-2 does not contain any radiological waste while OU-1 does.
In 1990, West Lake Landfill became a Superfund site and was listed on the National Priorities List.
The Bridgeton Landfill, part of OU-2, received a permit to operate in 1979 and stopped receiving waste on December 31, 2004.
On December 23, 2010, a subsurface fire was detected. Why should you care? Let us look at this closer – because it matters.
Underground Smoldering OU-2
It’s invisible to the populace living in the area, but the smouldering makes its presence known through the smell of rotten eggs, hydrogen sulfide and high levels of benzene gases.
Bridgeton Landfill, owned by Republic Services, is on fire, burning deep beneath the ground in this North St. Louis County area, and giving off these putrid odors. In addition, temperature probes have surpassed normal heat levels – proving the existence of the fire that is on the move, burning closer to another site, OU-1.
Homeowners are asking – why did the fire start – and how can anyone put it out?
Landfill fires are caused by waste. Biological decomposition – or rotting – generates heat, which can cause the trash to spontaneously combust, or catch on fire. Firefighters cannot put out subsurface landfill fires with water, which makes it difficult to address the fire as it burns and moves.
The West Lake Landfill is a political nightmare that has involved the Environmental Protection Agency, Missouri’s Attorney General Chris Koster, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, and the St. Louis County Department of Health plus many others.
There’s now even more attention focused on the fire, as the Bridgeton Landfill fire is currently only 1,000 feet away from West Lake Landfill site, OU-1 – a site that could contain radioactive waste dumped illegally in the past.
If the fire burns into radioactive material, it could send it into a smoke plume spread throughout the region.
Where did the radioactivity come from, what is it, and – most importantly – will the fire release radioactive material through the area?
West Lake Landfill OU-1
Radioactive wastes were dumped illegally in the West Lake Landfill Site by the Cotter Corporation, as early as 1973. The nuclear waste supposedly came from the federal governments Manhattan Project, a program that developed nuclear weapons during World War II.
The Manhattan Project processed the uranium for this effort at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis , Missouri. The process produced many thousands of tons of nuclear waste from the uranium itself in addition to many more radioactive materials. Typically, the wastes were mixed with soils before disposal.
Some have suggested that the Cotter Corporation mixed 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate cake residue with 39,000 tons of soil. They then sent the total of 47,700 tons of material to the West Lake Landfill site for disposal in 1973.
What is Happening Now
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is fighting a legal battle against the landfills owner, Republic Services, to clean up the site. The Attorney General brought in witnesses who stated that detection of radiological contamination in trees indicates off-site migration, but the EPA disputes that charge. The court case will not go to trial until March, 2016.
Clashing opinions fuel the fight; the EPA’s overall assessment of the conditions has not changed, but local officials are concerned about a possible emergency situation, should the fire reach the radioactive landfill.
Last year, St. Louis County created ‘West Lake Landfill Evacuation/Shelter In Place Plan’. The plan states that release of radioactive fallout “will most likely occur with little or no warning.”
On the other hand, according to the EPA, there’s nothing of concern. In their assessment, of the 5 locations monitored for volatile organic compounds and alpha, beta, and gamma radiation, all were consistent with the metropolitan area and did not exceed health-based standards. Soil samples analyzed for radium, thorium and uranium also were consistent with the off-site soil samples.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sampled the soil in 2012 and 2013 for Ra 226, Th 228, Th 230, Th232, U234, U235 and U 238 in five different sites relative to the West Lake Landfill with no elevated levels.
Experts also analyzed monitoring well samples for groundwater over the same time period, and the samples showed no elevation. A recent news release from Region 7 EPA reported as late as 10/16/2015, they believe there is still no public health risk for the St. Louis area.
West Lake Landfill Underground Fire: Fallen Through the Cracks
The West Lake Landfill problems have clearly fallen through the cracks.
Who is responsible for the cleanup? Probably the government but unfortunately, this is a slow process.
Who is responsible for the subsurface fire and putting it out? Probably the owner.
Eventually, the West Lake Landfill will be cleaned up, but it has taken a long time already – and will probably take several more years.
The question remains – will the fire reach the radioactivity, and produce a plume of ash to contaminate the cities surrounding the area? Will there be enough radioactivity to matter?
The EPA stands by their statement of no public risk while the county writes an evacuation plan – there are two sides of the issue and both have backing. At this time there is no clear answer. One can only hope that the EPA measurements are accurate, which allows the time to correct this overlooked issue.