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Expert blames mountain-like landfill for changing flood patterns along Meramec

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MO (KTVI) – A landfill sits in part of an area the federal government noted as protected, in order to avoid flooding. Washington University Professor Dr. Robert Criss noticed it while looking at the consequences of our levee system.

“This is like the top seven flood for hundreds of years. That river is not responding normally,” he said.

Criss said he was studying maps when he noticed something he says should not be in the floodway. It rose like a mountain through last week’s floodwaters; except, it’s a man-made mountain. It’s called the Peerless Park Landfill, near Highway 141 and Interstate 44.

The area used to be the location of the I-44 drive in movie theatre, an area residents remember flooding in the early 80s. According to the Cinema Treasures website, “It closed and is now a landfill. The screen finally came down in 2001.”

Criss found a 1995 FEMA map of the area and he drew in the space the landfill takes up today. It’s halfway in the area the feds designated as a floodway.

“How do you do that? Who signed off on that? I can’t imagine anybody would sign off on that. If you want to put a block wall around your patio, you have to get permission. And somebody built a mountain in the floodway?” FEMA state a “floodway...must be kept free of encroachment so that the 100-year flood can be carried without substantial increase in flood heights.”

If you look at historical pictures from Google Earth, you can see changes in the landfill. Google Earth allows you to see 1990, 1996, 2002 and today. It’s unclear the amount of growth over those years, but now it's nearly two football fields high.

Look at FEMA maps and you can see how regulators appeared to adjust to the landfill. FEMA created a newer map since the 1995 version. Regulators appeared to move the floodway line to go around the landfill.

“I cannot comprehend how our rules and laws would just change and our calculations in such a drastic way to accommodate that,” Criss said.

Kelly Chandler's family has now endured two floods that she blames on the encroaching Meramec River. “We need to get together as a community and understand what the strategy is to move forward along this entire river, to figure out if we fix one area to impact another,” she said.

Her father had just spent $700,000 renovating Rockwood Bank in Eureka after the flood a year and a half ago. “The bank has been around since 1990. For 27 years this has not happened. They were not impacted by the flood of ’93,” Chandler said. “They were impacted by the flood of 2015 and now again in 2017. It just obviously starts to spark red flags.”

She points out there are many businesses and homes you don’t hear about, suddenly faced with flooding fears they didn’t have before.

“Who is behind all of these decisions?” Chandler said.

“Somebody knows exactly what the heck they did,” Criss said.

Yet no one has a clear answer.

Fox 2 News contacted six agencies and received very little information.

FEMA did not respond. The Army Corps of Engineers said it didn’t have jurisdiction. St. Louis County offered the most answers. A county spokesman said the landfill began when the area used to be a small municipality called Peerless Park. Since the town no longer exists, we may have no way of knowing when or why leaders allowed this. Records from Missouri Secretary of State’s Office show the landfill registered for a fictitious name in 1987.

“It’s like flipping over a rock and watching the bugs all run around trying to find some hunk of stuff to duck under,” Criss said. “You can’t get a straight answer.” The Great Rivers Habitat Alliance has been trying to get answers about the landfill since the flooding a year and a half ago. Director David Stokes said he’s experienced the same shoulder shrugging. The people at the landfill also had no comment.

After our report aired, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources emailed a response, saying the landfill pre-exists solid waste laws. The spokesman sent a link outlining the history of the Peerless Park Landfill.