EPA approves West Lake Landfill radioactive waste clean-up

BRIDGETON, Mo. - After several years of fighting and pleading with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill, those who live near the site have scored a victory.

On Thursday, the EPA released its final remediation plan to clean up radioactive waste at the Superfund site in Bridgeton. The $205 million plan will remove approximately 70 percent of the waste from the site.

The plan does not provide for relocating any residents who live near the landfill area. Nonetheless, community groups and others who have been making the case for years that a major clean-up was needed said this was a big step in the right direction.

"This is a good decision. It isn't perfect and it never was going to be," said Dawn Chapman, Just Moms STL. "I think the biggest win for today is that it's not going to stay on site. They're going to remove it offsite."

EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed off on the plan Thursday morning in Washington, D.C. Senator Roy Blunt and Congresswoman Ann Wagner were with him for the occasion.

Parts of the site will be excavated to between 8 and 20 feet below the landfill's surface so that radioactive material can be removed. EPA officials said the radioactive material remaining after the remediation will be so deep under the surface that it will not pose health risks.

"It says to people of Bridgeton, we now have a plan to make this site safe for you and do it in a safe manner," said EPA administrator Jim Gulliford.

The plan approved Thursday is similar to another EPA proposal from earlier this year. That proposal included digging out radioactive waste and installing a specially engineered cover for long-term protection. The new plan is cheaper and faster and will take some four and a half years to complete.

The EPA says the first year and a half will be spent designing the best possible plan for the remediation. The EPA says that the contaminated material will be sent to an out of state site for disposal.

“I’m pleased and happy that after so many years of fighting to get something done, we're on our way,” said Jan Huber, who lives near West Lake Landfill.

A specific location has yet to be determined but we're told sites are being considered in Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and Michigan. Radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project was illegally dumped at West Lake in the 1970s and concerns have been raised for several years. Those fears increased when a fire or what was described as a "subsurface smoldering event" was discovered in 2010 not far from the radioactive waste.

A landfill spokesperson said the subsurface smoldering event was ongoing, but that the smoldering had been contained and was not a threat to reach the radioactive material. In fact, the smoldering is located in the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill. Both landfills have been closed.

The EPA says its remediation plan does not address the smoldering/fire because it is under state supervision. A community group called Just Moms STL, which has been outspoken about safety concerns at West Lake, calls the clean-up plan a victory. But they say they will continue to fight for people who live very close to the landfill to be relocated.

For its part, Bridgeton Landfill, LLC, which owns West Lake, opposes the EPA plan. A statement from the Bridgeton Landfill group says the plan creates "unacceptable risk with no proportional benefit," increases the time to remediate the site, and contradicts past EPA findings regarding risks posed by the site.

The EPA says several "responsible parties" will have to split the $205 million cost for the remediation but the plan does not specifically spell out which groups pay how much. Those "responsible parties" include the US Department of Energy, the Cotter Corporation, and Bridgeton Landfill, LLC.

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment issued the following statement Thursday:

"The EPA’s West Lake Landfill decision marks a significant milestone in the cleanup of the West Lake Landfill and is a positive step toward the long-term safety of the St. Louis region. The EPA’s final decision calls for removal of up to 70% of the radioactive material and for disposal at an out-of-state facility. This announcement today is a reversal of the EPA’s 2008 decision to cap-and-leave the waste at the unlined landfill in the Missouri River floodplain. Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE) has worked on issues at the West Lake Landfill for well over a decade and while today’s announcement is good news for the St. Louis region, we continue to ask for full removal and a buyout of the nearby families. These goals were echoed over and over at the EPA’s public meeting in March that was attended by more than 1,000 people. As long as there is radioactive material at West Lake Landfill, every flood, tornado, fire, or earthquake presents a potential threat to our water, air, and health.

"The impacted community has worked tirelessly to engage the public and elected officials about the harms at West Lake and should be proud of what they have accomplished to move the EPA. This decision reflects a triumph of the community over a relentless misinformation campaign led by the landfill owner, Republic Services.

"Today’s announcement is not the last decision that will be made regarding cleanup at the landfill. The EPA announced it will investigate radioactive groundwater contamination in the near future, which will result in a forthcoming plan regarding the remainder of the radioactive contamination. MCE will push for the removal of all remaining radioactive material as a result of the EPA’s groundwater investigation and another decision will be reached in the future on this issue. The community will need to remain engaged at this site in order to ensure the long-term safety of people and the protection of natural resources. Stay tuned to http://www.moenvironment.org for more information."

Ed Smith
Policy Director
Missouri Coalition for the Environment