West Lake Landfill: EPA Says No Radioactive Hazards As Activists Scrutinize Bridgeton Fire

by

comment
Bridgeton Landfill. - VIA DNR.MO.GOV

In March, concerns about the incredibly smelly landfill in Bridgeton reached a new level when environmental groups warned of a possible "dirty bomb." The question was whether the Bridgeton Landfill's increasing stench -- tied to an underground fire -- could prove to be especially hazardous, given that there are radioactive wastes at the West Lake Landfill on the very same complex, which is located in north county.

And this month, the controversy at the two adjacent landfills was in the national spotlight when Rolling Stone published a feature titled "St. Louis Is Burning."

But yesterday -- days after environmental activists raised alarms about increasing temperatures around the Bridgeton Landfill -- the Environmental Protection Agency released a report shooting down some of the concerns about radiological wastes. The radiation at West Lake Landfill does not pose any health hazards, the EPA says.

"The site's radiological wastes are contained," Karl Brooks, EPA administrator for the midwest (region 7), says in a conference call yesterday announcing the findings of a recent survey, full document on view below. "The site does not emit radiation that poses a risk to health."

Brooks notes that the area where the wastes were dumped -- which happened back in the 1970s -- are closed off to the public.

The site of Bridgeton and West Lake landfills. - VIA DNR.MO.GOV
  • via dnr.mo.gov
  • The site of Bridgeton and West Lake landfills.

"A person would essentially have to trespass, jump the fence...to risk being exposed to elevated levels of radiation," he says.

Despite these statements, environmentalists will likely continue to raise concerns about the larger-picture potential risks surrounding these two landfills.

While EPA oversees the West Lake Landfill, the state department of natural resources is responsible for oversight of the Bridgeton Landfill.

And questions remain about whether the subsurface fire at Bridgeton could reach the radioactive wastes at West Lake, advocates say.

Some government officials and representatives of Republic Services, the company that operates Bridgeton Landfill, have said it is misleading to refer to the situation as a "fire." They say it's a chemical reaction causing increased heat or a "subsurface smoldering event" as opposed to actual flames below ground.

Workers at Bridgeton Landfill. - VIA DNR.MO.GOV

Everyone agrees, however, that Bridgeton has smelled pretty bad for months now. This month, as part of an agreement brokered by Attorney General Chris Koster who sued Republic Services, Bridgeton Landfill is moving forward with a project that in the long term should decrease the odor by removing concrete pipes. Bridgeton will also put in a new "landfill cap" that will capture and destroy smelly gases, officials say.

But the Missouri Coalition for the Environment on Friday alleged that, based on temperature data, the fire is advancing toward the radioactive wastes (leftover from uranium for nuclear weapons).

"Republic Services is saying there is no problem, but they were saying that a long time ago, so it's really hard to believe them," Ed Smith, safe energy director with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment tells Daily RFT (in an interview prior to the release of the EPA report). "What we need to have...is assurances in the government that the two of these problems cannot become one."

He says, "What information do they have that makes them so sure the fire will not hit the radioactive waste?"

Continue for response from Republic Services and the full statements from relevant parties.

Asked about the proximity of the fire to the radioactive waste, EPA officials deferred to the department of natural resources, which operates a web page on the "subsurface smoldering event." There, that agency says, "To date, all landfill data indicates the smoldering event is contained in the solid waste cell and has not impacted the adjacent radioactive cell."

Meanwhile, Republic Services maintains that it has been successful in controlling the "subsurface smoldering event" and reiterates that this reaction is contained. The underground smoldering will not reach West Lake, the company says.

A spokesman says in a statement sent to Daily RFT:

The reaction's movement toward the north quarry has been steadily slowing over the past few months. The reaction would have to move through the entire north quarry before reaching West Lake OU-1 Area 1, which is still well outside the location of the radiological materials. Assuming the rate of movement towards the north quarry doesn't continue to slow or stop, at currently measured rates of movement it would take more than 10 years to reach the edge of the north quarry.

Here's the EPA's news release sent out yesterday.

Aerial Survey Shows Radiological Wastes Contained in Secure Areas of West Lake Landfill; No Public Health Risks Posed

(Lenexa, Kan., May 29, 2013) - A March 2013 aerial survey of the West Lake Landfill at Bridgeton, Mo., has determined that radiologically-contaminated wastes buried there in the 1970s remain contained within secure, fenced areas of the Superfund site, and do not pose public health risks, according to a report issued today by EPA Region 7.

Region 7 requested the survey, which was conducted March 8 by EPA's Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology (ASPECT) Program, to gather data to help inform future decisions about the Superfund site. An ASPECT airplane with a pilot, co-pilot, technician and scientific equipment on board flew multiple low-altitude passes over the site and adjacent residential and industrial properties to identify surface areas that emit gamma radiation.

"The results of the ASPECT survey are consistent with previous studies that indicate the site's radiological wastes remain contained inside Operable Unit 1," EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks said. "The site is securely fenced and clearly marked with warning signs. Under these conditions, this material poses no health risks to the public. A person would have to illegally trespass onto the site to be exposed to elevated levels of radiation."

Previous radiation screening surveys of the site, performed in 1994 and 1995, used ground-based detection equipment. Due to the overgrowth of small trees and heavy vegetation on significant portions of the site since those surveys, Region 7 chose instead to conduct an aerial survey using the ASPECT airplane.

The ASPECT survey is part of EPA's work to update information collected through prior investigations. The 200-acre site encompasses several inactive areas of closed sanitary and demolition fills, including two areas where leached barium sulfate waste from World War II-era nuclear weapons manufacturing was buried in the 1970s; and the separate Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill.

EPA added the West Lake Landfill Site to the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) in 1990. In 2008, the Agency signed a Record of Decision (ROD) which selected a remedy of containing the radiologically-contaminated material in place, constructing an engineered protective earthen cap for the landfill, installing and operating a system of groundwater monitoring wells around the site's perimeter, institutional (or land use) controls, and long-term maintenance of the remedy.

After the ROD was signed, EPA continued to receive public comments about the selected remedy. In response to those comments, in 2010 EPA tasked the four Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) - the U.S. Department of Energy, Cotter Corporation, Bridgeton Landfill LLC and Rock Road Industries LLC - to conduct a Supplemental Feasibility Study (SFS). This study further evaluated EPA's selected remedy, and alternatives involving excavation of the radiologically-contaminated landfill material and disposal of it at a permitted off-site facility or in a new, secured on-site disposal cell.

Because the estimated costs for each alternative remedy outlined by the SFS exceeded a $25 million threshold, Region 7 was required to consult with EPA's National Remedy Review Board (NRRB). In 2012, the NRRB suggested additional groundwater sampling, a more detailed study of a partial excavation remedy, and a more detailed analysis of potential treatment technologies for use on the radiologically-contaminated landfill material. EPA Region 7 has tasked the PRPs to perform the additional sampling and analyses.

Region 7 requested the March 2013 ASPECT survey to gather additional data as it reconsiders the final remedy selected for the site. EPA also tasked the PRPs to conduct four seasonal rounds of groundwater sampling. The first round of groundwater sampling was made public in January. The second round was completed in April, and the results from that sampling analysis are currently being reviewed. The third and fourth rounds of groundwater sampling are expected to be completed by the end of 2013.

Region 7 will hold a public meeting next month to further discuss the results of the ASPECT survey, the second round of groundwater sampling, and plans for further investigation of West Lake Landfill. The meeting will be held from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 25, in the auditorium at Pattonville High School, 2497 Creve Coeur Road, Maryland Heights, Mo., 63043.

Full text of the ASPECT survey report and results of previous groundwater sampling at the site are available online.

And the full EPA report:

Aspect Survey Report May 2013, EPA

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment's press release.

Missouri Coalition for the Environment press release on Bridgeton Landfill

And Bridgeton Landfill's full statement.

Bridgeton Landfill fully complies with the information submission requirements of the Agreed Order with the Missouri Attorney General. We continue to believe that sharing of information is of critical importance as we work with the MDNR and Attorney General's Office to effectively and carefully monitor the extent of the subsurface smoldering event. Our assessment continues to be that our monitoring and control methods are effective and working as expected. We look forward to continuing to work with the agencies and our internal and external experts on continuing the positive progress on site.

The reaction is being contained within the South quarry of the landfill. The reaction's movement toward the north quarry has been steadily slowing over the past few months. The reaction would have to move through the entire north quarry before reaching West Lake OU-1 Area 1, which is still well outside the location of the radiological materials. Assuming the rate of movement towards the north quarry doesn't continue to slow or stop, at currently measured rates of movement it would take more than 10 years to reach the edge of the north quarry.

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin.