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- KELLY GLUECK
- The toxic waste was never supposed to be stored at West Lake Landfill.
UNCOVERING ST. LOUIS' DIRTIEST SECRET
Despite its moniker as "St. Louis' dirtiest secret," the radioactive waste dumped illegally at West Lake Landfill wasn't secret for long.
Reporters started asking about the waste before it even got to the landfill, when it was stored near the airport on Latty Avenue in 1946. "Concerns disappeared after the Government and Mallinckrodt said the wastes were 'not radioactive or otherwise dangerous,'" according to the New York Times.
On July 16, 1973 — coincidentally the 28th anniversary of the first successful test explosion of a nuclear weapon, in New Mexico — B&K Construction Company trucks started illegally dumping the toxic waste and contaminated soil into West Lake Landfill.
"Assuming the trucks were loaded with clean fill, the landfill superintendent waved them through without charging a dumping fee," writes Robert Alvarez, former senior policy adviser for the Energy Department, in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. No one recorded exactly where the waste got dumped. "A truck driver said later that he and others used the black stuff in their home gardens."
B&K Construction recorded on paper that it deposited fewer than nine tons of radioactive material "in St. Louis County sanitary landfill area No. 1 on Old Bridge Road" and that it was "probably buried under 100 feet of garbage." In reality, an estimated 47,000 tons of radioactive waste and contaminated soil were haphazardly dumped in West Lake Landfill.
The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) found out about the illegal dumping just one year later. Inspectors didn't know which St. Louis County landfill received the waste, but they knew B&K's relocation violated federal disposal standards. "But the AEC and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, decided not to exercise their legal power to require the wastes to be retrieved and placed in suitable storage," according to the Bulletin. "Instead, the AEC let the Cotter company [which contracted B&K Construction] off the hook by terminating its license to possess the material."
The truth stayed buried from public knowledge for three years.
In 1976, Margaret Freivogel was filling in for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's environmental reporter, who'd won a year-long fellowship abroad, when she figured out where the radioactive waste and contaminated soil had been dumped. Reached at her daughter's house on a sunny November afternoon more than 40 years later, she's happy to tell me the story behind the story.
Freivogel says she was methodically tracking World War II-era waste when she called Colorado-based Cotter Corporation looking for a shipment that had supposedly arrived by rail from the Latty Avenue dump in St. Louis.
"I'm curious about what you did with it when you got it. How did you make it clean?" Freivogel remembers asking the company.
"And they said, 'We didn't get it.' I was like, 'What do you mean we didn't get it?'" The Cotter employee at the other end of the line acknowledged that B&K Construction sent some materials as contracted, but not the tons recorded in the paper trail.
"My guess was that it wasn't profitable or maybe they couldn't even figure out how to separate the waste from the radioactivity, so they weren't interested in it," Freivogel says.
She had a hunch: "Somebody was going to make some money by not actually doing the shipping." So Freivogel went digging, so to speak.
Every week she thought she'd uncovered the truth only to hit a dead end. "I just kept calling people and saying, 'Did you handle this? Where did it go?' until I finally found somebody out at the landfill."
A West Lake employee told the reporter that he remembered "a bunch of dump trucks coming in here and dumping some stuff." Freivogel called Cotter back with the news, and Executive Vice President David Marcott responded: "I suspect now that there was some hanky-panky going on."
Freivogel published her scoops on May 30 and June 1, 1976, poking holes in the federal inspection report: For starters, there's no such place as St. Louis County Landfill No. 1 on Old Bridge Road.
Kenneth Karch, then-director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Division of Environmental Quality, clipped the articles out and mailed them the following day to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission regional director. With them, he sent a letter saying federal investigators couldn't ensure the waste was safe — not if they didn't know "the correct location of the dumping, the local geology, nor the actual concentration of uranium dumped," Karch wrote.
The AEC's assertion that the radioactive waste was "probably" buried under 100 feet of garbage had especially irked Karch. It was an impossible number. "No landfills in the St. Louis area contain 100 feet of fill," Karch wrote. "I must therefore question the validity of the AEC 'review' of the burial operation."
"State officials are disturbed," Freivogel wrote in the Post-Dispatch on June 4, 1976, "that federal inspectors apparently lost track of the materials."
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission addressed the problems in a 1977 report: The inaccuracies were blamed on "miscommunication" between federal inspectors and the hauling company. The erroneous "100 feet of garbage" line was an "offhand opinion" from Marcott, who'd toured West Lake before the dumping: "It was his recollection that the landfill area had a large deep pit."
Testing started for the first time in August 1976. Surveyors found radioactive material, including an environmental sample with "slightly elevated natural uranium concentration." The official report concluded that the site was not a health risk.
But there was one important caveat: It was dry on the summer day when investigators tested. The commission recommended an environmental impact analysis to determine what would happen to this unlined, flood-prone toxic dump in the rain.
Fourteen years later, in 1990, EPA put West Lake Landfill on its Superfund list; another eighteen years passed before the agency did anything about it. In 2008, the EPA announced a plan to "cap" the contaminated West Lake waste with clean rock, soil and clay — the fastest, easiest and cheapest remedy.
Capping has never been a popular option — except with those who are on the hook to pay ten times as much for the only obvious alternative: excavation. West Lake Landfill is unlined, meaning it's exposed to groundwater and underground fires, with or without a cap.
"That's like putting a lid on a colander and expecting water not to flow through it," says state Rep. Mark Matthiesen (R-Maryland Heights). I can't help but picture an exterminator covering an ant hill with an upturned bowl.
Republic Services inherited this mess when it purchased the landfills as part of a broader acquisition in 2008, the same year the EPA announced its "remedy." The company figured it would pay $15 million toward a cap, keep an eye on the spot and call it a day; meanwhile, the $6 billion merger grew Republic into the second-largest company in its industry by revenue, according to Bloomberg.
Instead, the cap plan drew broad criticism — including from the EPA's own review board, scientists who concluded that partial removal of the toxic waste could be done safely and reduce long-term risk, especially considering "chemical and physical changes" at the landfill.
The EPA stalled its cap plan, citing community opposition.
Then the fire began.
"WHERE THE HELL IS 60 MINUTES?"
In August 2015, for the first time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed that radioactive materials from the Manhattan Project — the same source as the West Lake waste — had contaminated the residential properties along Coldwater Creek.
Neighbors weren't surprised; they've known too many people who've died of rare cancers and disorders to feel anything but angry. "The bottom line is there is an astronomical amount of people who were affected by this," Florissant resident Carl Chappell told the Post-Dispatch. Chappell's son, who played in the creek as a child, died at age 44 of appendix cancer.
"This is an article or something that should be on 60 Minutes," Chappell told the paper. "Where the hell is 60 Minutes?"
The next day McGraw Milhaven, the plainspoken host of the McGraw Show on KTRS 550 AM, wants to talk about West Lake Landfill on air. His first question to LaVanchy, assistant fire chief for the area, is, "How bad is this?"
"[The fire] is closer today to the radioactive material than it has ever been," LaVanchy answers.
"They say 1,000 feet," Milhaven says. "That's basically the length of a football field."
"I wish I could say that I agree with that 1,000 feet, and I don't want to sound like an alarmist," LaVanchy begins, before explaining that no one, including the EPA, knows exactly how far the toxic waste has spread. "So to say that it's 1,000 feet [away], that's pretty much a guess. ... I think 1,000 feet might be conservative."
LaVanchy has spent years preparing himself and his firefighters for the day when the fire meets the radioactive waste and he'll have to ask them to run into a toxic smoke plume. But he still hopes he won't have to.
"Maybe I'm an optimist," LaVanchy says, "but I just really don't think that is ever going to be allowed to happen. With our elected officials, I think they're finally realizing ... This is a situation that is a lot more serious than anyone really ever gave it credit for."
"I just don't understand," Milhaven says, his eyes rapidly scanning the studio. "We have a burning landfill next to a nuclear toxic waste dump, and people are like, 'So what did the Cardinals do last night?' I mean, it is baffling to me that this continues to be a non-story in the St. Louis metropolitan area."
LaVanchy keeps his voice calm: "And it's almost like, how long do you bang your head against the wall before somebody realizes there is a problem?"
"Governors, senators, congressmen, elected officials, politicians, soon-to-be politicians — they all don't have an answer for it," Milhaven says, shrugging in imitation. "And the public, and the people of Pattonville ... anyway, we're short on time."
Two years later, time is growing shorter.
Today the garbage fire burns at least 300 feet closer to the radioactive waste. Engineers have found seven more contaminated "hot spots" along Coldwater Creek. Still no word from 60 Minutes. But now the nation has a new president.