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Two years after first complaints, Missouri files suit against owner of Bridgeton landfill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: For residential neighbors long distressed over the smelly – and firey – Bridgeton landfill, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s announcement that the state has filed suit against the landfill’s operator offered hope that the worst may be over.

But minutes later, Assistant Attorney General Jessica Blome inadvertently dispelled that notion by acknowledging short-term pain may come before any long-term gain.

The pain? The landfill’s overpowering odor is likely to  get even worse, at least temporarily, as workers dispatched by landfill owner and operator Republic Services spend the next few weeks digging in the landfill to remove special concrete pillars that may inadvertently be feeding oxygen to the growing blaze 180 feet underground.

The aim, by this summer, is to have a special plastic cover over the landfill that Republic and state officials hope will stem the smell and starve the underground fire from the oxygen that has kept it burning for more than two years.

The overall expense, said Koster, already has cost Republic Services $65 million – and he predicted the final price tag, including the damages sought by the lawsuit, will be several times that amount.

“The nearby residents, schools, senior-care facilities and a local hospital all have dealt with terrible, ongoing odor problems from the Bridgeton landfill that have impacted their ability to go about normal activities,” Koster said at Wednesday’s news conference, held in his office in the Old Post Office.

“For St. Louisans who have not been directly exposed to the site, it is difficult to describe the effects this situation is having on local neighborhoods and businesses,” he added.  

Blome said the fire’s temperatures are running in the high 200-degrees, Fahrenheit -- well above boiling (212 degrees F) and close to the melting temperature (300 degrees F) for some plastics. Officials aren’t sure what started the fire, and – aside from oxygen – what’s fueling it.

Koster said he’s aware of landfill fires elsewhere in the country that have continued for up to 20 years.  Republic also is grappling with a longstanding underground landfill fire in Ohio that also prompted a state lawsuit.

Reason for delay in state action unclear

Wednesday’s lawsuit here comes, by Koster’s own count, “two years and 11 weeks’’ after the state first became aware of the problem.

The lawsuit, filed in St. Louis County circuit court, said that nearby residents first formally complained to state officials about the smell and conditions on Dec. 23, 2010 – two days before Christmas.

Koster declined to point any fingers at fellow state agencies but emphasized that his office had acted three days after it had taken over the case in a referral from the state Department of Natural Resources.

A DNR spokeswoman referred all questions back to Koster and his staff, citing the legal fight now underway. DNR has a portion of its website devoted to detailing the various aspects of the Bridgeton landfill case, including its history.

Missouri’s lawsuit asserts that Republic has violated a number of Missouri’s environmental laws, is emitting poisonous gases – acetaldehyde and benzene – into the air, as well as 150,000 gallons a day of a liquid “leachate,’’ some of which is “flowing into groundwater.”

DNR has people monitoring the landfill regularly, Koster said, and sensors have been placed to keep tabs on the fire’s temperature and its growth. The attorney general said he wants closer monitoring of any impact on the quality of the ground water.

"I want to make sure the most aggressive and best testing is taking place, and that Republic -- not the state of Missouri -- is paying for it,'' Koster added.

There also is concern about radioactive waste stored about 1,200 feet away from the fire and above ground.  Still, Blome cautioned, “There is no real threat that this will ignite or turn into a bomb.”

Koster said his chief concern was improving the environment in and around the landfill and protecting the health of the residents affected by the smell and pollution. The attorney general said he’s seeking to have a special fund set up to deal with health-care costs for the landfill’s neighbors.

Even so, Koster refrained from any harsh words directed at Republic, although emphasizing that the state was firm in its resolve.

“While we have been assured by Republic Services that they have developed a remediation plan and are implementing that plan as expeditiously as possible, it is important that we ensure the corporation’s promises are binding and enforceable in a court of law,” Koster added.

Replied Republic in a statement, “We have already started the process of working with the attorney general as we share the same goal – to dramatically reduce the odor from the landfill while protecting nearby residents and employees, and ensuring compliance with environmental regulations.”

That's all well and good, Koster said. But one of his chief objectives, he said, is that "we must make sure that taxpayers are not stuck with the bill."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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