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Angry crowd spars with state and federal officials over Bridgeton, West Lake landfills

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 26, 2013: For two and a half hours, federal and state officials were bombarded Tuesday night with the same angry message from hundreds of frustrated people packing the auditorium at Pattonville High School:

They want an end to the overpowering smell and radioactive waste from two neighboring landfills – Bridgeton and West Lake – that some residents in northwest St. Louis County believe have been poisoning their groundwater, land and air for years.

The federal and state officials offered, in essence, the same reply. They’re monitoring the situations, have taken some actions and, based on tests so far, believe no serious health threat exists.

But that assessment may change, both authorities acknowledged, if an underground fire in the Bridgeton Landfill – which is blamed for much of the smell – spreads to the radioactive waste stored about 1,200 feet away at West Lake.

The audience wasn’t buying any of the assurances. “It’s the usual blah, blah,’’ complained Laura Dore of Florissant, who was sporting a T-shirt warning of contamination at another area site – Coldwater Creek – that wasn’t even up for discussion at the public hearing.

West Lake's waste from WWII 'Manhattan Project'

Some of those present, like Doug Clemens of Bridgeton, have grown up or grown old hearing much of the same official message.

Clemens was 19 when he attended his first meeting to listen to federal officials discuss West Lake, where tons of radioactive waste stemming from the World War II nuclear-bomb program was illegally dumped in the 1950s.

Now 45, Clemens observed dryly, “I’ve heard the same song and dance all that time.”

So has longtime environmentalist Kay Drey, among many wearing a T-shirt that called for removal of the West Lake waste.  Drey contended that another federal agency – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – needs to be ordered to take over the site and get rid of the radioactive material.

She was among several who pointed to the Corps’ current removal work at a other area radioactive waste storage sites that also are linked to the World War II Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first atomic bombs.

That federal removal is being conducted under the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (commonly called “FUSRAP”), set up in the 1970s.  But West Lake doesn’t qualify because its waste came from a private hauler who brought it in from other World War II-era locations in St. Louis.

Regional EPA director Karl Brooks and other agency officials repeatedly told the crowd that it’s up to the Department of Energy, which oversees FUSRAP, to decide whether to include West Lake and up to Congress to earmark the removal money, which some longtime activists estimated at roughly $25 million.

For decades, nothing has happened.

Many in the audience shouted their disapproval, declaring they were tired of the same explanations and the same inaction. “The urgency cannot be overstated,’’ asserted resident Dianne Lee.  “We would like the waste moved.”

The audience gave her a standing ovation.

Fears about Bridgeton's underground 'smoldering'

The longstanding debate over West Lake has been complicated by the situation at Bridgeton Landfill, which is privately owned by Texas-based Republic Services and governed by state laws. 

Brooks deferred to state officials with the Department of Natural Resources and the Health Department, two of the state agencies monitoring Republic’s attempts to eliminate the Bridgeton Landfill’s smell – which has gotten particularly strong since 2010 and which some believe is linked to the underground fire that has reached more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

A few months ago, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster sued Republic.

Republic’s workers have been removing underground piers suspected of feeding oxygen to the fire – Republic prefers to call it a “smoldering’’ area – and are in the midst of enveloping the entire landfill in a new plastic cover.

Aaron Schmidt, division deputy director at DNR, said the agency is constantly monitoring the situation. So far, the fire is moving away from the radioactive waste at West Lake, he said.

Jonathan Garoutte with the state Health Department told the audience that the odor may be nauseating, but tests so far show it’s not toxic.

Jim Preston of Maryland Heights said his sons play baseball at nearby Be-Mac Park, but “the stench is so bad, you don’t even want to hang out there.”

Preston left Tuesday's hearing early, saying he hadn't heard anything new.

If he stuck around, he might have when EPA director Brooks announced another possible complication.

It seems that officials at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport have issued a statement saying they’re concerned that the cleanup activity at the landfill sites could stir up the bird populations and, as a result, might threaten the safety of planes taking off and landing at a nearby runway.

The audience booed.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.