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Report For EPA Says Underground Landfill Fire Poses Little Risk

Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio

A study conducted for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that the underground fire plaguing part of the Bridgeton Landfill site isn’t a hazardous threat, even if it reaches radioactive material stored at a neighboring landfill.

The conclusions were posted Friday on the website of  Republic Services, which owns the Bridgeton Landfill (see "SSE Evaluation, January 14, 2014" under "Other Reports," here).  The study was conducted by the Engineering Management Support, Inc., a firm based in Lakewood, Colo.

The EPA is expected to make the findings public in a few days. It's unlikely that the conclusions will allay critics, who want the radioactive waste removed.

The underground fire is unrelated to a surface fire that briefly occurred at the landfill Sunday morning. It was quickly extinguished.

At issue is underground smoldering of material in the Bridgeton Landfill, about 1,200 feet away from the radioactive material at the West Lake Landfill, the depository for tons of radioactive waste from the World War II nuclear-bomb program. The radioactive waste was illegally dumped at the site by a private hauler.

Environmentalists’ longstanding concern about the West Lake waste has spread to include the Bridgeton Landfill because of the underground smoldering, which has gone on for several years. Some fear what might happen if the fire reached the radioactive material, although federal and state officials have played down the likelihood of such an event.

The report contends that even if the fire reached the radioactive material, nothing serious would happen and concludes there would be “no long-term additional risks to people or the environment.”

The summary says that the radioactive material “will not become more or less radioactive in the presence of heat” and “is not explosive and will not become explosive in the presence of heat.”

The summary went on to say that the heat of the underground fire “does not create conditions that could carry (radioactive) particles or dust off the site.”  The heat of the underground fire also “is not high enough to ignite (non-radioactive) wastes or chemical compounds or to cause them to explode.”

The report acknowledged that the underground smoldering “may allow radon gas to more easily rise through the ground and reach the surface of the landfill,” but it said that the radon gas “would dissipate quickly in open air.”

Any short-term risks posed by the radon gas, it said, could be addressed by making sure that the cap installed over the Bridgeton Landfill is maintained properly.  A spokesman for Republic said the cap in question is not the newer cap that the firm has spent months putting in place. The newer cap is intended to help address the fire and mitigate the landfill's smell – which nearby residents have said for years can be overpowering.

The Bridgeton Landfill no longer accepts waste.  Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster stepped in a year ago to monitor the state’s oversight of the situation.

Veronique LaCapra contributed information for this article.

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