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Activists gear up for EPA, state hearings on controversial landfills

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 25, 2013: Owners of the Bridgeton landfill – beset by a persistent odor, an underground “hot spot” and a nearby radioactive site – are likely prepared for an earful of complaints and concerns at Tuesday night’s hearing hosted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The session is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. at Pattonville High School. It appears aimed at reassuring nearby residents concerned that their health has been at risk. Although the hearing is to focus on the neighboring West Lake landfill, the public debate has linked the two sites and isn’t expected to differentiate.

Meanwhile, workers report significant progress in installing a new “cap” on the Bridgeton landfill made of ethylene vinyl alcohol, which the operators hope will resolve many of the problems – in particular, the smell, which has been so bad at times that people residing nearby have been given temporary housing elsewhere.

The latest update from Republic Services, which owns the Bridgeton landfill, reports that the cap has been installed over at least seven acres.

Workers also have been trying to remove the underground pillars that some believe have contributed to the underground smoldering – Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster calls it a “fire” – that has reached temperatures of over 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Koster filed suit against Republic this spring, as part of an effort to resolve the problem with the Bridgeton landfill. A successful cleanup could resolve Republic’s legal problems.

However, controversy is likely to remain over the adjacent West Lake landfill, which has housed radioactive material since the 1970s.

The EPA hearing comes several weeks after the agency released the results of an aerial investigation, which agency officials say showed that the radioactivity was contained, and that there was no radioactive risk. The agency reports it also is monitoring the groundwater.

Meanwhile, many residents and environmental groups say they fear that the underground fire could reach the radioactive site, which is at least 1,000 feet away, Koster and others say.

Environmental groups to highlight landfill concerns

Environmental groups have a number of concerns and plan to air them before the hearing.

Tuesday morning, the Sierra Club, Missouri Coalition for the Environment and Labadie Environmental Organization held a press conference at the downtown riverfront “urging protection of Missouri’s waterways from current and proposed waste landfills along the Mississippi, Meramec and Missouri rivers.”

Their joint call, they said, is for “urgent action to clean up current waste sites in the floodplains, and prevent the construction of dangerous and risky new landfills.”

Organizers say the press conference is prompted by Tuesday’s EPA hearing at Pattonville High School and by another hearing at the same time in Union, Mo. The latter, hosted by the Missouri Public Service Commission, is to discuss a plan by Ameren Missouri to build a landfill to store coal ash waste generated by the Labadie coal-fired power plant in Franklin County.

The environmental groups note that the coal ash landfill would be in the floodplain of the Missouri River.

"Our three organizations are here today to say the public must speak up,'' said Patricia Schuba, president of the Labadie Environmental Organization, at the news conference.

In the case of the proposed Labadie landfill, she said, "We were muzzled by the (Franklin) County Commission, but tonight we can share our experiences and concerns with a public agency willing to listen," a reference to the Public Service Commission.

Schuba said the debate over Labadie is similar to the controversy over the Bridgeton and West Lake landfills. "What we're trying to do at Labadie is prevent what happened at West Lake,'' she said.

Ed Smith, safe-energy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said that the ultimate goal of environmentalists is to see West Lake's radioactive waste moved elsewhere -- out of the flood plain and away from an urban area.

At the Pattonville hearing, Smith said, "I expect a huge crowd, but not a lot of new information. It's going to be a chance for people to air their frustrations."

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