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EPA To Contract With Army Corps To Build Fire Break At Bridgeton Landfill

Sarah Skiold-Hanlin, St. Louis Public Radio

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it is contracting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a fire break to keep an underground fire from reaching radioactive waste at the landfill complex in Bridgeton.

Friday's announcement by EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks comes in response to a letter he received on Tuesday from Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster.

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Koster said the EPA needs to figure out where all the radioactive waste is located so construction of the fire break can begin right away.

"The radiological testing obviously needs to be completed so we know where to site the wall," Koster said. "But we also think that construction of that wall, at least on a certain part of the quarry, could even begin today."

But Brooks says starting immediately is not possible, and that it will probably take another three months for the EPA and the Corps to complete pre-construction preparations.

"I completely understand the frustration that people have who live and who work around there," Brooks said. "This isolation barrier needs to get in. It will get in. We’ll do it just as soon as we’re satisfied that the science and engineering support the construction."

Brooks said more information about the project and arrangements with the Corps should be released to the public next week.

Credit Credit Dave Drilling, MDNR
On this map from May 2013, the outline of the Bridgeton Landfill is shown in yellow. The underground fire is shaded in red and the closest area of radioactive waste in orange. Recent EPA tests found radioactive waste about 100 feet further south. The fire has moved north, to about where the green line is.

In the meantime, the EPA is continuing tests to determine the extent of the radioactive waste along the border between the Bridgeton Landfill — where the underground fire is located — and the West Lake Landfill — where the radioactive waste was thought to be contained.

Recent tests have found radioactivity farther south than expected. The EPA says the radioactive waste extends about 100 feet into the north quarry of the Bridgeton Landfill. That means it's closer to the underground fire than previously thought — about 900 to 1,000 feet away. The EPA says the material is 36 to 60 feet below the landfill surface, "where it is not posing exposure risk."

Environmental groups, area residents and, more recently,elected officials — including U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill — have been lobbying for the Corps to take over the radioactive clean-up at West Lake.

In a statement released on Friday, Blunt called the EPA's contracting with the Corps on the fire break "a good first step." But, he said, more work is needed "to ensure we reach the best possible outcome for the community and area residents."

McCaskill agreed that the EPA's announcement was a step in the right direction, but said she would "continue working closely with Sen. Blunt, Congresswoman Wagner, and Congressman Clay to exert pressure on these agencies to keep the process moving forward and the community fully informed."

Brooks said that although the EPA plans to continue to work with the Corps at West Lake, the ultimate decision about what to do with the radioactive material would remain with the EPA, not the Corps.

Transferring authority for the site from the EPA to the Corps would take an act of Congress.

Brooks could not say when the EPA would make its final decision about whether to leave the radioactive material at West Lake or move it elsewhere.

However, Brooks said his agency would be responsible for any radioactive material found at either the West Lake or Bridgeton landfills. He also said the EPA would continue to work with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to keep both landfill workers and area residents safe.

A spokesperson for Bridgeton Landfill LLC, a subsidiary of Republic Services, said safety "has always been our highest priority." He said the landfill owners are "committed to the rapid construction of an isolation barrier, once a plan has been approved by regulatory authorities."

Republic Services announced it would build the fire break six months ago, in the wake of a lawsuit filed by Koster last March alleging numerous environmental violations at the landfill.

An underground fire has been smoldering in Bridgeton since at least December 2010.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter: @KWMUScience