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What The EPA Has To Say About The West Lake Landfill ― And Why Everything Is Taking So Long

Missouri Department of Natural Resources

Quite a bit of information has come out over the past month about the West Lake and Bridgeton Landfills ― some of it contradictory and confusing.

So when EPA Regional Administrator Karl Brooks offered up an interview ― about something else ― I took advantage of my time with him to try to clear up some of that confusion.

We talked about the underground fire at the Bridgeton Landfill; about the firebreak that’s supposed to keep it from reaching the radioactive waste at the adjacent West Lake Landfill; and about groundwater contamination in Bridgeton.

Here’s what he had to say.

Is the underground fire moving closer to the radioactive waste, or isn’t it?

A recent report by Missouri Department of Natural Resources consultant Todd Thalhamer said that based on underground temperatures and measurements of carbon monoxide, the subsurface fire at the Bridgeton Landfill was continuing to expand and move north ― closer to the radioactive waste in the adjacent West Lake Landfill.

A couple of weeks later, consultants for the Bridgeton Landfill, LLC, a subsidiary of Republic Services, produced their own report. It said just the opposite: that the fire ― or “subsurface smoldering event” ― isn’t getting any bigger, and that it’s moving south, away from the radioactive material.

So which is it?

EPA's Brooks had this to say about Thalhamer’s report: “I think that report has enough uncertainty in it about the progress of the subsurface event to make sure that we have the most current data that we can get before making any conclusions about the progress of the subsurface event.”

Translation: the EPA's Office of Research and Development is still analyzing the data. But in the meantime, Brooks said his agency “continues to operate on the assumption, based on data that we have, that there is time to prepare plans for, and to conclude, an isolation barrier.”

Which brings us to our next topic: the “isolation barrier,” or firebreak.

Why is it taking so long to build a firebreak at the West Lake Landfill?

When Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster sued landfill owner Republic Services, their preliminary settlement agreement listed possible steps that Republic could take to keep the fire from spreading. That included, as Koster put it, “if necessary, the construction of a physical barrier between the fire and the radioactive material at the West Lake Landfill.”

That was in May of 2013.

A few months later, in September, Republic said it would go ahead and build an “isolation barrier,” or firebreak.

Not long after that, the EPA started overseeing testing for radioactivity at the landfill. The goal was to map the boundaries of the radioactive waste, so that the firebreak could be built just below its southern edge, to separate it from the underground fire, about 1,000 feet away.

But building that firebreak has proven to be a lot more complicated than anyone apparently had anticipated.

Fast-forward to the present, a full year after Republic Services’ initial commitment to start construction.

Still no firebreak.

But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been providing technical support to the EPA at West Lake, recently produced an analysis of how and where to build it.

The Corps, along with the EPA, Republic Services, and the other “responsible parties” for the West Lake Landfill, first considered whether the firebreak should just be a big trench ― an “air gap," or a big trench filled with concrete ― an “isolation barrier wall."

They chose the concrete wall.

Then they compared three alternative locations ― or "alignments" ― for the firebreak:

  • Alignment 1: Under this scenario, the firebreak trench would be dug through the radioactive waste, running west-southwest along its southern edge.
  • Alignment 2: Under this scenario, the firebreak would be south of all the radioactive waste, completely separating it from the underground fire.
  • Alignment 3: This scenario seems relatively similar to alignment 1, except that one end of the firebreak would cut a bit farther south. It’s not clear whether this alignment would involve digging through radioactive waste, since the extent of that waste still isn’t known.

According to the report, “all parties were in agreement of not supporting selection of Alignment 2.”
Although the Corps recognized the advantages of not digging through radioactive waste and of knowing definitively that the concrete barrier would separate all the radioactive material from the fire, “the number and the significance of the disadvantages,” the Corps wrote, would far outweigh those advantages.

The main disadvantage the Corps cited was the sheer volume of trash and other debris that would need to be excavated, since alignment 2 would situate the firebreak in the deepest part of the landfill: about 180 feet down.

That would increase the time needed to build the firebreak, and therefore the intensity and duration of odors experienced by surrounding residents.

Credit U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

It would also “significantly increase the bird hazard potential:” digging up all that smelly trash would attract a whole lot of birds, causing a whole lot of problems for nearby Lambert Airport.

Brooks explained it this way: “The St. Louis airport, which serves about 13 million passengers a year, has a strong legal interest in what happens at the West Lake Landfill. Their managers, as well as the City of St. Louis, have made it clear that the proposals that this agency is considering have to satisfy the airport, and the Federal Aviation Administration, that air safety will not be jeopardized.”

In other words, we can’t have birds flying into airplanes ― it’s not safe.

That left options 1 and 3, both of which would likely involve digging up radioactive waste and could put workers at risk ― and also possibly send radioactive dust drifting into surrounding neighborhoods.

In its report, the Corps said mitigation is planned through “proper dust control” and air monitoring.

EPA’s Brooks said that would include monitoring for “certain kinds of radioactivity.”

“That’s the final piece of the system that we still have to snap into place,” Brooks said. “That will allow us to design procedures and enforce them in orders, so that the isolation barrier project makes sure that the air in the area of West Lake remains protective of public health.”

No matter which option is finally selected, construction of the firebreak probably won’t start for another 14 to 18 months ― sometime in 2016.

What’s in the groundwater in Bridgeton?

I’ll keep this one short.

A recent review by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources found evidence of increasing groundwater contamination at the Bridgeton Landfill, including unsafe levels of benzene, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals.

This radiation warning sign is one of many posted on the chain link fence surrounding part of the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo.
Credit Sarah Skiold-Hanlin, St. Louis Public Radio
This radiation warning sign is posted on the perimeter fence of the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo.

Some area residents have also raised concerns about radioactive contamination from waste at the adjacent West Lake Landfill.

Brooks said his agency has directed the U.S. Geological Survey to review all available data on the geology and hydrology under and around the landfills.

“How does the groundwater move; what does the groundwater contain; what’s the underlying natural levels of radiation and other contaminants that are present in groundwater in north St. Louis County,” Brooks said.

When I asked whether any private drinking water wells in Bridgeton would be included in the analysis, Brooks wasn’t sure.

“I know that USGS has gathered groundwater data from a variety of different sources within the boundaries of the Superfund site, as well as out a fair distance from there,” Brooks said. “And I think they have used wells that were drilled specifically for scientific investigation, as well as samples from wells that are currently being used for drinking water.”

The USGS didn’t immediately respond to my request for comment.

But Brooks said their review should be completed by early November.

Follow Véronique LaCapra on Twitter@KWMUScience