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'Something Is Different,' Emergency Coordinator Tells Bridgeton Community Meeting

Pattonville Assistant Fire Chief Matt LaVanchy discuses recent data from the Bridgeton Landfill's underground fire, which has been smoldering since late 2010. 01/23/2015
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Residents in municipalities surrounding the Bridgeton Landfill are growing increasingly frustrated with the pace of cleanup efforts and a "lack of communications" between environmental agencies tasked with overseeing the project.  

At a monthly community meeting in Bridgeton, Pattonville assistant fire chief Matt LaVanchy said recent data showed higher temperatures than ever in the northern area of landfill. Until recently, the underground fire was mostly in the south part of the landfill, known as the "south quarry." The north quarry is closer to the West Lake Landfill, which contains World War II-era uranium processing residues, or nuclear waste. 

"Something is different today than what it was before the holidays. The smells seem to be coming back," LaVanchy said who also serves as the Commander of the Special Operations Team for St. Louis County. 

For two hours, presenters outlined updates and took questions from residents about the location of the fire and potential evacuation plans. Should the fire reach the surface, LaVanchy said he would not send firefighters to battle an event unless he knew it was in an area untouched by radioactive waste. That realization drew frustrated reactions.

Residents attend a community meeting organized by Just Moms STL in Bridgeton. 01/23/2015
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Residents attend a community meeting organized by Just Moms STL in Bridgeton.

“My firefighters deserve to know, when they go onto that site, what areas are contaminated (with radioactive material) and what areas aren’t,” LaVanchy said.

It’s hard to say what would happen if the underground fire reached the radioactive waste in the West Lake Landfill, but for local firefighters to respond to it, LaVanchy said “That’s one risk that goes a little bit too far.”

Of particular interest was an open letter recently written by a former the Missouri Department of Natural Resources official, alleging that the state agency's "cozy" relationship with Republic Services had hampered efforts to address the underground fire.

Map of the West Lake Landfill
Credit EPA | 2013 report
This map shows the West Lake and Bridgeton landfills.

Between 2012 and 2014, Dan Norris had directed air sampling efforts at the West Lake site, living in a hotel near Bridgeton and "personally experienced what life was like for those who lived or worked around the landfill." In the letter, Norris cautioned that conditions at the landfill are far from ideal.

Due to pending litigation, the MDNR refused to comment on the letter, but they did confirm that Norris worked for the department. MDNR referred to the Attorney General's Office, which did not immediately return a request for comment. 

Richard Callow, a spokesperson for the landfill's owner, Republic Services, said in a statement to St. Louis Public Radio, that the smells were due to ongoing construction installing gas extraction wells in the south quarry area. 

"This sort of invasive work can, unfortunately, result in odors, even though we make every effort to minimize them. But these improvements are important steps in our continued work to control the reaction and its impacts, and has to be done," Callow wrote. 

The resident group, Just Moms STL, is pushing for the Army Corps of Engineers to take over removal of the radioactive waste through a federal program created to clean up disposal sites from the Manhattan Project. Currently, West Lake is classified as a Superfund site, which means the landfill’s owner is in charge of cleanup, with oversight from state and federal authorities. But residents say they are concerned that the EPA and MDNR have broken the community’s trust, and don’t appear to be communicating with each other.

“There are all kinds of ways that it’s very complex, and the worst stuff that can happen hasn’t exactly happened when people were there with monitors,” said meeting attendee Kriss Avery, who lives and works within two miles of the Bridgeton Landfill.

“The way the agencies work, it makes it beyond their ‘box,’ and they’re not able to think outside of it.”

The resident group that organizes the monthly meetings, Just Moms STL, is hoping to convince legislators to transfer oversight to the Army Corps of Engineers in the coming year.  

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