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EPA orders radioactive contamination protected against surface fires at West Lake

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

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is ordering those responsible for the West Lake landfill to clear brush and provide fire-proof cover for areas contaminated by radioactive waste.

The order comes after an October brush fire at the entrance to the north St. Louis County landfill raised concerns about the consequences of a surface fire reaching radioactive waste at West Lake.

“We see these as very common-sense basic engineering controls to help address any challenges that might occur if a surface fire were to occur. And this is only to be done on an interim measure until we get a final remedy selected and implemented,” said EPA regional director Mark Hague on Thursday.

Asked whether the risks of a surface fire at West Lake could include spreading radioactive material on the wind, Hague said “I don’t want to sit here and speculate on that … We don’t want material that might be combustible to come in contact with the burn and create ash that might create some possible, potential airborne activity whether that stays on the site or not.”

The EPA has tasked West Lake landfill owner Republic Services and the Cotter Corporation with the surface fire protection measures, as well as with coming up with a plan to implement them within 21 days. Cotter Corporation is a uranium processing company with partial responsibility for the nuclear waste at West Lake.

Both Republic Services and Cotter released statements Thursday saying they will comply with the EPA order, which recommends completing the surface fire protection measures by April 2016.

The order outlines the need to move slowly in order to test air quality and avoid releasing contaminates as brush is cleared.

Those measures put environmental safety advocate Ed Smith at ease, who said the EPA has a good track record with carefully clearing brush.

But Smith is less enthusiastic about the EPA’s response to the dangers of a surface fire.

“This is a better late than never scenario given the EPA knew about a surface fire at this site 20 years ago,” Smith said.

Hague said the EPA will release a plan to build a firebreak between radioactive material at West Lake and an underground fire at the adjacent Bridgeton landfill by the end of this month.

The EPA also announced Thursday that it has reached an agreement with those responsible for West Lake on a schedule for a long-term solution to the nuclear waste. That plan is slated to be released to the public in December 2016.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille

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