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State report: Exposure to air near Bridgeton Landfill may have harmed people's health

The Bridgeton Landfill, pictured here, sits adjacent to the West Lake Landfill.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has determined that past exposure to emissions from the Bridgeton landfill may have aggravated chronic conditions like asthma. But it notes that current emissions likely are not harmful.

Updated at 5:45 p.m. with statement from Republic Services — The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has determined that past exposure to sulfur-based compounds in the air near the Bridgeton landfill may have harmed the health of area residents and workers.

In a report released Friday, health officials said the odors may have aggravated chronic conditions such as asthma or caused respiratory problems. That came as no surprise to area activists, who have long said emissions from the landfill are hazardous.

The department’s report notes that sulfur-based odors may occasionally affect the health or quality of life of people who live or work near the landfill. However, it notes that current gas emissions from the landfill likely are not harmful.

“We have seen a downward trend in sulfur-based chemicals in the air near the landfill, and this is encouraging,” said Jonathan Garoutte, administrator of the department’s Section for Environmental Public Health. “In the past, odors and sulfur-based compounds were being detected much more frequently. Currently, breathing the air near the landfill is unlikely to harm people’s health.”

Area residents and activists have long complained that a fire under the Bridgeton landfill has caused foul odors and respiratory problems. The fire, expected to smolder until 2024, is located about 600 feet from World War II-era radioactive waste under the nearby West Lake Landfill.

They said it was significant the state health report found that odors from the landfill had made breathing difficult for people with chronic diseases such as asthma or chronic cardiopulmonary disease, or had caused respiratory problems for people who live or work near the landfill.

“We are always grateful when we're told the truth, even when the truth is painful” said activist Dawn Chapman a Maryland Heights resident and member of Just Moms STL. “With that said, we are devastated to find out there was a real threat of harm to our families — and this was discovered even without having all the critical data.”

Waste-management company Republic Services, which owns the landfill, said in a statement that the report's conclusions that past exposure to compounds in the air near the landfill had affected human health contradicted the state health department's earlier studies.

"The report comes as a surprise, after five years of DHSS’ own reporting which found no impact to human health," the statement from Republic Services said. "In addition, St. Louis County Public Health recently found no significant difference in asthma, COPD or other diagnosed respiratory conditions. We can agree that air emissions are normal today, and odor has been under control since 2013. "

In June, the state of Missouri reached a settlement with the owners of the Bridgeton landfill over how they’ve handled the underground fire. Former Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed suit against the companies in 2013.

The agreement calls for Bridgeton Landfill LLC, Allied Services LLC and Republic Services to put $12.5 million in a “community project fund” to compensate residents affected by the landfill. The owners also agreed to pay $3.5 million in penalties and damages to the state.

Bridgeton Landfill LLC has said it had “voluntarily invested more than $200 million in odor control, environmental remediation and site enhancements.”

Follow David on Twitter: @dpcazares

David is the health, science and arts & culture editor for St. Louis Public Radio.