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Answered: 9 questions about the EPA’s West Lake Landfill decision

The West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, seen from St. Charles Rock Road.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, seen from St. Charles Rock Road in February.

On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency approved plans to clean up radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill Superfund site.

The agency plans to remove about 70 percent of the site’s radioactivity and dispose of the waste at an off-site facility. The entire process is estimated to cost $205 million and take about four and a half years to complete.

Read more: EPA approves plan to remove nuclear waste from West Lake Landfill after years of complaints

What is this radioactive waste and how did it get here?

The waste was created during World War II, when St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Chemical Works purified uranium for nuclear weapons research. The waste was eventually purchased by Cotter Corporation, then illegally dumped in north St. Louis County in 1973.

Now, the waste sits at West Lake Landfill, part of a larger landfill complex in Bridgeton, northwest of the St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

Why do people care now?

In 2010, the landfill’s owner, Republic Services, discovered an underground smoking fire at the nearby Bridgeton Landfill. The contamination at the West Lake Landfill now sits about 600 feet from that smoldering fire.

People who live near the landfill have reported odd smells and have raised concerns about its proximity to the fire. Activists have speculated that the landfill’s contents may have contributed to cancers and other illnesses affecting some in the surrounding community.

Learn more about the landfill's history:

How does the EPA plan to clean up the waste? Where does it go next?

The EPA plan calls for the waste to be dug out from the landfill. Between 8 and 20 feet of waste will be removed, depending on the concentration and depth of the radioactive material. The waste will then be transported to one of four potential out-of-state facilities to be named later.

What’s the difference between the EPA plan proposed in February and the one approved Thursday?

The plan approved Thursday is estimated to cost about $30 million less than the plan proposed in February. The old plan would have dug 16 feet deep at all locations. The new plan adjusts excavation depth, removing more where the dangerous radioactive waste is deeper and less where it is shallower.

The new remediation process also will be completed one year faster than the solution proposed in February.


Does this solution involve a cap?

Yes. This new plan would install a non-porous cover over the excavated site to prevent rainwater from getting in. 

Who will pay for the clean up?

Landfill owner Republic Services, Exelon Corp. and the U.S. Department of Energy will pay for the cleanup costs.

Exelon is liable for the company that had the waste illegally dumped in the landfill. The U.S. Department of Energy is liable for the now-dissolved Atomic Energy Commission, which knew about the radioactive waste being illegally dumped but didn’t cite the company responsible.

How does the owner of the landfill feel about the decision?

Republic Services wrote in an emailed statement that the approved plan “creates unacceptable risk with no proportional benefit, will greatly increase the time needed to remediate the site, and is contrary to EPA’s own findings regarding the risks posed by the site.”

Republic Services preferred the 2008 plan to cap the waste.

What does this mean for people who live near the landfills?

Some activists have called for community members living near the landfill to be relocated during the clean up; no decisions have been announced yet about buyouts or relocations.

The EPA administrator for Missouri’s region, Jim Gulliford, said Thursday that if the waste can be removed without putting the community in danger, then relocation won’t be necessary.

Questions we’re still trying to answer

What are Republic Service’s options if it decides to challenge the EPA decision?

How will the radioactive material be transported?

Do you have a question?


Follow Kae on Twitter: kmaepetrin

Kae Petrin covers public transportation and housing as a digital reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.