Landfill fire

STL landfill fire nears collision with radioactive waste: What’s next?

What happens when a landfill fire meets a radioactive waste dump?  St. Louis, Missouri, may be the first metropolitan area to find out.

In North St. Louis County, near the St. Louis Airport, and a mile from Pattonville High School, the Westlake Landfill is on fire. It’s not a flaming, above-ground fire, but something more insidious and potentially more dangerous: a smoldering underground fire caused by years of decomposing garbage, the methane gas it produces, and the oxygen that has seeped in.

Close by – some say within 300 feet—is another [previously hidden] burial ground, where high-grade uranium leftovers were dumped during the 1970s.

The smoldering fire is spreading. The boundaries of the radioactively contaminated soil are not clearly delineated. The timing of the merger of the two entities is anybody’s guess. And having never encountered this situation before, no one really knows what the result would be.

A mushroom cloud is not going to happen; and there probably won’t be an explosion. But many speculate that the situation is akin to a slow-motion dirty bomb [without the boom], poised to spread some very nasty stuff into the environment.

Environmentalists say that this situation is unique and unprecedented in the U.S. Neighbors, “radio-activists,” fire officials, EPA regulators, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and Republic Services–which operates the landfill-—agree that something must be done. But no one knows precisely what that something is, or who should be responsible for doing it.

Here’s my [unscientific, unofficial, and possibly factually flawed] understanding of the situation:

How did this happen?

It all started in 1942, when the US decided to try to develop an atomic bomb. A St. Louis chemical company—Mallinckrodt—won the contract to process the uranium needed for the bomb. The source material came from a mine in what was then the Belgian Congo. It was uranium of a radioactive strength unmatched anywhere else. But the enrichment process left tons of highly radioactive waste, and Mallinckrodt had to find a way of getting rid of it. At first, they dumped it downtown, where their main processing plant was. In 1946, Mallinckrodt started dumping it on a 21-acre property just north of the St. Louis Airport. [It’s known as SLAPS.]

In the 1960s, a different company bought the waste ore from the airport site and transported it [sometimes in open trucks] to a nearby storage site. [The Latty Avenue site.]  There was a lot to move: 74,000 tons of Belgian Congo soil, containing approximately 13 tons of uranium; 32,000 tons of Colorado soil containing about 48 tons of uranium; and another 7 tons of uranium from somewhere else.

Finally, in the 1970s, another 47,000 tons of soil mixed with radioactive waste wound up in the nearby West Lake Landfill. At the time, there were no safety regulations for landfills regarding this kind of waste. One activist recently told me that, at the time the landfill operators did ot know that the radioactive waste had been mixed with topsoil. “So, they used those enormous piles of dirt to cover and level out garbage daily,” she said. “Sadly, that radioactive waste now lies nearly on the surface of the landfill, which is why it more easily becomes airborne in the form of dust.”

That toxic stew decomposed and bubbled for years, but almost no one knew that it contained radioactive waste. Then, in 2013, Republic Services reported that an underground area of the landfill was smoldering. That development made some people begin to take notice.

A few years earlier, a group of women who had attended a nearby North County high-school began realizing that many of their classmates—and members of their families– had been diagnosed with various cancers. It seemed like too many of them. They remembered that, as children, many of them had played in nearby Coldwater Creek—a tributary of the Missouri River—which some industrial companies had used as a dumping ground over the years. They also recalled roaming around the open fields and railroad tracks near St. Louis Airport. After looking into it more closely, they were shocked to discover that their neighborhood was ground zero for radioactive waste dumping.

In the early 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency made SLAPS and Latty Ave into Superfund sites. The cleanup at those sites is nearing completion, under the direction of a federal sub-agency called FUSRAP.  [Of course, it’s hard to know when you’re really finished:  The boundaries of the radioactive areas are squishy, because wind, rain and flooding tend to move soil around.]

But Westlake remains a problem. Several groups of activists have been persistent and outspoken in pushing for a resolution to the problems in the area. [Some call themselves “radio-activists.”] But they’re trying to navigate a dizzying matrix of agencies with conflicting jurisdictions and agendas: EPA, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, local politicians, the Bridgeton Fire Department, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—to name a few. Some have proven helpful, but many seem to be in denial. [At one community meeting, an EPA official is recorded on video saying, “We have no evidence that the radioactive waste is near the fire.”]

In 2008, EPA proposed sealing off one of the waste areas with a 5-foot cap. Very little happened to that plan, but just this week [April 18, 2016] at another community meeting, EPA revived the idea. It received a chilly reception from  many residents and activists, who have been pushing for years for removal, rather than further burial, of the contaminated waste. Westlake Landfill activists also are leading an  a effort to secure a voluntary buyout of properties within a one-mile radius of the landfill.

Even the “good guys” can be difficult: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control [CDC] has been reluctant to accept the notion that there are cancer clusters in the area. A separate group of activists–Coldwater Creek – Just the Facts” — is focused on a federal health assessment aimed at determining if there is a link between the elevated cancer rates in the area and radioactive contamination.

In the meantime, most residents of St. Louis City and County are only marginally aware of what’s going on “up there” in the North County area. Even people who now live—or formerly did—near the dump sites may not realize what they may have been exposed to. And when they receive a diagnosis of an unusual cancer, their doctors may say, “This is so rare. You are one in a million.”  The radio-activists beg to differ: “You actually are one of millions,” they counter.

I recently took a tour of “radioactive St. Louis,” guided by a very knowledgeable activist from the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. We went to Latty Ave., to SLAPS and to Westlake, where we ran into a “Just Moms” founder who was making her daily rounds of the site. She was taking pictures of the latest efforts to contain the fire, tamp down the stench, and keep a lid on the situation—literally: The whole landfill is covered with a green tarp, over which is vast web of hoses and exhaust pipes, plus valves, and air-quality meters, and surrounded by a very tall chain-link fence. Iconic yellow “radioactive” signs are everywhere. It’s something you really wouldn’t want in your neighborhood.

And it’s scary. What will happen next is not within the realm of accurate prediction, said our guide. We may not even know when whatever is going to happen actually happens. Maybe it already has. And it’s possible that the consequences may not manifest themselves for years.

One thing is certain, though: The world should be watching.