Nuclear waste dumped illegally in a landfill, community outraged

People living in a community north of St. Louis became outraged Thursday after learning the truth about a landfill. Radioactive material — from the Manhattan Project — will be removed from an area landfill. The community wasn’t told for years about the reality of the waste.

A little history refresher: the Manhattan Project was a research and development undertaking during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. The Trinity test of the Manhattan Project was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced cleanup plans Thursday for the material in the West Lake Landfill Superfund Site in Bridgeton, Missouri. The 200-acre site, about 20 miles northwest of downtown St. Louis and a mile and half east of the Missouri River, holds materials contaminated by uranium ore. The uranium was processed as part of the Manhattan Project.

The site had been used as a landfill since the 1950s but became tainted in 1973 when 39,000 tons of soil mixed with 8,700 tons of radioactive materials were dumped there.

“EPA made a commitment to the people of Missouri to finalize a cleanup plan for the West Lake Landfill Superfund site, and today we are delivering on that commitment,” EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said Thursday at a news conference.

“The improvements we’ve made in our final remedy will speed up construction time by a year and reduce exposure to the community and cleanup workers while still removing virtually the same total amount of radioactivity.”

An expensive cleanup

The plan calls for excavations at the site as deep as 20 feet to remove most of the radioactive materials, which will be moved by truck and rail to licensed disposal facilities.

Radioactive material at the landfill deeper than 20 feet will be left in place, because EPA officials say it’s not a hazard to people at that depth.

A cover will be placed over the site to limit radon releases and protect groundwater, the EPA said. The agency will oversee the longtime maintenance of the cover, conduct a review of the cleanup at least every five years and develop a monitoring plan to check the air, surface water, and groundwater in the area.

Once construction begins, the EPA estimates it will take three years to complete the project, at a cost of $205 million. The US Department of Energy and two private companies — Cotter Corp. and Bridgeton Landfill — are responsible for paying the costs of the cleanup and EPA oversight. Cotter was the company that dumped the radioactive materials in the landfill in 1973, while Bridgeton Landfill owns the site.

Risk to residents?

The EPA and Bridgeton Landfill both maintain that the landfill currently “poses no unacceptable risk to human health or the environment,” but people who live near it don’t believe that.

“We had nosebleeds, we had headaches; I had rashes, I had all of my fish die in my fishpond, and they just kept telling us everything is great,” one resident told KTVI.

Just Moms STL, a group that’s been leading the fight for years to have the site cleaned up, is thrilled with the announcement but is still pushing for residents to be relocated, which is not part of the EPA plan.

“While we are enthused that this site will finally be addressed and cleaned up, our attention is now set on securing relocation for those living closest (to it),” said Karen Nickel, co-founder of Just Moms STL. “Viable relocation options must be available to residents before even one shovel sinks into this landfill.”

Bridgeton Landfill disagrees with the EPA’s plan, calling the agency’s decision to excavate “arbitrary and capricious.”

The company said it’s opposed to the plan “because it creates unacceptable risk with no proportional benefit, will greatly increase the time needed to remedy the site, and is contrary to EPA’s own findings regarding the risks posed by the site.”