EPA signs decision to clean West Lake Landfill

Jaden Satenstein | Contributing Reporter

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed a decision to remove radioactive waste from the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo., Sept. 27.

Seventy percent of the radioactive waste will be removed from the landfill, which is located about 16 miles northwest of the Danforth Campus.

The radioactive waste was created by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works for nuclear weapon research during World War II. The waste was later sold to the Cotter Corporation, which then moved 43,000 tons of the waste to the West Lake Landfill in 1973, claiming that the corporation was only dumping clean dirt.

The EPA’s decision came only a week after the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services published a report confirming the many health hazards that have plagued Bridgeton community members for decades due to the waste.

The decision follows years of work on behalf of St. Louis community members and environmental groups to push the government into finding a solution to the issue. Just Moms STL is a local nonprofit aimed at advocating for the removal of radioactive waste.

“Since myself and the other moms have been involved, we’ve been able to get certain things put on the landfill, such as incinerators and a liner, to minimize those emissions that are coming into our community,” Just Moms STL founder Dawn Chapman said. “[There are] things that we see in this community [like] bloody noses [and] headaches from the odors. In the report that was released, it coincides exactly with our symptoms.”

One of the risks that will not be omitted by the cleanup is that of the waste polluting nearby water sources, such as the Missouri River.

“That’s a huge concern because, of course, the Missouri [River] flows into the Mississippi [River], and the Mississippi goes all the way down, so everyone below us feels those effects,” junior Dugan Marieb, treasurer of the Student Environmental Council and president of the Net Impact Club, said.

Community members have also reported life-threatening illnesses like cancer, which they believe to be direct results of the dangerous omissions from the landfill.

“It is a huge health risk, so it is causing a lot of different types of cancer in the communities around it,” Green Action Community Outreach leader and junior Kristen Riedinger said. “Most people say that the first thing they notice is the smell, which is not the part that’s going to hurt you. The part that’s going to hurt you is the part you can’t smell: the radioactivity.”

Another concern is the plan’s failure to address the issue of relocating nearby residents during the landfill’s cleanup, as proximity to the waste extraction process could also present health risks.

“The big thing that [the plan is] missing, there is, right now at least, no plan to relocate any of the residents of Spanish Village, [a neighborhood in Bridgeton] which is the site that’s most affected,” Riedinger said. “Those community members are trapped there in their homes because a lot of them can’t sell them or they try to rent, but then the renters are exposed to the landfill.”

Republic Services, the owner of the landfill, plans to challenge the EPA’s decision.

“The owners of this site are planning on challenging it legally, so we’re not done yet; we still have to make sure this decision goes through, and I think it will, but it’s going to be a long, long road for us,” Chapman said.

Chapman stressed the importance of St. Louis community members getting involved with the issue and making their voices heard.

“Environmental issues affect you regardless of who you are in the St. Louis community, and I think there’s very much a stigma attached to needing to have a certain set of skills to be able to be helpful,” former co-leader of Green Action alumnus Channing Hunter said. “I think it’s really asking the people who are having that first-hand experience how you can be helpful in their eyes.”

Student activist groups commended the University on its environmental activism on campus, but remain critical of Washington University’s involvement with environmental issues.

“Washington University is focusing on on-campus sustainability and doing really great work with that, but we still pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the fossil fuel industry, either through our endowment or our connections with the Clean Coal Consortium on campus,” Marieb said. “It’s really hypocritical and I think a lot of students should understand that while we should congratulate the school on some of these things on campus, we should still be critical of how we spend our money.”

The landfill was placed on the EPA’s National Priorities List in 1990, however it was reported to place no immediate danger, thus no decisions regarding the future of the site were made until 2008, when the EPA stated that it would be best to cap the waste and continuously monitor it, angering many community members, but satisfying Republic Services.

An underground fire was discovered to be smoldering only 600 feet from the waste in 2010, renewing concerns about the dangers caused by the landfill.

The decision has been warmly received by community members. However, not all possible dangers will be eradicated by the EPA’s plan.

“The problem with these sites, and with all Superfund sites [sites with hazardous substances that have been recognized by the federal government as being in need of cleanup], and I think it’s really important that people understand this, is that once you make a mess, once you have illegal dumping, there is no such thing as putting it back 100 percent the way it was before that occurred,” Chapman said. “We have known that thanks to somebody’s selfish decision in 1973, this community will always, always be next to radioactive waste to some degree, so for us it’s about making it better. It’s about making them clean it as much as they can.”