by Ed Smith
The radioactive West Lake Landfill Superfund site in St. Louis County, Missouri, should have always been under the jurisdiction of the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). FUSRAP is a nuclear waste cleanup program run by the Army Corps of Engineers for sites involved in early nuclear weapons production. The radioactive material in the landfill originated from uranium processing in St. Louis for the nuclear weapons program during World War II and the Cold War.
The legacy of this uranium production is scattered throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area in sites that are currently part of FUSRAP, except for the West Lake Landfill, which was inappropriately excluded from the cleanup list by the Department of Energy (DOE) in 1990.
A DC-based contributor to The Hill recently misrepresented facts about bipartisan legislation to put the Corps of Engineers FUSRAP in charge at West Lake while ignoring the local community support for the bill. A knee-jerk defense of the EPA by an environmentalist and beltway insider does not represent Missouri.
Local supporters of the legislation include the Pattonville School District, Pattonville Fire Protection District, DePaul Hospital SSM, North County Incorporated and various community groups, and elected officials like Attorney General Chris Koster. Bipartisan support for FUSRAP at West Lake also includes unanimously passed resolutions from the St. Louis County Council, St. Charles County Council, and several municipalities.
The EPA has proven itself ineffective at West Lake. Between 1990 and 2008, EPA Region 7 never considered fire a threat to the radioactive wastes at the landfill. EPA Region 7 was notified of asurface fire and a smoldering fire within the landfill complex in 1995, and it did nothing. FEMA released a detailed report on landfill fires and their characteristics in 2002, and the EPA did nothing.
Local fire officials warned EPA Region 7 of surface fire threats two years ago, and the EPA did nothing. Only in October 2015, after a surface fire burned within hundreds of feet of the radioactive contamination, did the EPA order actions to mitigate the near-term fire threat. For years, the EPA has been reactive instead of proactive when addressing credible threats and concerns from the community.
The EPA’s own National Remedy Review Board (NRRB) was critical of how Region 7 handled its 2008 decision to cap-and-leave the radioactive wastes. Just recently released to the public, the NRRB’s 2013 document indicates that Region 7 did not consider available technology used at other radioactive sites for the removal of the radioactive wastes, which the NRRB said could be done safely. The NRRB also said that Region 7 likely underestimated the cost and risk of the cap-and-leave option it chose in 2008.
The EPA should never have been placed in charge of the West Lake Landfill. In 1990, the DOE determined that contaminated sites in St. Louis City and County qualified for FUSRAP, except for the West Lake Landfill, prompting the EPA to officially designate it a Superfund two months later. Yet the radioactive wastes at the West Lake Landfill came from Latty Avenue, a site the DOE listed under FUSRAP in 1990. The EPA then identified the DOE as a responsible party for the radioactive contamination as a part of Superfund, further linking the agency to the site and justifying why FUSRAP should have always been in charge.
US taxpayers should support the legislation as the EPA has had trouble at radioactive Superfund sites elsewhere. Because of the DOE’s status as a responsible party, US taxpayers will have to foot part of the bill for the site’s remediation. EPA Region 8, in Colorado, chose to entomb radium at a site near Denver called Shattuck. The viable responsible party there paid over $26 million to entomb the radioactive material.
Five years later, due to the discovery that radium was leaving the site, the EPA chose to remove the radioactive wastes at a cost of over $57 million. The viable corporation, understandably, didn’t want to pay for the EPA’s failure to make the right decision the first time, so an overwhelming majority of the radioactive removal was taxpayer funded. It is crucial that the most qualified entity make decisions about the West Lake Landfill. That entity is the Army Corps of Engineers. Through the Corps of Engineers, we can get a decision the community will respect and still recover the costs from the viable parties, saving taxpayers money in the long run.
The reason the legislation is ‘political’ is due to its opponents who are financially involved with the landfill or vested in protecting the EPA at all cost. That type of behavior does not solve problems or deliver for the people of Missouri. The bipartisan West Lake Landfill legislation unanimously passed the Senate in February. The House of Representatives needs to do the same.
Ed Smith is Policy Director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment