Editorial: Concern about the Bridgeton landfills is not enough

By the Editorial Board  April 1, 2014

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Won’t somebody please take responsibility for the landfill with the smoldering event?

The hot-potato game being played by state and federal officials, legal representatives and Republic Services, operator of the Bridgeton and West Lake landfills, isn’t fair to the people who live in the area.

If the game doesn’t stop soon, and critics’ worst-case scenario is realized — that the underground fire in the Bridgeton Landfill reaches the thousands of tons of radioactive waste in the adjacent West Lake Landfill — there could be severe environmental consequences.

Attorney General Chris Koster came out swinging a year ago. He filed a lawsuit against Republic alleging violations of environmental law and said he would “aggressively” track the company’s compliance.

The lawsuit also gave Mr. Koster’s office authority to levy fines of $10,000 a day for each day of each violation if deadlines for reducing odors at the landfills were not met.

A year later finds this aggressiveness gone. Mr. Koster has his bat on his shoulder. He is not imposing the fines, and a spokesman for his office says Republic has “taken some intermediate steps to reduce the intensity of the odors.” This refers to a cap that was put on the Bridgeton Landfill in August. Apparently that’s good enough.

Nearby residents and workers say the cap helped things at first, but the smell got worse over the winter months. A log of complaints about the odor kept by the state Department of Natural Resources shows they have increased since the cap was put in place and as more people in the area learned about the log. The log was obtained by Post-Dispatch reporter Blythe Bernhard.

Federal and state health officials maintain that the odors pose no health risks other than headache, nausea and fatigue. They don’t seem to think those are big enough problems to warrant more aggressive tactics — like fines — to get the odors under control. But then they don’t live near the landfill.

Missouri’s congressional delegation — Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill and district Reps. William Lacy Clay and Ann Wagner — have asked for the Army Corps of Engineers to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to handle the waste.

The St. Louis County Council, County Executive Charlie Dooley, nearby DePaul Health Center, the Pattonville School District and the North County Incorporated business development group have asked the corps to handle the cleanup under its Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program.

These are steps in the right direction and a worthy bipartisan effort. But, like the smoldering event itself, they may be generating a lot of heat but no flame. So far the requests have led only to an agreement to have the corps help build an isolation barrier to separate the waste in West Lake from the fire in Bridgeton.

There are other concerns. An EPA study shows “possible relocation of radioactive material,” meaning that it may have found its way to the Bridgeton Landfill, Mr. Koster said in a recent letter to the EPA and Republic Services. He said if radioactive waste is found in the Bridgeton Landfill, the federal government needs to take over the entire project.

State regulators are tracking the underground fire in the Bridgeton Landfill; the EPA oversees West Lake as a Superfund site. The fire has been smoldering for more than three years. In 2008 the EPA’s Region 7 office in Lenexa, Kan., which oversees West Lake, made the decision to leave the waste in place and cover it with a protective cap.

To recap: The EPA, the state Department of Natural Resources, the state attorney general, two U.S. senators, two U.S. representatives and the Corps of Engineers are all involved, plus the private corporation that owns the landfills. Involvement is good. Somebody deciding to take it upon himself to get it fixed would be better.

Karl Brooks, regional administrator for Region 7, said the agency is listening to the residents. As evidence, he offers the fact that the EPA agreed to take a second look at their earlier decision. Mr. Brooks is urging patience.

Threats are good. Action is better. Looking is good. Fixing would be better.

Residents are tired of being patient. Three years of smelling the acrid stench, worrying about the problem, their health and their property values have exhausted their goodwill. They want solutions. They deserve them.

Mr. Koster has the power to start hitting Republic Services in the pocketbook. He should use it.

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