by Byron DeLear
After the recent revelation of the Environmental Protection Agency“deciding” to remove offsite radwaste at the West Lake Landfill—something they’ve essentially denied existing for years—the beleaguered agency is now grasping at half-measured solutions in its handling of the smoldering, radioactive site. Due to a transfer-bill recently passed in the U.S. Senate, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now scrambling to retain its jurisdiction over what’s been called the most “complicated” and “difficult” Superfund site in the nation. Some of these last-ditch efforts include hiring a third-party mediator to facilitate further dialog with the community, and Gina McCarthy, head of EPA, finallyagreeing to meet Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel of Just Moms STL after rebuffing them numerous times over the last year.
Today, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board commented, “After leadfooting it for years, the EPA has mustered the political will to engage a public crying for answers. Unsurprisingly, the new openness occurs as Missouri’s congressional leaders are seeking to transfer oversight for West Lake from the EPA to the Army Corps of Engineers. Amazing how a little pressure helps move stubborn bureaucrats off the dime.”
The EPA has also awakened to the fact that they need to remove radioactive material that has migrated offsite despite knowing about it for more than two decades. Why would the EPA need to remove any radioactive material if the site—as they’ve repeatedly claimed—poses no health threat? It doesn’t make sense.
Meanwhile, as the environmental agency continues to dither and delay, the Federal Government is currently ignoring an explicit legislative directive which orders the removal of the threatening material. But like every development in this ongoing saga, the Federal Government has taken a seemingly adversarial role with the community—a community that’s only trying to save lives, protect the health of nearby residents, and prevent a regional catastrophe. This, ostensibly, is the EPA’s mission; but the agency’s pattern of behavior seems to betray a deeper concern for limiting financial liability rather than protecting lives at risk.
“The EPA should stop fighting this community and follow its mission instead of running interference.”—Byron Clemens
“The EPA should stop fighting this community and follow its mission instead of running interference,” said Byron Clemens, local property owner. “Time and again they’ve shown a propensity to minimize the real health threats posed by the presence of Manhattan Project nuclear waste in St. Louis County.”
Clemens, a retired educator, has been an outspoken critic of the radiological contamination of the region for many years. He added “there’s no doubt” families have suffered from exposure to these wastes and cancer clusters have emerged throughout the area. “Enough, is enough, it is long past time for our government to clean-up its mess.”
Last February, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill to transfer jurisdiction of the West Lake Landfill away from EPA and establish the Army Corps of Engineers as the lead agency at the site. However, as reported by CBS News and St. Louis Public Radio, a companion bill in the U.S. House is currently being blocked in committee by Congressman Frank Pallone of New Jersey.
“After more than 40 years of inaction and inadequate testing, the suggestion that West Lake is in the midst of a fast clean-up process does not pass the smell test.”—Harvey Ferdman, Policy Advisor to State Rep. Bill Otto
Rep. Pallone’s office has stated that both the EPA and Corps have “substantive concerns” about the bill, and that due to these concerns, he questions whether this bill will lead to a “faster, more robust cleanup process.”
“After more than 40 years of inaction and inadequate testing, the suggestion that West Lake is in the midst of a fast clean-up process does not pass the smell test,” said Harvey Ferdman, Policy Advisor to State Rep. Bill Otto.
In a call today to Rep. Pallone’s office, it was explained that as the Ranking Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Pallone does not have the ability to control the schedule of the committee and that the majority party or Chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) dictates what is voted upon.
“Agencies such as the EPA, Department of Energy, and Nuclear Regulatory Commissionshould embrace the Atomic Energy Act’s recall provision and work with the community to remove the threatening substances immediately.”
Since last year, the Federal Government has been put on notice. The ultimate decision to clean-up West Lake has been stymied by four decades of studies, finger-pointing, and a supposed lack of jurisdictional authority until last November when a little known recall provision within the Atomic Energy Act was brought to light. The pertinent federal agencies and congressional delegation have been made aware of this standing law, which orders the recall of mishandled nuclear byproduct material illegally dumped at West Lake in 1973, but has yet to offer any explanation why it continues to ignore the explicit directive.
Agencies such as the EPA, Department of Energy, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission should embrace the Atomic Energy Act’s recall provision and work with the community to remove the threatening substances immediately. This would be commensurate with the EPA’s “basic mission to protect human health and the environment,” and would be a great benefit to this community which has suffered four decades of inaction.
Another attempt by the EPA to save face is their hiring of a third-party mediator to conduct non-binding conversations with the community. However, these conversations will have no substantive impact on policy and in no way empowers the community toward healing.
“Hiring a third-party non-binding mediator has only increased the community’s distrust with the agency.”
“This is an effort for us to have a good inclusive conversation,” said Cindy Cook, principal of Adamant Accord, the firm hired to facilitate a series of discussions. “If people don’t get together and have conversations, distrust grows.”
As some have expressed, hiring a third-party non-binding mediator has only increased the community’s distrust with the agency. It has been expressed that the last thing this community needs is more bureaucratic red tape when basic calls for safety have gone unheeded in the face of misinformation, half-truths, and a tone-deaf demeanor which is unwilling to admit past mistakes.
“The Moms attend the Community Advisory Group (CAG) meetings which are run by members of the local community in collaboration with EPA,” said Dawn Chapman, co-founder of Just Moms STL. “There is no need to set-up more EPA meetings under an entirely new structure—that is asking too much and disrespectful to those who have sacrificed so much. The community did not request this—we’ve been busy doing the Federal Government’s job which is driving the process to find an expedited way to clean-up the site and make this community whole. The EPA should focus on their mission instead of engaging in a game of distraction.”
“Bureaucracy trumps science at the EPA, and we see this in their handling of Flint, Michigan as well—it’s not about whether the water is safe to drink, it’s how can we save face now that we know we screwed-up.”—Dawn Chapman, Just Moms STL
With the amount of bad press the EPA has received recently, including the debacle of widespread lead poisoning in Flint Michigan, it’s understandable that the agency would maneuver to rehabilitate its image. Unfortunately, these actions are hollow and will have no substantive influence on meeting the needs of the affected population. Sadly, the fact is, the agency has repeatedly failed this community for decades and for St. Louisans it will be exceedingly difficult to restore any faith or trust that the EPA is up to the task of cleaning-up West Lake. That’s why the community, Missouri’s bipartisan congressional delegation, Attorney General Chris Koster, St. Louis County Council, and numerous other stakeholders all support transferring jurisdiction of West Lake to the Army Corps of Engineers. The bottom line is that the Army Corps of Engineers has the capacity to execute the clean-up of nuclear weapons-related waste like they have for the other 100 contaminated sites in the region.
“In 1991, the agency asked for permission to clean-up the offsite contamination and EPA sat on it for 25 years,” added Chapman. “All of a sudden they want to clean this small spot up now? Bureaucracy trumps science at the EPA, and we see this in their handling of Flint, Michigan as well—it’s not about whether the water is safe to drink, it’s how can we save face now that we know we screwed-up. The people who live here really deserve better.”
To subscribe to this author’s updates concerning the West Lake Landfill story, click here.