by Nick Thompson
BRIDGETON, Mo. – The radioactive leftover by-product from the world’s first atomic weapons could make its way into the air in the Show-Me State.
A contractor illegally dumped radioactive material into a North St. Louis county landfill in the early 1970s.
The waste was dumped at a time when the state government was not regulating landfills, and many of the haulers who brought it there had no idea it was laced with radioactive elements like thorium.
Now other hazardous chemicals have crept closer to that material — and some experts warn the reaction won’t be pleasant.
Dawn Chapman’s story is one you’ll hear from thousands of other working class people in north St. Louis County.
She looked around suburbs like Hazelwood and Bridgeton for a home and began to visualize her version of the American dream.
“We handpicked this house, for our family because I was pregnant with my first child and I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom,” Chapman said. “And I knew we could afford this house on a single income.”
Chapman’s dream home is about 2 miles from a landfill.
A few years ago a strange smell took over her neighborhood and she learned 2 miles is too close for comfort.
“I literally thought someone’s house was on fire,” Chapman said. “I couldn’t see smoke but it was heavy and thick.”
That smell Chapman noticed was a result of a fire at the landfill, but crews couldn’t just put this out and call it a day.
She learned this when she called the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Local municipalities at the time were directing all calls about the smell to DNR.
“[I asked] Are you going to do something about it, what [will it take] 2-3 months?” Chapman said. “No, decade plus [DNR responded]. I mean it got bigger and well it’s not trash burning, it’s a superfund site it’s chemicals burning.”
Sub-surface smoldering is the term scientists prefer to use to describe the fire still burning hundreds of feet below the surface at the Bridgeton Landfill.
If that wasn’t enough to make Chapman concerned, the DNR told her there was more to be worried about.
“You also have radio-active waste on the site and we’re very concerned about the fire meeting that and causing an event and I just about lost it,” Chapman said. “I said how did we get radioactive waste on the site and he said well you know it’s from the Manhattan project.”
Experts now say the sub-surface smoldering is about 1,000 feet away from the waste, which is buried in the Westlake Landfill. The Westlake Landfill and Bridgeton Landfill are two separate quarries located in close proximity to one another.
Chapman co-founded the advocacy group Just Moms STL with a few other women when their neighborhoods started to stink.
They have continued to press government agencies and the landfill owner for information. On several occasions, Chapman said it appeared all the parties responsible were not talking with one another.
“The EPA sent us some more documents about what’s on the surface [with regard to the waste],” Chapman said. “When I talked to the people dealing with the fire side of it I was like you know I’m really worried you guys I think this is in more areas than what they think based on this. And they were like, can you send me those?”
“When Dawn and I started we talked to agencies that had no idea that this was happening on this site and this was happening on this site,” said Just Moms STL Co-Founder Karen Nickel. “We did have to bring people together and talk about the issue.”
North County residents like Chapman simply want to know — will the fire reach the waste?
The problem is it depends on who they ask.
The EPA is holding Landfill Owner Republic Services and several other companies involved in dumping the waste accountable as “responsible parties” under the guidance of its Superfund program.
The EPA has managed Westlake Landfill as a superfund site since 1990.
Republic’s experts, working in conjunction with the EPA, have told area residents the landfill is in a “managed state.”
EPA Region 7 Director Mark Hague has said the public is not in any immediate danger due to the fire and has said the agency will work to install a firebreak between the sub-surface smoldering and the waste.
However, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is suing Republic Services for negligence and for violating state environmental laws.
Koster’s expert witnesses in depositions paint a much grimmer picture of the situation.
Koster has also been critical publicly of the EPA’s management of the site.
St. Louis County Emergency Management Director Mark Diedrich has tried to ensure the community is ready for the worst-case scenario.
“The worst case scenario is if the underground fire reaches the radioactive material and the radioactive material gets into the steam or the smoke being released from the fire,” Diedrich said. “And that fire [then] reaches the surface and then that radioactive material gets spread out into the community.”
Diedrich said the wind will determine where that material is spread, so he is almost certain it will not blow west toward the Ozarks.
However, residents within a few miles will have to shelter in place and wait for a possible order to evacuate.
“The first step is to shelter in place, to stay inside because that’s going to protect you if there’s anything in the air,” Diedrich said. “If you run outside you’re going to be running right into the potential contamination.”
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, wants to get people out of harm’s way before the worst-case scenario occurs.
Chappelle-Nadal said she wants either the state or federal government to apologize to nearby residents by offering to buy out their homes. That remedy is not cheap.
Legislative researchers estimate Chappelle-Nadal’s Senate Bill 600 would cost taxpayers $11 million if the state were to buy out homes within one mile of the landfill site. It would cost $7 billion to buy out the 63,000 homes located within three miles of Coldwater Creek.
“These people are getting contaminated in multiple ways,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “It could be the methane coming out of the ground, it could be the elemental smell in the air that they’re breathing in — it could almost be anything.”
Meanwhile, there are dedicated scientists working on a solution, but some of them have become discouraged.
A former Missouri DNR employee who spent about two years on site wrote after he quit: “What is needed in a situation such as this is pure science, unimpeded by money, politics or mindsets.”
“People say well just come up with a solution,” Chapman said. “We have no book that we can turn to chapter 5, what happens when you have this type of fire — this type of — there’s nothing. We’re writing the book right now.”
Chapman sympathizes with the complexity regulators are dealing with, but she believes more cooperation is needed so area children will “grow not glow.”
In addition to advocating for a buyout of area homeowners, Chapman’s group wants the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers to send in a Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) team.
FUSRAP teams clean up the early mistakes of the atomic era, and have already worked to clean up several sites in the Coldwater Creek watershed.
A bill to transfer Westlake Landfill to the FUSRAP program has made it through the U.S. Senate and needs to be voted on by the House.