St. Louis Post-Dispatch
by Tony Messenger
Kay Drey owes me a quarter.
Sitting across from me last week at her dining room table in University City, the 83-year-old environmentalist handed me a stack of documents and issued a challenge similar to one she’s made at that table to visitors like me countless times.
“If you actually read all the way through one of my documents, I’ll give you a quarter,” Drey said.
It’s a bit of self-effacing recognition that Drey is a stickler for details others find a bit dry.
We’re in her dining room to talk about West Lake Landfill and the nuclear waste that was dumped there illegally decades ago. The radioactive waste dates to the production of the first atomic bomb, a double-edged sword of a legacy for St. Louis. The city is proud of its efforts to end World War II but still dealing with the remnants of that effort in the next century.
For decades now, Drey has been on a quest: Get the federal government to excavate and move the waste. It’s a story that can get more complicated the deeper you dig. It involves multiple federal agencies, dense reports on various radiological elements and their “daughter products,” half-lives, warring special interest groups, lawsuits and, ultimately, a dispute over who will pay the hundreds of millions of dollars to clean it up or otherwise protect the citizens who live near the landfill.
But Drey has a way of simplifying things.
“It’s in the Missouri River flood plain,” she says of the nuclear waste. “I can’t think of a worse location. The Missouri River floods all the time. We cannot leave it there.”
That was the basic theme of the first of two reports she gave me. It’s 14 pages of testimony she submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources 10 years ago. In painstaking detail, Drey outlines what is known of the waste, how it might affect groundwater and the potential for disaster if the Missouri River were to reclaim its floodplain now protected by the Earth City levee.
She quotes two old Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports, one from 1982 and the other from 1988, that outline how “hot” the waste is in West Lake and call for some sort of “remedial action.” She quotes one of the foremost flooding experts in the region, Bob Criss from Washington University, who said, “This is the wrong place to store hazardous material. It does not belong in a flood plain.”
Nobody who read Drey’s words from a decade ago would have been surprised by the release this week of a secret EPA report that reached similar conclusions.
The report, internal findings by EPA scientists that had been kept secret since 2013, concluded that it was feasible to remove the nuclear waste from West Lake. The scientists also found that doing so would reduce long-term risks.
So what’s the holdup?
The EPA has long wanted to simply put a cap over the waste and leave it there, at a cost of $40 million or so. It’s much less expensive than having the Army Corps of Engineers unearth the waste and dispose of it elsewhere, which might cost 10 times as much. Putting a cap in place is the preferred option of Republic Services, the company that currently owns the landfill.
Drey doesn’t care about the cost. She doesn’t care about how long cleaning up the waste would take. And she doesn’t want Republic to pay, either.
“The government put it there,” she said. “The government needs to clean it up. If we can keep making bombs, we can find the money to clean up the waste from the 1940s.”
The U.S. Senate passed a bill this year to carry out Drey’s preferred solution — have the Corps of Engineers take over the project and clean it up. But the measure appears to be dead in the House. Here’s what lawmakers need to know about Drey:
She’s not giving up.
All through her house are pictures of sloths. Paintings, drawings, stuffed animals. Drey says she likes them because at her age, she moves pretty slowly. According to her notes — and I wouldn’t suggest arguing with her research — sloths move about 420 feet in a day, at most.
In a lifetime of activism — for civil rights, against nuclear war, to protect the environment — Drey has often found that success is hard to come by. But she keeps moving, slowly, but forward. Twenty years ago, she was on hand as the director of the Department of Energy came to St. Louis and promised all the nuclear waste in the region would be cleaned up and shipped out. At the time, she had already been working on the issue for almost 20 years.
The waste — some of it, at least — is still here, and Drey is still working.
“We need to get both houses of Congress to say they’re going to clean it up,” Drey says. “It just can’t stay there.”