If ever there were an issue that needed executive action from the White House, it’s the radioactive West Lake Landfill. Located in densely populated north St. Louis County, the site contains nearly 50,000 tons of highly radiotoxic, uncontained nuclear waste produced by the Manhattan Project during World War II. After 42 years, continuous finger-pointing, and an endless train of studies and reports, little has been done to clean it up.
The nuclear waste at West Lake was illegally dumped there in 1973, and as the Post-Dispatch recently reported, records show additional radioactive material from Mallinckrodt’s downtown facility may have also been deposited at the site. This new revelation was included in a recent bipartisan letter signed by Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt calling for the U.S. Department of Energy to re-evaluate the site’s cleanup status. The significance of this is that the U.S. government is wholly responsible for any and all health hazards connected to the Manhattan Project as detailed in the original contracts between Mallinckrodt and the Manhattan Engineering District acting in defense of America.
Cancer clusters and elevated sicknesses and deaths have been recorded in the surrounding area, including an ongoing health survey, which now shows more than 45 cases of appendix cancer. Appendix cancer is exceedingly rare, and this incidence rate is 1,075 percent higher than the national average.
To make matters worse, an underground fire burns in an adjacent landfill and is migrating toward the radioactive waste. The fire has burned for years and it appears no one has even tried to put it out. There is no other radioactive site in the United States with an underground fire burning next to it.
The fact that thousands of tons of radioactive material is at the site has never been in dispute, but unlike the 100 or so other similarly contaminated sites in St. Louis, West Lake has been excluded from the federal program (FUSRAP) specifically tasked with cleaning up nuclear weapons waste. Currently, the EPA Superfund oversees the radioactive material at West Lake, while the state of Missouri has jurisdiction over the underground fire, which may already be reaching small pockets of dangerous substances. Needless to say, the fire and radiation do not respect man-made jurisdictions and arbitrary borders drawn on maps.
To further compound the problem, a series of private corporations swirl around the history of the site and ownership of the material dumped there. As expected, these private entities have repeatedly shown a priority to mitigate corporate liability at the expense of the local community. Phoenix-based Republic Services, the current owner of the site, recently attempted to block court-ordered monitoring data from being provided to the state of Missouri, but Attorney General Chris Koster fought back and won. Last week, the Department of Natural Resources released a letter indicating the fire was moving closer to areas that have tested positive for high levels of radioactive contaminants.
We are witness to a train wreck in slow motion that could have far-reaching negative consequences for the entire region, and further finger-pointing and inaction are no longer an option. The decades-long lack of action suggests the problem is a cross-jurisdictional “nuclear Gordian knot,” only to be severed by executive action from the White House.
President Obama has stated, “By the time a decision reaches my desk, by definition, it’s a hard problem with no easy answers. Otherwise somebody else would have solved it and I would never even hear about it.”
The West Lake Landfill has proved to be one such “hard problem”— and because local residents have suffered and are continuing to suffer due to the defense of our nation, the issue has an appropriate place with the commander-in-chief. The Department of Energy, EPA, and Department of Defense are all under the White House, and for a complete and responsible resolution, the jurisdictional finger-pointing must stop. The site must be dealt with in a holistic manner.
As recommended by policy experts Bob Alvarez and Dr. Helen Caldicott, and numerous other community leaders including Kay Drey and Just Moms STL, the entire location must be folded into the St. Louis-based, Army Corps FUSRAP program, which is the cleanup program for weapons-related nuclear waste. With bipartisan support from Sens. McCaskill and Blunt, President Obama could very well accomplish this with the stroke of a pen.
Byron DeLear of Maryland Heights is a clean-energy executive. Dawn Chapman is an organizer with Just Moms STL, the community action group leading the effort to clean up the radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill.