ST. LOUIS — The Environmental Protection Agency plans to clean up radioactive waste at a suburban St. Louis landfill by removing most of the Cold War-era nuclear material and capping the rest, the agency said Thursday.
The announcement of the $236 million project ends years of wrangling over what to do with radioactive material illegally dumped more than 40 years ago at West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, material that sits dangerously close to a smoldering underground fire at an adjacent landfill. An earlier remediation plan to cap the entire radioactive site with rock, clay and soil, announced a decade ago, was scrapped amid strong local opposition.
Under the new plan, about 70 percent of the worst contamination will be removed. The rest will be contained within a permanent cap that will provide “additional protection to the community over the long term,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a news release.
The project is expected to take about five years, though it isn’t yet clear when it would start. The landfill has been on the EPA’s Superfund list since 1990.
Karen Nickel, who lives less than two miles from the landfill and co-founded the activist group Just Moms STL, said it’s a good plan but long overdue.
“We view this as a victory for this community, that EPA has now acknowledged this is dangerous and it needs to be taken away,” Nickel said. “It’s been a long, hard battle.”
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, released a statement saying families “should not have had to wait 27 years for a plan to clean up the site.” Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill said she was pleased “this is finally moving in the right direction.”
But Ed Smith, policy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said partial removal “is not acceptable.”
“It means high levels of radioactivity will be left behind with the potential for water or airborne contamination into the future, creating unnecessary long-term risks to the St. Louis region,” Smith said in a statement.
The cleanup cost is expected to be split between the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversaw nuclear weapons projects during the Cold War; the energy company Exelon, which formerly owned Cotter Corp., a uranium processor; and Bridgeton Landfill Inc. and Rock Road Industries, two entities of Republic Services, the company that acquired the landfill through a merger several years ago.
Republic Services said it would work to “ensure that the final remedy performed is based on science” and “fully protective of human health.” A statement from the company said it could take years for the work to begin.
The EPA has drawn criticism for coming up with a plan since the 2008 proposal was discarded. U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, a St. Louis County Republican, was among those who called for the Army Corps of Engineers to take over cleanup from the EPA. The corps agreed to work alongside EPA on the project, but the EPA continued to oversee it.
West Lake Landfill was contaminated in the 1970s after a contractor illegally dumped uranium processing waste. Uranium was processed in St. Louis for the Manhattan Project, the top-secret government program that produced the first nuclear weapons.
Adding to the worry is the underground smoldering at the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill, also owned by Republic Services. The cause is unclear, but the company has spent more than $200 million to both contain the smoldering and to reduce a significant odor caused by it. A lawsuit over the odor filed by 34 nearby residents was settled in 2016. Terms were not disclosed.
The EPA has said all along that neighboring residents faced no risk from radiation. The agency’s testing has found no evidence that radioactive material has migrated beyond the landfill.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources in July found radioactive contaminants in stormwater just outside the landfill. But the EPA said its own testing showed “no offsite unacceptable public health risks” in the stormwater.
Hollingsworth reported from Kansas City, Missouri.