BRIDGETON • Residents near West Lake Landfill make no secret of who they think should be dealing with the radioactive waste buried there.
While the Environmental Protection Agency ordered study after study of the contaminated landfill, elsewhere in the region, the Army Corps of Engineers has been digging up and removing waste created by the country’s early nuclear weapons program.
“A lot of people see that and they want to see the same kind of results at West Lake,” Corps spokesman Mike Petersen said. “Ultimately though, that’s a Superfund project and EPA’s got the ball.”
The difference between West Lake and other St. Louis area sites contaminated with radioactivity from uranium processing hasn’t been lost on residents. After an underground fire was discovered in the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill, politicians and activists have joined the chorus to move West Lake to the Corps’ special cleanup program.
Now, activists are cheering new information that could bolster their case for a Corps takeover of West Lake.
Chicago-based Exelon Corp., one of the parties potentially liable for cleanup, said last month it had documents indicating some waste could have been sent to West Lake that it isn’t liable for. Citing the new information, the St. Louis area’s congressional delegation has called for a new review of whether the site can be moved from EPA jurisdiction to the Corps.
The West Lake Landfill’s owner, at least, seems to think residents and politicians should be careful what they ask for. Phoenix-based waste hauler Republic Services suggested last month that moving the site to the Corps’ Formerly Utilized Site Remedial Action Program, or FUSRAP, could “start the process over” after decades of work under EPA.
“Transferring control of the site to (the Corps) at this point would delay the remedial action and is unnecessary,” Richard Callow, a spokesman for Republic Services, said in an emailed statement last month.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who is suing Republic Services for the burning Bridgeton Landfill and has strongly criticized the EPA’s pace at West Lake, also is worried a new federal overseer could slow cleanup.
“The whole problem is we’re getting trapped in a federal bureaucratic Rube Goldberg machine and we’re not seeing the kind of progress we want to be seeing, so I don’t want to throw us in another federal contraption,” Koster said in a December interview.
And the Corps, for its part, tried to temper expectations. When faced with a contaminated site, it does indeed attempt to move in and clean up “as quickly as possible,” Petersen said. But because it often does the work itself, rather than direct potentially responsible parties to perform cleanup, a West Lake project would strain its annual budget, likely requiring additional federal dollars.
“If you look at what our funding is, we’re not funded for a project of that scope,” Petersen said.
The Corps has been involved since last summer, when it entered into an agreement with EPA to assist in plans for a barrier between the radioactive West Lake and the smoldering Bridgeton Landfill. There are “ongoing technical discussions,” Petersen said, and while it’s a limited role in West Lake, “we are definitely part of it.”
Dawn Chapman, a resident activist and proponent for removing the radioactive waste, pointed to the Corps’ ongoing involvement as reason to believe they’ll be able to jump right in.
“It’s not as though they’re going to be starting from scratch,” she said.
Besides, she said, after 25 years of waiting for EPA to do something, and nearly two years since a barrier project was announced, people are skeptical EPA will actually deliver on its promise to propose a remedy by January 2017.
“We’re already stalled,” she said. “According to EPA and Republic, there was supposed to be a barrier up there by now.”
The timing issue is something the congressional delegation acknowledged. In their letter to the U.S. Department of Energy, which used to run FUSRAP and assumed federal liability for early nuclear weapons activities, they asked for estimates on how a FUSRAP designation could affect the timeline.
The Corps concedes that’s a big unknown.
“That’s one of the questions that does need to be answered,” Petersen said. “At this point, I couldn’t even speculate as to what the impact would be on the timeline.”
The new push for a move to FUSRAP comes after Exelon publicly jumped into the West Lake fray after years of laying low.
The utility last month called for more testing at the landfill to determine whether material from Mallinckrodt’s downtown campus had been dumped there.
Mallinckrodt processed uranium for the government’s Manhattan Project and later during the Cold War. The U.S. government sold waste contaminated with radioactivity from Mallinckrodt's processing activities to Cotter Corp., a former subsidiary of Exelon. A contractor for Cotter illegally dumped waste in the landfill in 1973.
Exelon, which retains Cotter’s liability, says a recently uncovered document suggests material it isn’t liable for may have been dumped in West Lake. The material could hold the key for a switch to FUSRAP from EPA.
As the area’s members of Congress understand it, the reason West Lake isn’t already under FUSRAP is because Cotter’s contractor, not the government, contaminated the site.
In their letter, they say the U.S. Department of Energy may have had jurisdiction over the material Exelon says it’s not liable for. If so, a “renewed inquiry into the site’s inclusion in the FUSRAP would be merited,” the delegation wrote in their letter to DOE.
Exelon and Republic, possibly facing hundreds of millions in cleanup costs they will have to split, appear to disagree over the best approach for remediation — and whether more testing that could alter liability and federal jurisdiction is necessary.
While Republic continues to oppose a move to the Corps, Exelon has no preference between FUSRAP or EPA oversight, spokesman Craig Nesbit said.
“We just want the right solution to be implemented, whatever that is, and it needs to be science-based,” he said last week.
Attorneys familiar with environmental liability say the two agencies have very different operating procedures and cultures.
Working with the EPA, as Republic has done, can give a company the chance to weigh in and participate on studies and cleanup options. The Corps tends to do things themselves, although it does seek input before settling on a cleanup plan.
However, each operates under the federal pollution liability law and can recover costs from private companies. The Corps tends to perform the work first and then seek reimbursement, while the EPA often works with responsible parties to get them to pay for cleanup up front.
EPA can order companies to perform specific cleanups under the superfund law. It doesn’t use that authority “as much as in the early days,” but it still can, said William Session, an environmental lawyer in Kansas City.
“Do I want to be faced with an order that might compel me to spend $30 million on some sort of treatment regime for a site that would never require that degree of clean?” Session said. “That’s one of those incentives to volunteer.”
The Corps, on the other hand, “wasn’t set up to compel cleanups of sites.”
But the Corps does use the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue cost recovery, and Exelon appears to be familiar with the process. Exelon is in settlement discussions with the DOJ over its portion of an estimated $90 million in FUSRAP costs at a site near Lambert St. Louis-International Airport, where the Corps removed nuclear waste left over from Mallinckrodt’s processing.