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Despite unspecified time frame, EPA and outside experts do not anticipate delays, snags in West Lake cleanup

Despite unspecified time frame, EPA and outside experts do not anticipate delays, snags in West Lake cleanup

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Some of the debate and division that has long surrounded the high profile West Lake Landfill Superfund site in Bridgeton was not immediately dispelled by the Environmental Protection Agency’s selection of a cleanup strategy last week.

While the chosen $205 million remedy — which calls for excavating about 70 percent of the landfill’s Manhattan Project-era radioactivity and disposing of it out of state — was cheered by groups concerned about the site, some of the entities that will ultimately need to pay for the cleanup slammed the decision and called it “arbitrary and capricious.”

EPA officials and environmental law experts, though, say that the agency’s record of decision signed Thursday is not likely to experience significant delays or challenges, despite the lack of precision about when an enforceable cleanup agreement will be put in place, and when a design phase for remediation can begin.

Legal statutes governing Superfund cleanups, experts said, are written “to avoid having these sites litigated to death and fester” while communities are at risk, according to Maxine Lipeles, the director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at the Washington University School of Law.

“The statute gives EPA a lot of authority to get these sites cleaned up,” Lipeles added.

That assessment was echoed by multiple environmental lawyers at St. Louis law firms, some of whom requested anonymity because they have clients closely associated with West Lake. They said lots of deference is given to records of decision issued by the EPA and that there are significant penalties if groups liable for covering cleanup costs were to challenge the agency and lose.

Formally identified as “potentially responsible parties,” or PRPs, those entities at West Lake are Republic Services — the company that operates the landfill through its subsidiary, Bridgeton Landfill LLC — the U.S. Department of Energy and Chicago-based Exelon Corp., whose subsidiary, ComEd, used to own the uranium processor, Cotter Corp.

In 2008, when the EPA issued an earlier record of decision for the site — which was eventually re-evaluated and abandoned amid public criticism — the PRPs decided to split the costs evenly, according to Richard Callow, a Bridgeton Landfill spokesman. That decision, though, called for leaving contaminants in place and capping the site — a much less costly proposal. The same strategy was estimated to cost about $75 million by the EPA, according to documents released earlier this year.

At this time, there is not an agreement in place for how the PRPs will divide the $205 million price tag of the selected remedy — something the EPA said they would have to decide among themselves.

“Bridgeton Landfill LLC is opposed to the selected excavation remedy because it creates unacceptable risk with no proportional benefit, will greatly increase the time needed to remediate the site, and is contrary to EPA’s own findings regarding the risks posed by the site,” said a statement issued Thursday by the Republic Services subsidiary. “EPA’s decision today to excavate is arbitrary and capricious. From here, we will continue to engage vigorously with the EPA and the other PRPs to ensure that any remedy is performed in a manner that maximizes protections for the community and for on-site workers performing such remedy.”

The company expressed its preference for the capping alternative, as did fellow PRP Cotter Corp.

“We believe a capping remedy, like the one selected in the Environmental Protection Agency’s original 2008 record of decision, is the best remedy for the site since it presents the least risk to the community of all the alternatives considered,” said a statement Cotter issued through a spokesperson. “Cotter is reviewing the selected remedy and is evaluating next steps.”

The site’s other PRP, the U.S. Department of Energy, did not respond to requests for comment.

Very different reactions, meanwhile, came from some of the advocacy groups that have patiently waited years for progress at West Lake.

“I think we secured a really great cleanup for this area,” said Dawn Chapman, co-founder of Just Moms STL, a volunteer group focused on West Lake. “It’s so much better than I thought. We were hoping for, ‘Not the cap.’”

“Obviously we think that this is a huge step in the right direction — we’re not trying to take anything away from that. The community is definitely viewing this as a win,” said Ed Smith, the policy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. Though supportive of the EPA decision, the organization says it will continue its push for full excavation of the site and for buyouts of nearby homes.

The landfill is not lined at the bottom, and Smith and Chapman noted that the EPA’s separate, ongoing analysis about groundwater at the site could lead to additional action. An EPA representative said that any such action would need to be logistically “consistent” with the remediation decision reached this week.

“This is not the last decision to be made by the EPA at West Lake Landfill,” said Smith. “We’re hopeful that there might be more removal in the future if the EPA determines that the radiation in the groundwater is coming from the radiation in the unlined landfill.”

Ultimately, those concerned about the site hope the chosen remedy serves as a unifying moment, and don’t want the PRPs to meet it with resistance.

“We’re ready to have them as members of this community again, and it’s my hope that they decide not to fight this decision,” Chapman said.

Post-Dispatch coverage of the West Lake and Bridgeton landfills

A landfill is on fire in Bridgeton, and while such "smoldering events" do happen in landfills, this one is close to World War II-era radioactive waste. The Bridgeton Landfill abuts the West Lake Landfill. West Lake is where nuclear waste, the remnants of the Manhattan Project, was dumped decades ago. 

Here is a highlight of some of the Post-Dispatch coverage of the landfill, the radiation and community concerns.

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