The subsurface fire at Bridgeton Landfill has raised a big question since it was discovered four years ago: What happens if it comes into contact with radioactive waste dumped nearby?
Many worry that the underground chemical reaction heating up the Bridgeton Landfill could spread to adjacent West Lake Landfill, where radioactive waste from nuclear weapons production was illegally dumped 40 years ago. The Environmental Protection Agency, which is charged with deciding how to clean up or isolate the radioactive waste, has offered almost no guidance on what sort of risk that would pose to the public.
But a recent letter from the EPA’s top official in the region, obtained by the Post-Dispatch, indicates the agency does not believe the radioactive waste would be released with any gases emanating from the site.
The EPA also does not believe the underground chemical reaction in the Bridgeton Landfill is moving toward the adjacent West Lake Landfill, according to the letter from Karl Brooks, administrator of EPA Region 7, to Lois Gibbs, head of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a Washington-based environmental group.
That assessment appears to differ from one from the state agency overseeing the Bridgeton Landfill, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The DNR consultant has said radioactive material could be spread through smoke or water vapor or dust if the smoldering reaches the surface.
Brooks’ letter offers some of the clearest communication on how the EPA views the risk posed by the smoldering Bridgeton Landfill, but it raises more questions about how the agencies are communicating and why they see the situation differently.
That’s not to say the EPA sees no risk. It is evaluating a barrier that would be built by landfill owner Republic Services separating the two landfills. But the project, announced a year ago, is at least another year away and may not even happen. And in March, a memo from EPA’s Engineering Technical Support Center said the underground fire could increase groundwater contamination.
For his part, Brooks, in the letter sent last week, wrote that if the Bridgeton Landfill fire spreads to West Lake, it would release more gas.
“From what we know of the constituents of (West Lake area 1), particularly the (radioactive waste), we don’t expect any gasses released to contain (radioactive) material,” he wrote in the letter to Gibbs.
There would be an increase in radon gas, but Brooks said EPA believed it would be “localized” and not cover the whole 212-acre site. A “proper cap” constructed over the landfill “would help reduce both short and long term risks to human health” from an increase in radon gas, he wrote.
In any case, the agency does not believe the reaction in Bridgeton is moving toward West Lake.
“While I understand the public’s concern about the movement of the (subsurface smoldering), at this time the EPA does not believe that the data collected thus far substantiates a conclusion that the (burning) is moving toward the radiologically-impacted material,” Brooks wrote.
Gibbs, the activist who gained prominence by raising awareness of contamination in the Love Canal neighborhood of New York, has urged the EPA to relocate neighbors closest to the landfills. She also has criticized the lack of an EPA study on the risks of an underground fire migrating — or spontaneously starting — in West Lake.
The lack of an independent EPA analysis of the risk from an underground fire has been one of the main critiques from environmental groups monitoring the situation.
“The narrow view of administrator Brooks here that no (radioactive material) would be released as a gas completely ignores the risk that DNR and its landfill fire expert sees here” from the fire surfacing, said Ed Smith, who monitors the landfill for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “I think it begs the need for a fully independent assessment of the risks of fire at the site.”
Republic Services’ engineers have released a study saying they see little risk for the spread of radioactive material if a similar underground chemical reaction spreads to West Lake. They, like Brooks, also said an increase in radon gas could be mitigated.
DNR’s consultant, Todd Thalhamer, has released a memo disagreeing with the low-risk assessment.
“Smoldering events that propagate to the surface either through fissures, vent holes, or areas that have collapsed can transmit (radioactive material) via the smoke, water vapor, and/or dust created by such an event,” he wrote in February.
A DNR spokeswoman said in an email that Thalhamer hasn’t indicated anything has changed from that assessment.
“The department and the EPA communicate on a weekly basis, but we are unable to speak for the EPA regarding their assessment,” spokeswoman Gena Terlizzi wrote.
And although the EPA has said it can’t conclude the fire is moving toward West Lake, the DNR said in a memo to Republic Services last week that it had observed a “warming trend” in a portion of the Bridgeton Landfill closer to West Lake.
Charlene Fitch, of the DNR’s solid waste division, said in the memo that the department needed more data to better analyze the underground fire’s movement. It approved a plan for Republic Services to add nine temperature monitors in the north quarry of the landfill, the section closest to West Lake.
As recently as October, EPA has said it can’t quantify the risk from the smoldering event in the Bridgeton Landfill migrating to West Lake. At a meeting with residents and environmental groups last month, EPA Region 7 office of public affairs deputy director Mary Peterson said residents asking about a risk assessment were “talking about hypotheticals.”
Dawn Chapman, a nearby resident who has become an organizer and activist on Bridgeton Landfill issues, said it seemed that the two agencies weren’t communicating enough.
“Nobody will come out and talk to us about the fire from DNR,” she said. “Nobody from EPA will do an adequate risk assessment. We’re filling in the blanks.”
The EPA did not respond to requests for comment.