A fire that’s been smoldering deep within the Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill is fouling the air and water and jeopardizing the health of area residents, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said in a lawsuit against the landfill’s owner.
Filed Wednesday in St. Louis County Circuit Court, the lawsuit charges Republic Services of Phoenix with eight counts of violating state environmental law and seeks an injunction to force the company to do what is necessary to extinguish the fire and put an end to a noxious odor that’s prompted complaints across north St. Louis County.
While he will pursue an out-of-court agreement, Koster said Wednesday at a news conference that the company faces the potential of tens of thousands of dollars a day in civil penalties per day if violations are not addressed.
“The situation up there is distressing and terrible, and anybody who is living around that site has every right to complain,” he said. “Our goal is to increase the pressure brought by the state. The main thing now is solving the problem and ensuring public health.”
The attorney general’s involvement is welcome news for residents who have worked for months to bring attention to the problem.
St. Louis County residents as far away as Creve Coeur have reported smelling the odor, and some who live nearer say it has made their eyes water and irritated their throat.
“I’m glad he’s on it. I think this is what’s needed in this situation,” said Dawn Chapman of Maryland Heights, who lives less than two miles from the landfill and said she keeps her three children indoors on days when the odor is at its worst.
Republic Services issued a statement Wednesday in response to the lawsuit.
“We have already started the process of working with the attorney general as we share the same goal — to dramatically reduce the odor from the landfill while protecting nearby residents and employees, and ensuring compliance with environmental regulations,” the company said.
The lawsuit was filed less than a week after the director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources sent a letter urging the attorney general to take legal action.
But problems at the landfill go back much further.
Republic Services began recording elevated temperatures at some of the gas-extraction wells at the landfill in late 2010. The heat and odor began to worsen last year, and the fire has intensified since January, moving 25 feet a month, Koster said. Temperature probes in the landfill have recorded heat in excess of 260 degrees — far in excess of the 130- to 140-degree temperatures that are normal within a landfill.
The DNR has hired landfill fire and odor experts and commissioned air sampling that has shown elevated levels of benzene and hydrogen sulfide.
The problems aren’t limited to the air. The landfill is producing an estimated 150,000 gallons of leachate a day that has been allowed to seep into the limestone bedrock and pollute groundwater, the lawsuit said. In one instance in January, black leachate reached a nearby stream.
The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District has refused to take the leachate because it contained excessive benzene. And the American Bottoms Regional Wastewater Treatment plant in Sauget confirmed the presence of benzene in amounts characteristic of hazardous waste.
Koster said the liquid is now being stored at an onsite tank farm and is treated before it is transported for disposal.
Republic, one of the nation’s largest waste management companies, has insisted problems at the landfill do not pose a health threat, and the company has spent an estimated $65 million trying to address the odor and elevated temperatures.
Work includes 40 new methane gas-collection wells expected to be installed by mid-April to go with 160 existing wells. Gas collected is burned off at one of five flares on site.
Republic also plans to cap sections of the landfill once the wells are complete to capture any additional fugitive gas emissions. But the company said odors may get worse before they get better.
Koster said the company has worked cooperatively with the DNR. He’s hopeful that an agreement with the company can be achieved out of court. But any agreement must be legally binding and protect Missouri taxpayers, he said.
“I don’t think the state of Missouri is just looking for the most cost-effective solution,” he said. “We are now looking for the solution. So far, the solution has not been found, and I don’t know that it’s in sight yet.”
The 52-acre landfill, a former quarry, was permitted in 1985 and stopped accepting waste in 2004. The fire has been limited to an area known as the South Quarry, and is 1,200 feet from the West Lake Landfill, a federal Superfund site where Cold War-era radioactive waste was deposited 40 years ago.
Environmental groups and some of the landfill’s neighbors are concerned the fire could eventually migrate and come in contact with the radioactive waste.
But Koster played down the threat.
“At this point, it’s a remote hypothetical,” he said.