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During three months in 1973, dump trucks carrying more than 40,000 tons of dirt made their way from a site near the airport to a landfill on the western edge of St. Louis County.

The truck owners didn’t have to pay to dump their loads; what they delivered was billed as clean fill dirt that the landfill operator could use to cover other refuse.

But it wasn’t clean fill.

The dirt came from Latty Avenue, which was used as a storage site for radioactive materials purchased from the federal government. The materials were owned by a Colorado company, Cotter Corp., which was looking to squeeze what value remained in wastes left behind from uranium processing that supplied the nation’s nuclear weapons buildup.

Except for what those dump trucks took to the landfill, Cotter shipped much of what was stored at Latty Avenue to its facilities in Colorado, according to official reports.

In the spring of 1974, Cotter representatives told the Atomic Energy Commission that the company decided to dispose of some of the radioactive material in “St. Louis County sanitary landfill area No. 1 on Old Bridge Road.” The 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate, which contained several tons of uranium, were mixed with dirt scooped right off the top of the Latty Avenue storage site, company representatives and documents told the AEC.

AEC records show the agency recommended citing Cotter for not following the “intent” of its regulations because it had mixed the waste with soil.

But a few months later, in November 1974, Cotter requested and received Atomic Energy Commission approval to terminate its license for the radioactive material at Latty Avenue. At the end of the year, the AEC, which had faced years of criticism for being too cozy with industry, was dissolved and its duties handed to the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

This chain of events, pieced together from reports and documents from the AEC and NRC, is raising questions about the federal government’s knowledge of, and liability for, the long-contaminated West Lake Landfill.

It turns out there was no “St. Louis County sanitary landfill area No. 1.” The barium sulfate, mixed with nearly 40,000 tons of soil from the contaminated Latty Avenue site, was dumped in West Lake Landfill.

But despite the nonexistent landfill, the company that retains Cotter Corp.’s liability said it did nothing illegal. The AEC knew Cotter’s contractor, B&K Construction Co., dumped material in a St. Louis County landfill. Yet the government never cited Cotter, and it ultimately released it from its license.

“This whole thing was done under the watchful eye of the Atomic Energy Commission,” said Craig Nesbit, a spokesman for Exelon Corp., the Chicago power company that retains Cotter’s liability for West Lake because its Commonwealth Edison utility used to own Cotter.

You cannot have a nuclear material license terminated if something is amiss, Nesbit said. “It’s like trying to sell a house with a lien on it. You can’t do that.”

Others say the U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE, which retains the AEC’s liability for the West Lake contamination, has been quiet for too long. Not enough people realize the federal government’s complicity, they say, in contaminating a landfill that is now surrounded by suburbs and frightened residents.

“To me, it’s very clear that this was a federal responsibility,” said Kay Drey, a longtime opponent of nuclear waste who has followed the situation for decades. “Unfortunately, the Atomic Energy Commission and the NRC didn’t follow through and pay attention to what was at Latty Avenue and then dumped at West Lake Landfill.”

‘FULL KNOWLEDGE OF THE AEC’

A review of AEC, NRC and DOE documents, spanning the early 1970s through the 1990s, shows that Cotter Corp. was never cited for the disposal of the material from Latty Avenue in West Lake.

An NRC inspection in 1977 confirmed that over 43,000 tons of barium sulfate waste mixed with soil from Latty Avenue was dumped at West Lake. Yet it said “neither site presents an immediate radiological health hazard to the public.”

“No items of noncompliance were identified during this investigation,” the NRC found in 1977.

However, a subsequent NRC investigation released in 1988 did say dumping the barium sulfate and soil from Latty Avenue in West Lake was “not authorized.”

In 1989, the NRC released an investigation conducted by researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“It is not known what levels of contamination were already in the soil before the barium sulfate residues were mixed into it,” the report authors wrote. “Disposal in the West Lake Landfill was unauthorized and contrary to the disposal location indicated in the (NRC’s) records.”

Exelon’s Nesbit acknowledged the NRC called Cotter’s actions “unauthorized.”

“But that’s 10 years after the fact, and everything that was done was done with the full knowledge of the AEC,” Nesbit said. “So I don’t know with what validity an agency can come back later and say that wasn’t the right thing to do.”

‘MORE AT STAKE’

Public concern about the West Lake Landfill contamination has exploded in recent years after an underground fire was discovered in the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill. Many worry if the underground smoldering spreads to West Lake, it could spread radiation offsite.

Republic Services, the nation’s No. 2 waste hauler and owner of the landfill, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing its cleanup, say the fire is not moving toward West Lake. The EPA promises a cleanup plan around the end of 2016, and it said any disagreement over liability among responsible parties won’t affect its timeline. It also doesn’t matter if contaminating West Lake wasn’t technically illegal.

“Bottom line: It wasn’t the right move for the community, so something has to be done now and that’s what we’re focused on,” said EPA Region 7 spokesman Curtis Carey.

Meanwhile, Exelon has begun suggesting that there could be something more than the Latty Avenue material contaminating the landfill, material that isn’t connected to Cotter and B&K’s involvement back in the 1970s. That could put more blame on the parties it will split the cleanup tab with: the DOE and Republic Services. Exelon is pursuing additional testing to try and prove it.

Nesbit said new testing requested by Exelon is trying to determine whether “radiological material went into that landfill that is not part of the current discussion.”

“Nobody really knows the answer to that, and that’s what the current boring testing is trying to determine,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff that went into that landfill.”

That is adding to suspicion that more material is in the landfill than what Cotter dumped from Latty Avenue, said Doug Clemens, who chairs the community advisory group overseeing the EPA cleanup.

“The concern in the community and the concern in the research we’ve been turning up is that there are possibly other contaminants dropped in the West Lake Landfill” beyond barium sulfate and soil from Latty Avenue, he said. “There’s this idea that DOE has more at stake in this landfill than just the stuff from Latty Avenue, which Exelon keeps hinting at.”

FEDERAL LIABILITY

Exelon, one of the nation’s biggest utility companies with annual revenue exceeding $27 billion, has long been quiet on the West Lake situation. It’s only become more vocal this summer after it says Cotter discovered new documents suggesting material could be in the landfill in locations that haven’t been “adequately tested.”

The DOE has been even quieter. Many question why West Lake hasn’t been added to a special cleanup program for waste generated by the early nuclear weapons program, as other sites in the St. Louis area have.

The cleanup program, called the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, or FUSRAP, was first run by the DOE until the corps took it over in the 1990s.

The DOE says West Lake did not meet the criteria for the program, now run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To be eligible, the program requires the site to be involved in Manhattan Project or early Atomic Energy Commission activities. The region’s Congressional delegation has said they believe the DOE did not include West Lake in FUSRAP because the material was owned by a private company and not under the direct control of the department.

In 1990, a DOE agreement with EPA laying out the framework for cleaning up radioactive contamination near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport under FUSRAP specifically excluded West Lake Landfill.

Clemens thinks the DOE has done all it could to keep West Lake under EPA jurisdiction rather than the corps. But the federal government should be responsible for cleaning it up, he said.

“This was permitted by the federal government and created by the federal government under a weapons program,” Clemens said. “It’s their waste they’re responsible for it.”

Before being named as a potentially responsible party by the EPA, the DOE maintained it wasn’t liable for the West Lake contamination, according to several internal memos.

Asked whether it still maintains that it’s not liable, a DOE spokesman did not answer directly. Via email, the department responded that it signed an agreement with EPA in 1993 “under which it committed, along with other parties, to pay for the costs of a remedial investigation and feasibility study to be conducted under the direction of EPA.”

A 1993 DOE memo recommended signing the EPA agreement, but it maintained that the department “remains firm in its position that it is not admitting liability for the West Lake Landfill contamination.” The memo also says that signing the EPA agreement “is not an admission of liability nor a commitment to do anything more than conduct the Remedial Investigation/Feasibility study.”

Asked what share the federal government should shoulder for the West Lake contamination, the DOE said it will “begin discussing with other potentially responsible parties an appropriate share of the cleanup costs” after EPA proposes a cleanup plan. The department referred the Post-Dispatch to the NRC when asked whether B&K, Cotter’s contractor, had engaged in “illegal” dumping in West Lake.

In a 1992 memo, the DOE argued it had no “liability or responsibility” for West Lake, calling the dumping “a license violation” that “would not have been authorized if licensing approval had been sought.”

Based on his research, Clemens said he suspects the federal government didn’t know Cotter was dumping in West Lake while it was going on.

“But they certainly had knowledge after it happened, and the NRC decided not to fine them, not to do anything about it,” he said. “It does strike me as a huge mystery as to why DOE doesn’t just step up and do the right thing.”