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Radium above federal guidelines in groundwater near West Lake

Radium above federal guidelines in groundwater near West Lake

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Bridgeton Landfill

Inside the Bridegton landfill complex, a fence bars access to the West Lake Landfill, where radioactive material was illegally dumped more than 40 years ago. photo by Jacob Barker

A long-awaited report on groundwater beneath the radioactively contaminated West Lake Landfill says radium levels in some samples are above federal guidelines but that it’s difficult to pinpoint the source.

Requested by the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the site, the report from the U.S. Geological Survey looked at radium concentrations in several wells under the site. It found that 29 percent of its samples of combined radium exceeded federal guidelines.

Harder to tell, the report says, is whether those higher concentrations are due to chemicals seeping from the landfill or naturally occurring radium. And if the landfill is a factor, it’s difficult to know whether it’s the radioactive waste causing the higher readings or other waste buried there.

“The groundwater beneath the site within the boundaries of the site does contain, in some of the sampling wells, radium above the maximum contaminant levels,” EPA Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks said in an interview Wednesday. “The origin of that radium cannot be established with the data thus far collected.”

Brooks said there is no effect on drinking water.

“The radium that’s found beneath the site does not affect the drinking water in that part of metro St. Louis,” he said.

The USGS report says that the aquifers under the landfill generally flow toward the Missouri River. Some have worried about the potential for contaminants to migrate to the river, which does have a drinking water uptake downstream.

The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday passed a resolution urging the EPA to release the report. Brooks said Wednesday morning members of the area’s congressional delegation had been briefed on it.

Radium is one of the decay products from uranium processing from the country’s nuclear weapons program and was used as a marker to indicate whether any of the waste is leaching into groundwater. The waste was illegally dumped in West Lake in the 1970s, but concern in recent years has amplified after a subsurface fire broke out in the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill.

Republic Services, the landfill’s owner and one of the companies potentially on the hook for cleanup costs, said in a statement it hopes the report “provides peace of mind that the site is closely monitored by leading scientific experts.”

“The report should allay the worst fears being spread by alarmists,” Republic Services spokesman Russ Knocke said. “It should reassure the community that they are safe from and not being exposed to any risk from groundwater beneath West Lake Landfill.”

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment highlighted the portion of the report that suggested some of the highest radium concentrations could be due to runoff spreading radioactive material off site. Ed Smith, who follows the site for the group, also said in a statement that the report didn’t take into consideration that the material will grow more toxic over thousands of years of radioactive decay.

The USGS cautioned that data are limited about naturally occurring radium in the area, but it said the landfill’s radioactive waste as a possible addition still couldn’t be ruled out.

It noted that radium samples from the Bridgeton Landfill were in the range of a study of a Pennsylvania landfill, which had no radiological material, and some of the radium concentration could be due to other municipal and solid wastes.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has already detected higher levels of benzene and other chemicals in groundwater from the Bridgeton Landfill, which is smoldering and leaching more liquid than usual. The owner, Republic Services, has recently installed a treatment plant and pipes to control the contaminated liquid.

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