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Republic Services: Little risk to public if landfill fire reaches radioactive waste

Republic Services: Little risk to public if landfill fire reaches radioactive waste

Bridgeton Landfill

Republic Services trucks drop off garbage from their municipal and commercial routes at a collection point within the Bridgeton Landfill complex. The Bridgeton Landfill itself is closed, and the waste left in the facility is collected and trucked to open landfills elsewhere in the region. photo by Jacob Barker

A new report from the owners of the Bridgeton Landfill finds little risk to public health even if an underground chemical reaction spreads to the adjacent West Lake Landfill and the radioactive waste illegally dumped there 40 years ago.

The low-temperature reaction has been smoldering in the Bridgeton Landfill for almost four years, fueling public concern about the nearby radioactive material. Area residents and environmentalists worry that the reaction will spread to the radioactive waste and expose nearby residents and workers to airborne radioactive material.

But in a report requested by the Environmental Protection Agency and obtained by the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday, Republic Services reiterated a prior conclusion from its engineers that the underground reaction is not hot enough to ignite waste in the landfill and would not carry radioactive particles off-site.

“There continues to be no health or safety or environmental reason to construct a barrier,” Republic Services spokesman Russ Knocke said.

The report came in response to an EPA request for more detailed evaluations of a barrier isolating radioactive waste in West Lake.

Previously, the waste hauler and the regulators overseeing the landfill looked at three alignments for a wall separating the two landfills.

Republic looked at those options and included a new idea to install heat extraction wells to halt the spread of the smoldering waste. By not digging up trash to build a wall, it satisfies concerns over odor and reduces the potential of attracting birds that could interfere with nearby Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, Knocke said.

“It’s dynamic, we could add additional heat extraction wells … as needed,” he said. “It’s certainly an appealing option, but ultimately this is an EPA call. It’s not a Bridgeton Landfill decision.”

Republic Services recently began a pilot program using the heat wells in the southern portion of the landfill.

There, it is testing their effectiveness alongside other measures to keep the reaction from spreading beyond the south end of the landfill through a “neck” connecting it with the northern portion. The northern portion is adjacent to West Lake and the radioactive waste.

Republic says the reaction is contained in the southern part of the dump. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the landfill, and its consultant say the fire is moving north.

Republic also evaluated the option of doing nothing.

The report included studies concluding that radon gas may increase should the chemical reaction spread to West Lake. But any radon gas increase is “relatively easily mitigated” and levels would remain below maximums set by EPA, the report says.

DNR’s consultant, Todd Thalhamer, has issued reports disagreeing with Republic’s studies. He has warned that radioactive material could spread off-site and does pose a health threat.

DNR declined to make him available for an interview.

The EPA has yet to decide on a cleanup or containment option for the radioactive material. It has also said little about what it expects would happen if the fire spreads to West Lake, although it does believe the risk to people and the environment would increase.

The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We have not seen any answer from (EPA) Region 7 on what impacts a smoldering fire will have on radioactive waste,” said Ed Smith, who follows the landfill issue at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

“It’s up to Region 7 to conduct its own independent risk analysis of what happens if that smoldering fire impacts the radioactive material, and so far they’ve refused to do that.”

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