As Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt faces a mounting list of ethics and spending complaints, many locally wonder how the controversy will affect the West Lake Landfill Superfund site.
A landfill is on fire in Bridgeton, and while such "smoldering events" do happen in landfills, this one is close to World War II-era radioacti…
Some of the widely reported complaints against Pruitt include: frequent first-class air travel paid for by taxpayers; a six-figure trip to Morocco at least partly arranged by a lobbyist; controversial raises for two close aides; and living for months in a Washington condominium owned by a lobbyist’s wife for $50 per night.
As allegations snowball, so too do calls for Pruitt’s resignation — a specter with vocal support from many environmentalist groups that have staunchly opposed his regulation-trimming agenda.
But things are a bit different in St. Louis. Just months after the EPA announced a long-awaited proposal to excavate the bulk of World War II-era radioactive waste from the West Lake Landfill Superfund site in Bridgeton, some local activists worry that top-level turmoil at the agency threatens to plunge the site back into the state of uncertainty and inaction that has dragged out there for decades.
“I do feel like we are about to get a good decision. I don’t know if that changes if Pruitt leaves,” said Dawn Chapman, co-founder of the volunteer group Just Moms STL, which advocates for cleanup at the landfill. “These people are exhausted. They thought they were getting a good decision, and now it’s kind of up in the air.”
Worries about progress at West Lake getting derailed are also fueled by resignations that have already roiled the upper ranks of EPA headquarters. Though Pruitt remains in place, four top aides resigned last week, including senior adviser Albert “Kell” Kelly, who chaired the agency’s Superfund Task Force established last year. The EPA did not respond to requests for comment.
Amid the emphasis on slashing environmental regulations that has characterized Pruitt’s EPA tenure, Superfund cleanup efforts have been touted as a hallmark — and even centerpiece — of the agency’s so-called “Back-to-Basics” agenda.
Last year, the Superfund Task Force generated a list of 21 top-priority sites “targeted for immediate, intense action,” that included West Lake. Pruitt personally signed off on the site’s proposed cleanup strategy announced in February — a step he announced he would take at any Superfund site where expected remediation costs exceed $50 million.
Up until his departure, Kelly was one of the agency’s most active and visible liaisons in prominent Superfund communities like Bridgeton. He visited the area to attend public meetings about West Lake and to personally meet with concerned citizens and groups when the agency’s plan to partially excavate and cap the site was proposed. Local activists say his presence showed a level of attention and commitment to the site that had never been seen from decades of past administrations spanning both parties.
“He was somebody that we had real hope was leading this effort for us in D.C.,” said Kay Drey, an environmentalist who has tracked St. Louis-area nuclear waste issues for decades. “He lent significant ears to our concerns.... This is a step back for St. Louis because we had somebody who was paying attention.”
“There isn’t a single person in this community that didn’t have the man’s personal cellphone number,” said Chapman, describing Kelly’s willingness to field calls and talk to area residents. “That’s something that’s very hard to come by.”
While some outside critics speculate that the EPA’s revamped focus on Superfund sites constitutes “photo-op environmentalism” to score political points, the program’s cleanup decisions under Pruitt can defy the “industry-friendly” narrative that many say has defined his work, overall.
At West Lake, for instance, a relatively tough stance toward industrial players could be taking shape, with the proposed remedy’s price tag at $236 million — a total that would be borne by public and private entities liable for cleanup. Meanwhile, the least expensive alternative of capping the landfill would cost those groups about $75 million.
But those following West Lake say they don’t care what administration gets credit for the cleanup or what their motives are — they just want progress.
“We don’t have the luxury of playing games about what their political motives might be to help us,” Chapman said. “Political opinions don’t belong in this fight.”
The agency hopes to finalize a cleanup strategy — known as a record of decision — for West Lake by the end of September, according to Ben Washburn, an EPA Region 7 spokesman.
The public comment period regarding the proposed remedy closed late last month. EPA will respond to comments when it issues its record of decision.
Although submitted comments are not available for public viewing, members of Just Moms echoed viewpoints expressed at recent public meetings, in which local residents called for maximal excavation of radioactive material at the site. A post on the group’s website reiterated its commitment to pursuing relocation for residents within one mile of West Lake, off-site disposal of waste, and removing the “highest possible amount” of material.
Chapman said the group is willing to work toward the best possible solution regardless of the changes that take place at the EPA. She just hopes that attention to the Superfund program proves to be an enduring, “administration-wide” priority.
“I hope that Superfund’s emphasis is administration-wide and not just Pruitt and Kell Kelly,” Chapman said.
“It’s not a reassuring position,” she added. “We have no guarantees on a record of decision. We just have a proposal. That’s all we have.”