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More than 40 years ago, radioactive waste was dumped at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton. The decades since have been filled with legal and political moves that have not gotten the site cleaned up.

Now a growing number of residents want to know how dangerous it is to live and work in the area as a fire burns underground in the adjoining Bridgeton Landfill. More than 500 people showed up at a Bridgeton church on Thursday for a meeting organized by residents. The monthly meetings held for the last two years typically attract no more than 50.

The surge in public interest comes after state reports showed the fire is moving toward the nuclear waste, and radioactive materials can be found in soil, groundwater and trees outside the perimeter of the landfill.

At least six school districts have sent letters home in the last week outlining their plans for a potential nuclear emergency. St. Louis County recently released its own emergency evacuation plan that was written last year.

Underground fires are common in landfills as buried garbage can get hot, much like the bottom of a compost pile. Typically they are monitored and allowed to burn out. But none of the fires have gotten so close to nuclear waste, which was created during the World War II era for St. Louis’ part in the production of the atomic bomb.

The Environmental Protection Agency assures residents that there is no immediate threat from the landfill. The agency oversees the Superfund site as one of the most toxic in the country.

Analysts for Republic Services, the landfills’ owner, say the underground smoldering is under control and not threatening to reach the radioactive waste. Earlier plans called for a barrier between the two landfills, but construction was never started in part because all of the radioactive material has not been identified.

Meanwhile some residents in surrounding areas aren’t waiting for a cleanup of the site. Some have bought gas masks and hazmat suits, stockpiled food and water and packed their bags for a possible evacuation. Others posted panicked messages on Facebook after seeing steam released from a nearby asphalt plant earlier this week. A few parents have threatened to pull their kids from school to await any disasters at home.

“I’m 16 and I’m already worried about my future,” said Shhdwafi Youssef, a sophomore at Pattonville High School, which is less than 2 miles from the landfill. Students at the school can smell the landfill from their campus.

A representative from St. Louis County said it is the Champ landfill in Maryland Heights that is producing the smell currently.

A group called Just Moms STL, which hosted Thursday’s meeting, was formed a few years ago to push for cleanup at the site. The organizers say they want the government to buy out the people living in the immediate vicinity of the landfills. They also want the Army Corps of Engineers to take control of the site as they have other contaminated hot spots including Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County.

The EPA will host a community meeting about the West Lake Landfill on Oct. 26 at the Machinists Hall, 12365 St. Charles Rock Road, in Bridgeton.