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Bill transferring West Lake landfill oversight to Corps of Engineers won't pass Congress

Bill transferring West Lake landfill oversight to Corps of Engineers won't pass Congress

Wagner, Clay, testify on proposed shift of West Lake Landfill cleanup to Corps of Engineers

Reps. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, left, and William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, testify on July 13, 2016, on behalf of their leglsiation shifting cleanup responsibility at the West Lake Landfill from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Corps of Engineers. The appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on the environment and the economy. Photo supplied by Wagner's office. 

WASHINGTON • A congressional effort to move oversight for cleanup of the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Army Corps of Engineers won’t pass the current Congress.

The measure cleared the Senate earlier this year, but it remains bottled up in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, with no plans for a final hearing before sending it to the full House, according to a spokesman for Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.

Shimkus holds a key subcommittee post and has questions about the move. Congress has only a handful of days in session before a new Congress takes over in January.

Little is known about where the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump stands on the cleanup at the West Lake and Superfund sites around the county, although activists worry that a hostility toward government regulations and the EPA could further complicate cleanup plans.

Missouri members of Congress have consistently criticized the EPA for not coming up with a plan to clean up the site, which contains hazardous waste from World War II atomic bomb projects and has been the source of health-related complaints by neighboring residents for years.

On Tuesday, a Bridgeton couple filed a lawsuit against private companies associated with management of West Lake and the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill and the complex’s history as a disposal site for radioactive waste.

Michael and Robbin Dailey alleged that recent tests revealed unacceptable levels of radioactivity in and around their home a half mile from the dump.

The EPA reiterated that it had no evidence that radioactive material was leaving the landfill.

The bill shifting the cleanup to the Corps had bipartisan sponsorship from St. Louis-area members of Congress as well as activists involved with the waste site.

Its failure in this Congress set off political finger-pointing directly related to Missouri’s 2018 Senate race.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., accused a potential opponent, Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, of being unable to persuade fellow Republicans to vote for the transfer.

Republicans pointed out there was bipartisan opposition to the idea in the House, including from the influential energy committee’s Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., who raised questions about precedent for Superfund sites in his state.

Wagner is a senior deputy whip and the sophomore class representative to the House Republican leadership. McCaskill did not mention Wagner by name Wednesday, but in a statement issued by her office she was clearly referring to her potential 2018 rival.

McCaskill pointed out that she and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., were able to get the bill through the Senate, then said: “For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the U.S. House — including a member of our delegation who’s a member of House leadership — can’t get it done.”

Wagner and Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, testified on behalf of the bill before Shimkus’ subcommittee in July. Dawn Chapman, a founder of the “Just Moms” group advocating on behalf of homeowners in the Bridgeton area, praised both Wagner and Clay at the time for their advocacy.

Wagner said Wednesday that the administration of President Barack Obama opposed the bill, so even if it had gotten through Congress it would have faced a veto.

“I am going to try to take it to a new [Trump] administration that does listen to the people because I am listening to my constituents on this, and I wholeheartedly know that they have great concerns on this issue,” Wagner said. “But we are going to have to take it to a new administration because the Obama administration said they would not support it.”

The Corps of Engineers opposed the transfer bill, saying it could further delay cleanup and shift more of a burden of paying for it to the taxpayer and away from the companies that produced the waste. The EPA also opposed it and said previously that it would have a plan on cleanup on the site before the end of the year. However, a spokesman for the agency’s regional office in Lenexa, Kan., would not confirm on Wednesday if that was still the agency’s goal.

“In terms of update on the schedule, we have not made any new announcements,” EPA spokesman Ben Washburn said.

But Chapman, the co-founder of Just Moms, said she was told Wednesday by EPA officials in Bridgeton that the agency would not meet the December deadline.

In July, Shimkus told the Post-Dispatch that he was worried that shifting the responsibility to the Corps, which activists believe has a better track record of cleaning sites such as West Lake, would put cleanup at the site “at the bottom of the list” of Corps projects.

Jordan Haverly, a spokesman for Shimkus, said this week that his boss was “reserving judgment” and was “not taking a position” on the transfer to the Corps “until it goes through regular [committee] order, where we’d hear from all stakeholders and vet the concerns raised by the Army Corps and EPA.”

John LaBombard, a spokesman for McCaskill, said a Trump administration position on the transfer — or even the character and size of the EPA funding — was “really unknowable at this point.

“While the EPA might be severely weakened under Trump, it’s possible there are some bureaucratic interests that would still oppose the transfer,” he said. “So it really is up to House Republicans to get this thing done, regardless of the agency’s position.”

Chapman said activists were also concerned about what the new administration would do.

“Will EPA still have funds” to oversee it, and “will it still be able to be a priority?” for cleanup, she asked.

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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