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Buyouts coming for homeowners near West Lake Landfill?

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For some north St. Louis County homeowners, the prospect of exposure to the area’s decades-old radioactive contamination is only one source of concern: Another is what to do with their homes, which could struggle to attract buyers.

“They didn’t anticipate buying a house or renting a house in a community that has a legacy of radioactive waste from the 1970s,” said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City. “Who would buy a home like that?”

In each of the past two legislative sessions in Jefferson City, Chappelle-Nadal has sponsored a bill that seeks to secure buyouts for those residents, as well as others in the state affected by contamination issues.

Last year, the bill passed out of committee but never reached the Senate floor for a vote. This year, however, the measure breezed through the chamber with a 30-3 vote Wednesday and now heads to the House.

The bill applies to homes that have been deemed uninhabitable by a “federal or state environmental or health agency” owing to contamination the resident is not responsible for.

Homeowners would also be eligible for buyouts if they live within a 1.55-mile radius of any area where at least 20 percent of samples by the Environmental Protection Agency or U.S. Geological Survey show radium in groundwater to exceed maximum contaminant levels.

The legislation is Chappelle-Nadal’s latest effort geared toward radioactive contamination in the area. In the vicinity of Bridgeton’s West Lake Landfill — which contains radioactive waste dating to the time of the Manhattan Project — Chappelle-Nadal says the bill would apply to residents of the 91 homes comprising the Spanish Village neighborhood and a nearby mobile home park.

Homeowners in those areas would be entitled to fair market value for their property, to be paid by the state Department of Natural Resources through a “Contaminated Home Acquisition Program” fund.

The bill limits expenses to be disbursed by the fund at $12.5 million. Chappelle-Nadal says that amount — which could be adjusted by future legislation — would be sufficient to cover the anticipated buyouts, since the Spanish Village homes have an average value of $139,000, and “not everyone wants to move.”

The bill that passed the Senate had established a radius of three miles for buyout eligibility, but Chappelle-Nadal said that distance will be revised when a House substitute bill is presented in committee. With West Lake in mind, the original three-mile distance would have extended across the Missouri River and into St. Charles County, which she says was not the intention.

A 2014 report from the USGS revealed that 29 percent of groundwater wells tested at the landfill showed excessive levels of radium.

And in November, a couple living in Spanish Village neighborhood filed a lawsuit against the landfill’s operators after allegedly finding elevated traces of radioactivity in household dust. Independent tests conducted by the EPA in the neighborhood are awaiting confirmation.

“We want to raise our children in a safe neighborhood, but we can’t with the radioactive waste these landfills scattered all over our community,” said Dawn Chapman, a co-founder of Just Moms STL, a group that follows issues tied to the landfill. “We’re glad the state may take a small step forward, but we’re still waiting on EPA and the landfill companies to do the right thing.”

Those entities have yet to release a new cleanup proposal for the site — something there was originally a December deadline to identify.

EPA officials declined to comment on the proposed buyout legislation but said the agency “continues to work toward a final remedy proposal at West Lake Landfill,” according to spokesman Ben Washburn.

The matter now shifts to the House, where Chappelle-Nadal and others hope it will continue to net bipartisan support.

“The one issue that the St. Louis caucus agrees on is this one,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “That’s the one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on. However, we have to work very hard to get this to 82 votes and get this on the governor’s desk.”

Chappelle-Nadal said she planned to hold meetings about the bill this week and a news conference on Wednesday where she will be joined by Rep. Mark Matthiesen, R-Maryland Heights. Matthiesen testified on the bill’s behalf in committee, Chappelle-Nadal said.

Ed Smith, policy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the measure’s chances of passing the House thanks to both its strong showing in the Senate and the help from Matthiesen.

“I would put the odds of a Republican-shepherded bill at better odds than a Democrat’s bill,” Smith said.

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Related to this story

Is it unreasonable to expect Missouri to fork over $12.5 million to buy out 91 homes within about a mile radius of West Lake Landfill that are contaminated with radioactive waste? Maybe, but Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, believes it can be done, so she persists in trying to get the state to help homeowners who think they've run out of options. It's time to give those beleaguered residents some relief.

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