BRIDGETON • It’s the symbolic end of summer. Swimming pools close. Kids return to school. The Cardinals begin their stretch drive for a pennant.
This year, Labor Day was also supposed to represent another, less traditional milepost — the date when people who live and work near the Bridgeton Landfill could begin breathing easier.
For almost three years, waste has been smoldering deep within the inactive 52-acre landfill, putting off noxious gases that stirred complaints as far away as St. Charles, Florissant and Creve Coeur. Ultimately, the underground fire and related odors triggered a lawsuit by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster.
Under a preliminary injunction with Koster’s office approved by a St. Louis County Circuit Court on May 14, the landfill’s owner, waste giant Republic Services Inc., agreed to take steps to address the problem. The centerpiece of the plan was a giant plastic liner to be placed across on the southern half of the former quarry by the first weekend of September.
The company completed the cap on Aug. 7 — three weeks earlier than promised. While people perceive odor differently, interviews with Bridgeton residents and reports from the Department of Natural Resources suggest the cap and other steps to mitigate odors have been effective.
“We’ve had odors a few times since then,” said Kathy Bell who lives in the Spanish Village neighborhood just southwest of the landfill. “But, overall, it has improved.”
The DNR has been monitoring air quality and odors twice a day at a dozen locations around the landfill. The department is also monitoring continuously for hydrogen sulfide and other air pollutants at three fixed locations. Results are reviewed by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Gena Terlizzi, a DNR spokeswoman, didn’t respond when asked about the effectiveness of the cap. But she referred the Post-Dispatch to air-monitoring reports on the department’s website. Despite 13 odor-related complaints received by DNR between Aug. 7 and Aug. 28, air monitoring reports show “strong” odors were detected only once in the three weeks after the liner was installed.
In an email statement, the attorney general’s office, too, seemed satisfied with the work done so far, adding that “we expect and will continue to seek improvements on overall odor mitigation.”
Richard Callow, a spokesman for Republic Services, said 35 acres of the landfill had been covered so far with an ethyl vinyl alcohol liner that ties into an existing 7.5-acre cover made of a different plastic material and installed in the winter of 2011. The company plans to upgrade the older sections of plastic liner with the ethyl vinyl alcohol material, which is more effective at containing odors.
The company has also installed air treatment equipment on a leachate treatment tank and is constructing a leachate pretreatment plant so it can discharge directly to the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District. Callow said construction of the plant would further reduce odors.
Improvements to the landfill’s gas collection system and two new flares will further limit emissions and reduce the heat and energy that are helping sustain the smoldering fire, he said.
Jan Huber, who lives southeast of the landfill just on the other side of Interstate 270, hasn’t noticed a significant difference in air quality. The foul smell isn’t as prevalent in recent weeks, she said, but it’s still there.
“We’re still dealing with it,” she said. “Our lives and situations have really not improved.”
Bell, in Spanish Village, said the foul odors had been a regular presence for the past two years. Not only does she live nearby, she also works within a mile of the landfill.
“I’m exposed to it a lot. It has been a nuisance and a quality-of-life changer,” she said.
While the odor is objectionable, Bell and others who live nearby say the odor has also drawn attention to what they consider a far more serious threat — the garbage continuing to smolder deep underground and proximity to radioactive waste buried at the West Lake Landfill about 1,000 feet away.
The Environmental Protection Agency, DNR and Republic Services have downplayed any chance of the elevated temperatures reaching the radioactive material. But the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and neighbors continue to push the agencies for the removal of the nuclear material illegally dumped at West Lake 40 years ago.
Said Bell: “Our fear is that people forget; if they don’t smell it, they think it’s all taken care of.”