While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moves forward with a new study to address radioactive waste at West Lake Landfill, critics say the federal agency is not paying sufficient attention to groundwater as a potential pathway for contamination. They also doubt the EPA has a clear understanding of the extent of contamination, given its failure to conduct a grid survey of the site.
Those concerns, which were voiced at a recent EPA-hosted meeting in Bridgeton, underpin the growing frustration with the agency’s oversight of the matter — and the reason there are continuing calls for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to step in and assume control of the cleanup at the Superfund site in north St. Louis County.
Public pressure surrounding the cleanup process has intensified in recent years, after the detection of an underground fire in the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill in late 2010. According to EPA personnel, the fire peaked in 2013 but is currently smoldering more than 700 feet from any radioactive waste.
All those factors contribute to the uncertainty that has characterized West Lake’s cleanup for years. Nearly a decade after the EPA’s initial 2008 decision to place a cover over the unlined landfill’s radioactive contents, questions and concerns linger about what approach will ultimately be adopted at the site. Capping the landfill is still a possibility, but the EPA is also evaluating options for excavating the radioactive materials that were dumped there in the early 1970s.
The extent of excavation — how much contaminated material is dug up and removed — is one of the key decisions regional EPA officials are currently weighing. One option on the table is to partially excavate the landfill by digging to a maximum depth of 16 feet in a targeted area to remove the bulk of known radioactive contamination.
But community members at the Aug. 15 meeting in Bridgeton questioned whether some of the remediation proposals under consideration are broad enough, and by a show of hands, they overwhelmingly endorsed full excavation, the most comprehensive and expensive alternative.
“I will tell you that the people I represent do not want anything short of a full excavation,” said Doug Clemens, the chairman of the West Lake Community Advisory Group, one of many local organizations at the meeting.
Mapping the contamination
Others echoed that call, expressing concerns about what could be left behind in a partial excavation scenario. They argue that the EPA does not fully know the whereabouts of the site’s radioactive waste, citing past examples of radioactivity being detected in unexpected areas of the landfill. Earlier this year, for instance, the agency said new mapping efforts identified radioactive material 600 feet farther south than previously believed.
A scientific study published in December also indicated that radon gas is migrating off-site, based on nearby traces of its radioactive isotope byproduct, lead-210.
While EPA officials acknowledge that “a few cases (have) extended the boundaries of previously identified (radiologically impacted material),” they said they have full confidence that the locations of radioactivity have now been mapped through targeted sampling of the site. The agency said it is confident that untested areas are not affected through a combination of aerial photos and other information that show the history of the landfill and by extrapolating the likelihood of further contamination based on swaths where testing has occurred.
Given past oversights, however, citizens have pressed for the entire landfill to be tested for radioactivity, with samples being taken from each section of an all-encompassing grid. EPA officials maintain that grid testing is not a necessary precaution.
While exceeding safety thresholds in many cases, the levels of contamination that have been identified have thus far been low enough that some experts have discounted the immediate risk to the public. They say the chances of the radioactivity causing cancer are low and would require ingesting or inhaling significant amounts of contaminated soil. But each new report suggesting that the full extent of the contamination has not been fully disclosed feeds public skepticism about the government’s response.
“The fact that they haven’t grid-tested the landfill is way up there on the list of concerns,” said Ed Smith, policy director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “They’re confident in a system that’s failed them, and that’s what’s frustrating.”
Beyond how much of the site is excavated, community members worry that groundwater contamination is being overlooked by current cleanup plans under consideration. The landfill is not lined by clay or other barriers and sits atop a porous layer of gravel, known as alluvium, in the flood plain of the Missouri River.
In its 2008 decision to cap the landfill, the EPA did not identify groundwater as a pathway for contamination at the site. While responding to public comments that year, the agency indicated that groundwater testing showed “no evidence of significant leaching and migration of radionuclides” from the landfill.
Leached barium sulfate — one of the landfill’s primary radioactive pollutants — is not water soluble. An estimated 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate was added to the landfill in 1973, getting mixed with about 38,000 tons of soil used to cover trash.
But community members say other pollutants are originating from the landfill, pointing to unsafe levels of radium in 15 to 20 nearby groundwater wells.
The EPA and the state of Missouri are now routinely testing groundwater wells at and around the landfill complex. The state’s right to perform the tests was upheld in a court ruling on Thursday, Aug. 25, after Republic Services, the operator of the Bridgeton Landfill, had sought to block their efforts, arguing that jurisdiction belonged to the EPA.
Starting earlier this year, the EPA designated groundwater as its own “operable unit” of the landfill, devoting specific attention to how it is potentially affected. While the designation is awaiting approval from other parties responsible for the site’s cleanup, EPA officials said they always intended to devote further analysis to groundwater. They were also encouraged to do so by a 2014 report from the U.S. Geological Survey, EPA officials said.
But the process of gathering groundwater data and assessing risks is likely years away from completion.
‘Correct, permanent results’
Although patience is wearing thin for some members of the public, others say the slow process of identifying a cleanup plan is understandable and even tolerable — as long as a permanent solution is reached.
“They heard what the community wants, which isn’t fast results, necessarily. It’s correct, permanent results,” said Dawn Chapman, co-founder of Just Moms STL, a group advocating for local citizens.
Chapman worries that the EPA is “damned if they do, or damned if they don’t,” thanks to the site’s complications and what she believes are limitations of the Superfund system.
As she sees it, the agency could resolve contamination concerns by pursuing full excavation rather than other alternatives. But doing so would be a much costlier endeavor that she feels could lead to a legal clash between the agency and the parties responsible for the Superfund site’s management and cleanup costs.
Those entities, formally identified as Potentially Responsible Parties, include Republic Services, the U.S. Department of Energy and Cotter Corp., a uranium mining company formerly owned by the energy corporation, Exelon. After selling Cotter in 2000, Exelon agreed to retain cleanup costs associated with West Lake. Republic Services and the Department of Energy are liable through either subsidiaries or historic predecessors.
With feasibility analysis ongoing, the EPA declined to provide a current estimate of excavation costs. Previous indications from 2011 suggested that costs for full excavation could exceed $400 million and may take decades, but that projected time frame was stretched by annual caps on cleanup spending. Now, the EPA has asked the Potentially Responsible Parties not to submit any cleanup proposals limited by yearly budget constraints.
At least one of those parties still favors the originally proposed solution.
“We believe, and the science reaffirms, that a cap is ultimately the best outcome for Bridgeton,” said Russ Knocke, Republic Services’ vice president for communications and public affairs.
He said the daunting costs and logistics of full excavation would present prolonged risks to workers and said that exposing the landfill’s contents would attract animals, including birds which could interfere with air traffic at nearby Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. That claim is disputed by others, who argue that there are ways to effectively control birds and that the landfill is mostly outside the area of concern for aviation.
But then there’s the question of where the waste ends up.
“Where does the excavated material go?” Knocke asks. “That’s going to involve a lot of movement that disrupts communities.”
Cotter Corp. echoed support for an approach based on “sound science” that “aims to protect the people who live and work in the area,” but did not advocate for a specific cleanup strategy. The Department of Energy, the site’s other Potentially Responsible Party, did not respond to requests for comment.
Different from Weldon Spring
Some community members have invoked Weldon Spring, a St. Charles County Superfund site containing radioactive material, as a possible model for West Lake to emulate. Weldon Spring’s waste was fully encased by barriers, rather than only capped.
“They’re distinctly different,” said Brad Vann, the EPA official overseeing West Lake, comparing the situations at the two sites. “Weldon was a completely different operation.”
Vann said a similar method of entombment and on-site disposal was considered for West Lake in a 2011 report. That approach is not being currently considered, EPA officials say.
Collectively, concerns about the EPA’s ability to promptly handle West Lake cleanup have led to a growing chorus calling for management to shift to the Corps of Engineers. Local congressional Reps. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, have co-sponsored federal legislation that would mandate a switch, earning support from many organizations following West Lake. The proposal has stalled in a House committee after passing the Senate this year.
“I’m less interested in assigning blame and more interested in making sure that the best possible government entity is in charge of decision-making at this site,” said Smith, who supports the bill and argues that the St. Louis District of the Corps of Engineers has more experience dealing with radioactive waste than EPA Region 7.
EPA Region 7 personnel declined to comment on the legislation, but referred to a statement resisting the measure from the corps itself. In a document released in July, Karen Baker, chief of the corps’ environmental division, said transferring control would “likely further unnecessarily delay the cleanup of the site and it will saddle the general taxpayer with the cost of cleanup and cost recovery as compared to the Potentially Responsible Parties at the site.”
Looking forward, the EPA is aiming to pick a strategy for the site’s cleanup by the end of the year. Before that time, a draft of a feasibility study is expected to emerge, outlining the details associated with various cleanup options.
The EPA’s original 2008 decision to cap the landfill and leave its contents in place was never acted on amid public backlash and further studies by an internal review group called the National Remedy Review Board.
The review board’s findings were finalized in 2013 but first made public in June. The report notably determined that removal of the site’s most potent radioactivity would be feasible, meriting consideration along with the capping technique proposed originally.