Removing the hottest radioactive waste within the West Lake Landfill is feasible and could reduce long-term risks from the Bridgeton-area landfill, an internal Environmental Protection Agency report says.
The report, released by the agency voluntarily Wednesday, bolsters the arguments of environmentalists in the region who have long advocated for removing the radioactive waste rather than simply capping the unlined landfill.
The EPA never moved forward with its 2008 proposal to cap the radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton. The agency has cited community backlash for the reconsideration, and additional West Lake studies over the last several years were prompted at least in part by an internal EPA peer-review group, known as the National Remedy Review Board.
The 9-page summary of the board’s findings, finalized in February 2013 and posted online Wednesday afternoon, outlines recommendations that influenced the EPA’s decision-making.
In its report, the board, made up of other EPA scientists who review Superfund cleanup decisions, noted that the radioactivity of the site is expected to increase by a factor of 35 over the next 1,000 years as uranium’s daughter product thorium decays into radium. Saying the landfill contains “potentially significant amounts” of radiation that are “highly toxic,” it recommends taking a close look at removing the hottest contamination.
“It appears feasible to remove more highly contaminated material and significantly reduce long-term risk at the site,” the report says. “The Board is aware of ongoing cleanups in other Regions where the reduction of radiologically-impacted source material is being safely and efficiently undertaken in a manner that is protective both to the workers and the community.”
EPA Region 7, based in the Kansas City area, has said its cap proposal would meet its health protection levels, which aim for less than a 1 in 10,000 risk of cancer among individuals whom it deems likely to be exposed to the contaminants. The office had argued that digging up the waste would present additional risks to nearby residents by potentially releasing radioactive materials into the surrounding area.
The board, however, said that it was possible to minimize such risks.
“The cleanup work can be done safely without unacceptable risk in accordance with approved health and safety plans and appropriate engineering controls as necessary to ensure that any risks to the community are minimized and mitigated,” the board wrote in its report.
Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, which has long pushed for full removal of the radioactive waste at West Lake, said the document showed that “the risk is certainly within the realm of acceptance if there were to be removal and that proven technologies exist to minimize the risk to the community.”
He noted that the National Remedy Review Board report was specifically denied to his group under a Freedom of Information Act request years ago.
“This would have significantly helped the community’s understanding to what the EPA is doing two years ago,” he said.
In April, residents and environmental activists pushed for the release of documents detailing the board’s deliberations. In a newsletter to the community, the EPA cited the requests as the reason for releasing the document.
The board’s deliberations appear to suggest EPA Region 7 didn’t adequately consider the long-term benefits of removing the waste and the costs of maintaining a cap over the landfill.
The EPA and the lead potentially responsible party, landfill owner Republic Services, have cited cost analyses estimating capping the landfill would run $40 million, while removing the waste would cost at least 10 times that.
Region 7 had indicated it decided against removal when it proposed the cap because the radioactive waste is intermixed with municipal solid waste throughout the landfill.
But the National Remedy Review Board said Region 7 should consider “radioactive signal sorting processes” that could separate radioactive waste from non-contaminated trash and reduce the amount that would have to be removed. Excavating only the most contaminated waste would make a removal action more cost effective than EPA estimates, the board wrote.
In addition, the board said using radiation standards based on future unrestricted use that would allow housing or a park on the site of the landfill “may have led to overstating the volume” that would have to be removed to meet regulatory standards. The location is likely to remain industrial or commercial, the board wrote, and it suggested Region 7 recalculate the amount of waste that would have to removed under “a more reasonable future use assumption.”
Residents and environmentalists strongly criticized the EPA’s 2008 proposal to leave the waste in place and seal it off. While the area is intensely monitored and the EPA has said there have not been dangerous amounts of radiation detected off site, many point out the landfill is unlined and near over groundwater that flows into the Missouri River.
Small amounts of radioactive radium have been found in the groundwater beneath the landfill, something the board noted.
“Particularly in light of the long-lived toxic nature of the radioactive contaminants as well as chemical and physical changes over time at the landfill, the Board suggests that a more rigorous evaluation of potential migration to groundwater be undertaken,” the report said.
The EPA has already taken the board up on the groundwater study. Recently, it announced a new phase of the West Lake Landfill cleanup focusing on the groundwater. It will first investigate current conditions and could order more cleanup actions after it gathers more data.