Environmental Protection Agency officials ordered more precautions Thursday to prevent a surface fire from breaking out within the radioactively contaminated West Lake Landfill.
The move follows a brush fire inside the protective West Lake perimeter fence in late October that was ignited by a faulty electric switch. Though firefighters extinguished the fire quickly and EPA officials said the fire did not reach or spread any contaminants, the agency said shortly afterward that it would put more protections in place to cut the risk from a future fire.
EPA Regional Administrator Mark Hague said the companies tasked with cleaning up the landfill would have to clear the brush and trees above radioactive material and cover it with material that won’t burn, such as gravel or soil.
“We’ll have work going on to make sure all of the material at or near the surface does get some noncombustible cover,” Hague said on a conference call with reporters.
West Lake Landfill was contaminated in the 1970s when a company dumped the remnants of nuclear processing there. It is adjacent to the Bridgeton Landfill, where an underground fire — a chemical reaction that landfill owner Republic Services calls a “subsurface smoldering event” — began in 2010.
Many people fear that the underground fire could reach West Lake and cause radioactive waste to spread. In 2013, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster sued landfill owner Republic Services, which has since spent tens of millions of dollars on infrastructure to keep the fire from spreading and treat the liquid and gases the fire generates.
The surface fire that broke out in October spooked already worried neighbors and served as a reminder that the underground fire in the Bridgeton Landfill isn’t the only potential means of spreading the West Lake contamination.
“If trees or brush were to catch fire near areas where (radiologically impacted material) is located on the surface of (West Lake Landfill), there is the potential for the radionuclides and their daughter products to migrate off-site,” the EPA wrote in its order. “This could present unacceptable exposures to nearby human populations, animals, or the food chain.”
Hague said the fire prevention measures could be taken quickly. “We anticipate this to be an issue of weeks, not months.”
Republic Services didn’t contradict Hague’s timeline and said it was ready “to complete the job in a safe and timely manner.”
It will only be an “interim measure,” Hague said, and the agency still plans to announce a decision on a barrier separating West Lake from the Bridgeton Landfill by the end of the month. Testing released as part of that decision is expected to map the extent of radioactive contamination at the site.
The fire prevention measures won’t affect a final cleanup decision, Hague said. A proposal to isolate or remove the West Lake contamination is still on track to be finalized by the end of 2016.
The EPA also released what it called “an enforceable schedule” to finalize plans for a cleanup proposal. It outlines deadlines for final studies and work plans that would stretch into next December, and that doesn’t include time for EPA to comment on the potentially responsible parties’ reports.
But the agency doubled down on its promise, noting that the data and field work needed to finalize work plans and some of the last necessary documents had already been collected.
“This agency has heard very clearly from this community that they want EPA to take decisive action,” Hague said.