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Radioactive sign at West Lake landfill in Bridgeton

A sign warns of radiation at the West Lake landfill in Bridgeton on March 13, 2012. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

Republic Services, the company that owns the radioactive West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, has launched a lobbying group that is pushing to keep the waste buried instead of hauling it to a nuclear dump site in the western U.S.

The goal of the Coalition to Keep Us Safe is to raise support among legislators and the public for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2008 decision to place a rock, clay and soil cap over the West Lake Landfill. The EPA is re-evaluating that plan because of public opposition and concerns about an underground fire at the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill that has smoldered for more than three years. The agency’s most recent research shows the cap would not be adequate to contain toxic fumes if the smoldering reaches West Lake Landfill.

Under the EPA’s Superfund site program, Republic Services is at least partly responsible for the cleanup costs at West Lake. One of the options the EPA is considering would involve the excavation and transport of the waste by covered rail to an out-of-state nuclear storage facility.

The coalition supports the cap “as the safest and most effective option for protecting the communities near the landfill as well as across the state of Missouri.” Supporters listed on the group’s website include Daniel Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, four Republican state representatives and the Cooper County sheriff. Republic Services is one of the chamber’s top donors.

None of the 22 coalition supporters labeled “concerned citizens” or by their various professions were willing to give their full names or grant interviews, according to a spokeswoman. Concerned citizen “Mary G.” of Maryland Heights is quoted on the website saying, “The EPA needs to act now on the plan to permanently encapsulate the radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill.”

Republic Services hired Kansas City-based Molly Teichman, a conservative political commentator, to handle public relations for the coalition. Teichman said the coalition’s supporters could lose their jobs if they were quoted in the Post-Dispatch.

“You should also know that those who dare to have a different opinion or weigh in on this issue have been harassed by the people on the other side,” Teichman wrote in an email explaining why none of the unnamed supporters could be interviewed. “A critical issue like this one requires debate. You would hope and think it would be civil.”

The coalition has been calling residents in rural Missouri “to help the public understand the risks associated with excavating and transporting nuclear material across the state,” Teichman said. Some residents believed that the calls were coming from the EPA, leading the federal agency to issue a statement denying any involvement.

State Rep. Bill Otto, D-St. Charles, said the coalition is using scare tactics without fully informing the public.

“It’s an attempt to go outside the metro area to gain support against St. Louis and St. Charles counties,” Otto said.

People who support excavating the waste point out that similar cleanup efforts have been ongoing around St. Louis since the 1990s.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which has been asked to assist with cleanup at West Lake, has handled the transportation of nuclear waste from sites downtown and around the airport.

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More than 600,000 cubic yards of contaminated material have been shipped by rail through Missouri.

West Lake has an estimated 150,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste, according to the state health department.

One of the coalition’s supporters, state Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, said, “I do not want to see (West Lake) dug up and put on rail, which would likely come through my district.” Kolkmeyer, a Republican who represents parts of Jackson, Johnson and Lafayette counties, said he was unaware that radioactive waste already is transported across the state.

Another group, Just Moms StL, supports a quick and safe resolution at West Lake Landfill. The group has hosted regular community meetings since 2012.

“We’re open to people who don’t want this removed, who don’t want the ground opened,” said Dawn Chapman, one of the group’s organizers. “This is their community, too. But we’ve never come across anyone like that.”

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