The best solution for cleaning up radioactive waste buried at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton is to give control of the site to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The corps runs the tongue-twistingly named Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), which controls every other site in St. Louis County that is contaminated with nuclear waste. The radioactive waste in Bridgeton came from another location that is now a FUSRAP site.
At those other sites, the Corps has either cleaned up the waste or is in the process of doing it. Some of the waste at those sites was the waste that has been at West Lake, which became a dump site in the 1950s. Radioactive materials, created as a byproduct of projects at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, were dumped in a 200-acre hole there beginning in 1973.
Four years after that, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigated the site and published a report. The Environmental Protection Agency designated West Lake as a Superfund site in 1990, making it eligible for special federal funding to clean up the nation’s most hazardous waste sites.
The EPA has had control of the site for 25 years, but nothing has been removed. Not far away, another part of the landfill is burning. Euphemistically, the below-ground fire is called an SSE, a “subsurface smoldering event,” by the EPA and Republic Services, the Phoenix-based waste hauler that owns the site. In the presence of oxygen, the SSE would become a fire.
Should the burn reach the radioactive material, bad things would happen. The EPA says that’s unlikely, as “all current data suggest the SSE remains distant from the areas containing known RIM (radiologically impacted material).” We must hope the EPA is more accurate than it is fast-acting.
The EPA has killed a lot of trees ordering study after study of the contaminated landfill and explaining why gathering data and performing evaluations is better than taking action. Activists have speculated that maintaining the Superfund site provides job security for EPA bureaucrats in Region 7 (headquartered in Kansas City and overseeing four Midwest states).
The corps FUSRAP program often digs up and disposes of waste at sites it controls. The prospect that it would do that at West Lake raises both hope and concern. Hope, because it would be a final remedy. It would end such environmental worries as radioactive runoff seeping into groundwater and escaping radon and radium gases, the daughter products from uranium decay, which can cause cancer if inhaled or ingested.
Concern, because no matter how precise and careful an excavation may be, it will cause corollary problems.
The primary problem is expense. The budget for all FUSRAP sites around the country is in the neighborhood of $100 million, and there already are other projects waiting to be put on the FUSRAP agenda. Getting West Lake onto the agenda and funded could take years, with the eventual solution even further off.
Corps spokesman Mike Petersen told the Post-Dispatch’s Jacob Barker this month that the agency is “not funded for a project of that scope.”
St. Louis-area members of Congress have been pushing for the FUSRAP solution. The situation got more complicated recently when the Chicago-based Exelon Corp., one of the parties potentially liable for cleanup at the site, said it had documents indicating it may not be liable for all of the waste and asked for more testing to determine the extent of its responsibility.
That prompted the St. Louis-area congressional delegation to call for a new review of whether the site can be moved from EPA control to the Corps. Members of the delegation told Mr. Barker that their understanding is that West Lake isn’t already under FUSRAP because a private contractor (for a former subsidiary of Exelon) contaminated the site, not the government.
It gets more complicated: According to a letter the delegation sent to the Department of Energy, which used to run FUSRAP and had liability for early nuclear weapons activities, the DOE may have had jurisdiction over the material Exelon says it may not be liable for.
Republic Services has opposed moving control of the site to the Corps. “Transferring control of the site to (the Corps) at this point would delay the remedial action and is unnecessary,” Richard Callow, a spokesman for Republic, told Mr. Barker in an email.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who is suing Republic for the burning portion of the Bridgeton Landfill and has been critical of the EPA’s actions at West Lake, likened changing agencies to “getting trapped in a federal bureaucratic Rube Goldberg machine.”
As the smoldering potato of liability and responsibility is being tossed around among corporate, federal and state officials, area residents and environmental activists remain frustrated.
Kay Drey, a longtime anti-nuclear activist, says it’s clear to her that the radioactive materials — which she says are some of the most toxic known to mankind — must be excavated and the site cleaned. It’s long past time for that to have been done, she says.
Dawn Chapman, a nearby resident who has been active in seeking removal of the waste, says that after 25 years of waiting for the EPA to do something, she is skeptical that the agency will deliver on its promise of proposing a remedy by January 2017.
She’s right. Twenty-five years is long enough. The federal government should step up and rid this corner of St. Louis of a festering and potentially dangerous problem. Send the bills out later. The Corps of Engineers should FUSRAP it up and get rid of it.