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At Superfund sites, Scott Pruitt could flip his industry-friendly script

Dawn Chapman (left) and Karen Nickel wear protective masks at the West Lake Landfill in June. 

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt on Thursday offered up a Band-Aid solution for the nuclear waste buried at the West Lake Landfill, by far the most serious environmental hazard confronting the St. Louis region. Band-Aids won’t cover the serious dangers posed by waste whose radioactive threat will last for many millennia.

Pruitt’s decision to only partially excavate the West Lake site, where thousands of tons of Manhattan Project nuclear waste were dumped illegally in 1973, is better than allowing all the waste to continue sitting there percolating, minimally protected from seepage and migration. His plan would excavate only 16 feet down even though the waste is believed to go many times deeper.

Pruitt offered this curious response in remarks to the Post-Dispatch’s Bryce Gray early Thursday: “The consideration here was timing, it was certainty, it was respect to human health that was being protected.”

Timing? The region has waited four decades for a solution to this problem. Yes, we wanted action, but the goal was never to choose the quickest or most expedient solution.

Certainty? There’s zero certainty in removing only some hazardous waste while leaving much more behind.

Respect for human health? An unlined nuclear landfill means the waste left behind will still be vulnerable to water seepage and off-site migration. The threat to human health will remain for centuries. The Missouri River is downhill only two miles away.

Pruitt’s decision no doubt is good news for West Lake’s owner, Republic Services, which faces huge potential remediation costs. The correct solution — full excavation and removal to an offsite facility designed for long-term nuclear-waste storage — would have cost $695 million. Pruitt’s chosen solution will cost about $236 million.

Republic’s advocates have long pressed for a cheaper solution that involves leaving the waste intact but permanently capped to minimize exposure to above-ground elements. Republic said in a statement that it “is pleased that the EPA has finally ended decades of study and again is issuing a proposed plan for the site.”

Others aren’t so pleased. “Partial removal is not acceptable. It means high levels of radioactivity will be left behind with the potential for water or airborne contamination into the future, creating unnecessary long-term risks to the St. Louis region,” said Ed Smith, policy director with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

Pruitt had many options, and our worst fear was that he would make the most business-friendly, environmentally hostile choice, as he has previously. A partial solution is better than the buck-passing non-solution the region has had to tolerate since the 1970s.

Once the excavation begins, which could still be years away, it’s possible the EPA will better understand the magnitude of the problem and rethink its decision. St. Louis-area residents should accept nothing short of a full cleanup.