Subscribe for 99¢
Bridgeton West Lake Landfill area

Looking northeast from Earth City toward Bridgeton, the West Lake Landfill is photographed on April 25, 2014. Photo by Bob Srenco

The losers so far in the standoff between Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster and Republic Services Inc., owners of the Bridgeton and West Lake landfills, are the area’s anxious residents.

Mr. Koster released reports last month saying an underground fire at the Bridgeton Landfill was moving toward radioactive waste in the adjacent West Lake Landfill. You don’t have to be a scientist to realize that “fire” and “radiation” are not words you want to appear in the same sentence.

Mr. Koster’s reports are based on information from expert witnesses — scientists, engineers and a landfill-fire expert — in the case he was prosecuting against Republic Services. The reports compounded area residents’ concerns by adding that some of the radioactive contamination was found outside of West Lake. The lawsuit has been moved to federal court at Republic’s request.

Yes, Mr. Koster is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, and going after the company that is operating a potential environmental hazard could have some political value. Still, the alternative scenario being put forth is coming from the company that runs the place. So who are you going to believe?

With Republic repeatedly reassuring the public that the problem is under control, residents can use all the heavy hitters they can get on their side. The St. Louis-area members of Congress and both of Missouri’s U.S. senators have pushed for the Army Corps of Engineers to take control of the sites under its Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program.

To emphasize Republic’s contention that the site is safe, Brian Power, environmental manager with the company, toured the Bridgeton Landfill with the Post-Dispatch’s Jacob Barker last month. Mr. Power said the chemical reaction wasn’t moving toward the radioactive waste and was not growing harder to contain.

“Chemical reaction” is a phrase the company prefers, along with “underground smoldering event,” to avoid calling it a fire. Sounds better that way. Absent oxygen or an oxidizing compound underground, it will get hot, but won’t break into flames.

The tour with Mr. Power followed an order from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to the company to put more protective measures in the Bridgeton Landfill to prevent the chemical reaction from spreading to the north (West Lake) and possibly igniting.

The DNR issued its order after observing rising temperatures in the thin “neck” that connects the smoldering south quarry with the north quarry next to West Lake. DNR also cited “outbreaks” of contaminated liquid in the north quarry and implied that subsidence (gradual sinking) in the neck was causing some waste to move from the north quarry, Mr. Barker reported.

It is easy to be confused about scientific details, and the science on this is subject to differing interpretations. Still it’s scary: There’s a capped landfill just 1,200 feet from another landfill stocked with a cache of Cold War-era nuclear waste. That’s less than a quarter-mile (1,320 feet) lap around a standard running track.

Concern was heightened when St. Louis County released a disaster plan on Oct. 4 detailing what to do during a radiation emergency. Turns out, according to St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, the emergency response plan was drafted a year ago and was released at the public’s request, not because there is an existing emergency.

That explanation didn’t do much to quell anxiety. Rhonda Marsala, head of the St. Ann Business Association, said she asked the St. Louis County Office of Emergency Management for information on radiation safety, which is why brochures were distributed at a community event.

The plans say that if the fire at Bridgeton reaches the contaminated areas of West Lake, radioactive fallout could be released in a smoke plume and spread throughout the region. The fallout would directly affect Bridgeton, Hazelwood, Maryland Heights, Champ and St. Charles city, the plan says. The brochures used information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, the EPA has said it does not believe the radioactive waste would be spread through the air, but that there would be an increase in radon gas.

None of this sounds good, but Republic says that there’s nothing to worry about. And that reassurance is not very reassuring.

All the plans for how to handle the radioactive waste, which was illegally dumped in 1973, have financial and environmental consequences. This has gone on long enough. Something must be done and it should not take a cataclysmic event to make that happen.

Giving the project to FUSRAP, which often digs up and disposes of waste at sites it controls, seems like the best solution except that agency has said it doesn’t have the funding to take care of West Lake. Given the bipartisan agreement within Missouri’s congressional delegation, this shortfall is something that can and should be addressed.

Republic bought the site in 2008 and had nothing to do with its contamination. Understandably, the company doesn’t want to be saddled with the clean-up costs. There aren’t many ready solutions, which is the problem with potential environmental hazards.

Buyouts for area residents might be one possibility, although that doesn’t solve the problem for the region. The people who live near the Bridgeton and West Lake landfills need to breathe easy for a change.

Deb Peterson • 314-340-8276

@debschmooze on Twitter