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EPA orders extensive cleanup of radioactive waste site near St. Louis

Activists Dawn Chapman, left, and Karen Nickel wear protective masks at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo., north of St. Louis. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson

Miraculously, the radioactivity problem that has plagued Bridgeton-area residents around the West Lake Landfill for decades has been solved. Nothing else to see here, folks. Just move along.

This effective declaration came from Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Tuesday when he officially downgraded the urgency status for West Lake. Until the announcement, West Lake justifiably had been among 17 recognized U.S. Superfund sites that the EPA deemed “Targeted for Immediate, Intense Action,” the agency’s most-urgent status.

But without so much as a shovelful of dirt actually being excavated from the dumpsite for Manhattan Project nuclear-contaminated waste, Wheeler announced that West Lake no longer merits urgent attention. Tell that to downstream residents who have suffered rare cancers and other radioactivity-related health problems. In truth, this problem is years — potentially thousands of years — from being solved.

“Removing West Lake Landfill … (from) the Administrator’s Emphasis List demonstrates our commitment to cleaning up the nation’s most contaminated sites as quickly, safely, and thoroughly as possible,” Wheeler stated triumphantly. “With this update, EPA achieves an important objective and commits to focusing on three additional sites that can benefit from immediate attention and action.”

The EPA, in Orwellian doublespeak, says that the removal of West Lake from the administrator’s Emphasis List “reflects a significant achievement under the Superfund Task Force.”

Merely by signing a document on Sept. 27 announcing the EPA’s approval of a plan of action to clean up some — but not all — of the radioactive waste, Wheeler is “delivering on EPA’s commitment to the people of Missouri to finalize a cleanup plan by the end of Fiscal Year 2018. The improvements made in the final remedy will speed up construction time by a year and reduce risks to the community and cleanup workers,” an EPA statement said.

The EPA has spent years studying the tricky problem presented by tons of contaminated soil from radioactive waste created during development of the nation’s first nuclear bombs. The waste was dumped illegally in deep, unlined pits at West Lake in the 1970s before the site’s current owner, Republic Services, took over. Republic lobbied hard for the least-costly cleanup plan possible and, unsurprisingly, that’s the route Wheeler ultimately chose.

Instead of really remediating the site, which would be expensive, Wheeler decided on a far-cheaper, $205 million plan that will only excavate eight to 20 feet below the surface. The plan would reduce radioactivity by 70 percent, EPA asserts, while capping what remains in the still-unlined pit.

Meanwhile, Republic is scrambling in court to make other parties share the cleanup costs. It remains unclear whether these lawsuits, which could drag on for years, will delay the start of the partial cleanup. But since EPA and Wheeler have checked West Lake off their list, Bridgeton residents can breathe easy. Problem solved!

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