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EPA says radioactive waste not threatened by underground fire at West Lake landfill in Missouri

29 March 2016

In a report released on March 25, the US  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the footprint of the radiologically-impacted material (RIM) in the West Lake Landfill at Bridgeton, Missouri, “has been revised,” because such material has now been identified in areas not seen during previous site investigations.

West Lake Landfill - Image: Kqueirolomce (CC)
West Lake Landfill - Image: Kqueirolomce (CC)

While the new data indicates the material has been identified further south, testing indicates the sub-surface smouldering remains in the south quarry, hundreds of feet from the radioactive material.

While the footprint of the RIM has been revised, the health risks associated with it have not. The EPA still maintains that the communities surrounding the site should see no significant risks posed by the waste contained at West Lake Landfill.

Republic Services, the company that owns the landfill, released this statement:
“This EPA report, which summarizes its investigation over the past two years, should once again give the community a better idea of where the RIM is and is not. Additionally, EPA has determined that the RIM is not threatened by the underground smolder, which is neither moving into the north quarry nor into West Lake Landfill. And it has found no new risks to health."

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster released this statement:
“Today’s report confirms that EPA has never had a clear picture of the extent of contamination at the West Lake landfill, and it is deeply concerning that it took EPA so long to figure that out.
The new data places the radioactive waste hundreds of feet further south than previously known, closer to the still-burning underground fire. And EPA has yet to reveal its plan for preventing the fire from ever reaching the waste. It is long past time for the federal government to transfer responsibility of the site to the Army Corps for swift and certain remedial action.”

Koster and local campaigners have long called for the Army Corps of Engineers to take over the landfill and establish the precise whereabouts of the radioactive waste dumped at the site.

Since 1973 the landfill has been the repository of the detritus from the uranium used to make plutonium for the first nuclear bomb tests at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1945. According to Roberto Alvarez in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the site contains an estimated 43,000 tons of radioactive uranium processing wastes and contaminated soil with much of this illegally dumped at the landfill in violation of federal standards.

The underground fire is estimated to be about 1,000 feet from the radioactive material but consultants for the Missouri Attorney General said in November 2015 that, in the worst case, the fire could reach the radioactive material in a matter of a few months. An official for the Republic Corporation, which owns the landfill, contends the fire is moving away from the wastes.

If the fire reaches the radioactive wastes, the St. Louis County emergency plan says there is the “potential for radioactive fallout to be released in the smoke plume and spread throughout the region.”

After initially denying the fire would reach the radioactive material, in December 2015 the EPA ordered the installation of an underground protective barrier. “We are now working through the highly complex details of implementing our decision and the associated legal steps. Once the plan is finalized, we are committed to providing this information to the public,” a mid-December press release said. “EPA will use all available enforcement authorities to ensure implementation of this work.”

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