On Sept. 3, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster released expert testimony that radioactive and toxic contaminants have been detected in offsite areas surrounding the Bridgeton and West Lake landfills located in north St. Louis County. In particular, tree core samples reveal radioactive material consistent with nuclear-weapons waste. But the rate of contamination could increase exponentially. One report, by Drs. Tony Sperling, a landfill-fire expert and professional engineer, and Ali Abedini, a landfill-gas specialist, warns an underground fire at the site which has been burning for six years could reach thousands of tons radioactive material in as little as three months. Although the outcome is not known, should this occur, predictions have been dire. Since the new information was made public last week, calls have been growing among local legislators, community leaders, and residents for emergency action.
“These reports underscore what has been clear from the beginning—Republic Services [the current property owner] does not have this site under control,” Koster said. “Not only does the landfill emit a foul odor, it appears that it has poisoned its neighbors’ groundwater and vegetation. The people of Missouri can’t afford to wait any longer—Republic needs to get this site cleaned up.”
“The people of Missouri can’t afford to wait any longer—Republic [Services] needs to get this site cleaned up.”—Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster
The two adjacent landfills have increasingly been a topic of public scrutiny and outcry since the “subsurface smoldering event” was detected at the site in December 2009. There is now mounting evidence that dangerous substances have been incinerated sending toxic, carcinogenic particulates and fumes into the area.
“This is a very serious medical issue,” stated Dr. Helen Caldicott, an expert on the health hazards associated with radiation poisoning. “When radioactive elements are taken up by trees and plants offsite, this indicates that these elements are also available to be concentrated in fruit and vegetables grown nearby by the adjacent population. Also local water supplies could be contaminated. Therefore they should be assessed for contamination.”
The recipient of 21 honorary doctoral degrees in part for her work on the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima nuclear disasters, Dr. Caldicott has been reviewing records and studies associated with the West Lake radioactive site since last spring. She has called the site an “acute medical emergency” which needs to be cleaned-up immediately.
“It is quite possible that even one single particle of ionizing radiation can cause cancer—and because we’re seeing elevated incidence rates in the area—the link to West Lake becomes more plausible.”—Dr. Helen Caldicott
The waste was generated by the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II to create the first working atomic weapons. Through Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, St. Louis played a pivotal role in the processing of uranium for the world’s first nuclear reactor, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and further nuclear weapons development in the early Cold War years.
Out of approximately 100 different contaminated locations in St. Louis due to the U.S. nuclear weapons program, the West Lake Landfill is unique in that it was excluded from the pertinent federal clean-up program (FUSRAP), and that there’s an underground fire creeping toward the radiologically impacted material. While other area sites have been cleaned-up or are in process, what the Attorney General’s reports conclude is that the uncontained toxic and radioactive substances at the Bridgeton and West Lake Landfill have been leaching into the soil, groundwater, and air. Higher than average cancer rates have been found in the immediate zip code, including a 302% increase in childhood brain cancer.
“Uranium 235 and 238 and Thorium are carcinogenic, and they also can damage kidney function,” stated Dr. Caldicott. “It is quite possible that even one single particle of ionizing radiation can cause cancer—and because we’re seeing elevated incidence rates in the area—the link to West Lake becomes more plausible.”
Early records of Mallinckrodt’s role during the Manhattan Project have gone missing or been destroyed, and although primary source records show that 50,000 tons of radioactive waste were illegally dumped at West Lake, expert observers warn this may only be the tip of the iceberg.
St. Louis County is conducting additional health studies and County Executive Steve Stenger has recently asked the EPA if it intends to fully analyze the site to discover the amount and exact location of the radioactive material. The EPA has yet to respond to County Executive Stenger’s inquiry about a full characterization of the site.
After a long series of studies and reports by the EPA and various U.S. agencies over four decades, the community is demanding action. “It’s time for the EPA to offer these families that are trapped living in this radiotoxic poison a voluntary buyout. I’m scared for my children, I’m scared for other people’s children, and I’m scared for this community,” said Karen Nickel of Just Moms STL, the community action group formed to find a safe and permanent solution.
“Now more than ever the State needs to take control of the decisions at the landfill,” said State Representative Bill Otto. Rep. Otto, whose legislative district includes the two landfills, recently called for immediate state intervention to extinguish the underground fire. “The experts presented by Attorney General Koster are dealing with the facts on the ground, and it’s now time to act on those facts to bring safety to this community.”