EPA: Radioactive contamination at West Lake landfill is more widespread

Federal environmental officials said the contamination at the site covers more ground than they knew before. And there is material outside the boundaries of the landfill

By: - May 10, 2023 8:20 am

Tom Mahler, a remedial project manager for Environmental Protection Agency, gives a presentation on the findings from additional testing at the West Lake landfill. The EPA announced radiological contamination had been identified in more areas of the landfill than previously known. (Allison Kite/Missouri Independent)

BRIDGETON — Radioactive waste has migrated outside the boundaries of the West Lake landfill and contaminated soil and water on the edge of the St. Louis County site, federal environmental officials said Tuesday night. 

And the contaminated area onsite is far larger than previously thought.

Yet still, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency couldn’t assure the community when the site — contaminated 50 years ago — would be cleaned up. 

“I don’t know that they’ve botched another site the way they are this one,” said Dawn Chapman, co-founder of Just Moms STL, an organization that sprung up out of activism by local parents around the West Lake landfill. 

Chapman said the agency has made progress. She said EPA officials at Monday night’s meeting, which drew about 70 residents to a union hall in Bridgeton, were the most upfront she had seen. But she said there was no reason for the waste to sit as long as it has.

The EPA is charged with managing the cleanup of the West Lake landfill, which has held nuclear waste from the development of the atomic bomb for half a century. 

St. Louis was pivotal to the development of nuclear weapons during World War II. Waste from uranium processing in downtown St. Louis — part of the Manhattan Project — contaminated Coldwater Creek, exposing generations of children who played in the creek and most recently forcing the shutdown of an area elementary school.

In 1973, the Cotter Corp., which obtained massive amounts of waste from the Manhattan Project, dumped it illegally at the West Lake Landfill, where it remains today. The site is part of the EPA’s Superfund program.

Another part of the site is suffering an underground “fire” that residents fear could exacerbate the health concerns brought on by the nuclear waste. 

As the beginning of the cleanup effort nears, EPA required additional sampling by the parties responsible for the site. And they found what local activists feared: The radiological contamination is far more widespread than they knew

That means the parties responsible for the site — the U.S. Department of Energy, Cotter and the landfill’s owner, Republic Services — must have parts of the site excavated and place an even larger cover over what remains. 

“Since almost all of this (material) is in the subsurface and there’s no way for anyone to come into contact with it, the risks remain the same today as what we estimated,” said Tom Mahler, EPA’s remedial project manager for the site.

Mahler said testing showed radiological contamination in a drainage ditch at the edge of the West Lake site. 

The agency found some evidence of contamination nearby in 2016, but didn’t test the surface water along the north edge of the site until more recently. Then, he said, it found radioactive waste.

“Why didn’t you get it in 2016?” Chapman asked. “Because it moved under your nose.”

The investigation also found contamination throughout portions of the landfill far from the bulk of the waste mass.

Mahler said some of the contamination is 30 or 50 feet deep because regular trash was added on top of the radioactive waste for years after it was dumped. In other locations, radioactive waste was found near the surface of the landfill.

And still, more than 30 years after the EPA added the site to the National Priorities List, it’s not clear when it will get cleaned up.

Parties responsible for the site have to keep investigating and designing a cleanup strategy on a schedule established with the EPA. But there’s no date certain for the cleanup.

“ …there is not a final end date because there are a lot of variables,” said Chris Jump, EPA’s lead remedial project manager.

Activists had braced for the news after EPA previewed the findings last month. They have said they pushed the EPA to do additional testing for years only to be ignored. 

Karen Nickel, a co-founder of Just Moms STL, said it was “hurtful” to find out about the additional contamination. 

“That’s probably the most frustrating part — other than having an entire community year after year getting sick, our children getting sick — that nobody cared enough about us to do the obvious,” Nickel said. 

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on energy, the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she previously covered City Hall for The Kansas City Star, as well as state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City.