EPA approves plan to remove nuclear waste from West Lake Landfill after years of complaints


By:  Eli Chen & Lindsay Toler
STL Public Radio

Updated at 12:10 p.m. Sept. 28 — The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized its plan to remove radioactive waste from the West Lake Landfill Superfund site.

The chosen solution will remove about 70 percent of the site’s radioactivity and dispose of the waste at an out-of-state facility. The $205 million plan is similar, though less expensive, to what officials proposed in February.

The EPA will spend the next year and a half determining how to clean up the site, how to keep workers and the community safe, and exactly where the waste will go. During that time, agency officials will decide where to send 75,000 cubic yards of contamination and how exactly workers will be protected during excavation.

“This will end decades of uncertainty and pave the way to the remedial design phase,” said acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Thursday before officially signing the record of decision in Washington. “This decision is compliant with the law, it’s based on sound science, and it considers the state’s and — most importantly — the communities’ positions and concerns.”

Read more: 9 questions about the EPA’s West Lake Landfill decision, answered

Area activists and environmentalists have long complained that the site is a threat to human health. The World War II-era radioactive waste under the West Lake Landfill sits about 600 feet from the underground smoldering fire at the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill. Missouri health officials recently acknowledged that past odors near the landfill could have exacerbated asthma and other respiratory conditions for residents.

“We’ve lived under the shadow of the Manhattan Project and the mushroom cloud long enough as a community,” says Maryland Heights resident Dawn Chapman, who has spent five years asking the EPA for removal of radioactive waste from the area. “I think it’s good to finally see this movement and to know that it’s going to be moved out.”

The EPA plan will remove contamination by digging out waste at varying depths between 8 and 20 feet below the surface, depending on the amount of radioactivity that exists at each location. That’s a significant change from the proposal in February, which suggested digging uniformly to 16 feet below the surface across the site.

“The improvements we’ve made to the proposed plan will reduce exposure to the community and cleanup workers,” Wheeler said. “It’ll speed up construction time by a year. And it’ll allow the flexibility to more efficiently remove the contamination from the landfill.”

Digging too far into the radioactivity could cause more harm than it’s worth, said Jim Gulliford, an EPA administrator who oversees Missouri.

“The more you dig, the more you expose the residents, the workers. It actually is safer for the community for the long run,” Gulliford said. “There is just some material you can’t get to safely.”

Landfill owner Republic Services — which also runs Bridgeton Landfill LLC — has said it opposes excavation and prefers a previous proposal to leave the waste in place and cover it with a cap.

“EPA’s decision today to excavate is arbitrary and capricious,” the company said in a statement. “From here, we will continue to engage vigorously with the EPA and the other PRPs to ensure that any remedy is performed in a manner that maximizes protections for the community and for onsite workers performing such remedy.”

Republic along with the U.S. Department of Energy and Exelon Corporation are responsible for paying the cost of the remediation. They’ll decide who pays how much.

Federal officials still have to address groundwater contamination, which is considered a separate part of the site and will receive its own record of decision. After removing the contaminated waste, workers will place a non-porous cap over the site to prevent rain from penetrating the landfill.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, both Republicans, attended the signing event in Washington on Thursday. Blunt thanked Wheeler for making West Lake Landfill a priority.

“The decision not to store on site but to remove all of the dangerous radioactive material — not encapsulate it there, but to move it somewhere else — is something that our members of Congress feel good about as well as the families who have been living with this issue for a long time,” Blunt said.

Bridgeton Mayor Terry Briggs said he was also happy to see the final decision include a plan to relocate the contaminated waste away from the St. Louis suburbs.

“One of the things we’re extremely pleased with on this is that they are going to take the materials away from the area and store them in a proper disposal site in some other state,” Briggs said.

U.S. Rep Lacy Clay, the first congressman to call for the removal of West Lake Landfill contamination, saluted the residents and activists who pushed for excavation.

“Today’s final announcement by the EPA of a cleanup is a huge victory for our long-suffering community, and it is a giant step towards long-delayed environmental justice,” Clay said.

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, said the decision was a move “in the right direction.”

“What’s always been the most important issue to me is making sure we have a safe, permanent solution that has the support of the local families in this community,” McCaskill said in a statement. “That’s why I took the EPA to task for not having previously taken the input from the community seriously.”

McCaskill and Blunt had previously pushed to strip the EPA of remediation authority over the West Lake Landfill after years of inaction.

“That was then,” Blunt said Thursday. “This is now.”