Leaders in a St. Louis suburb are urgently calling on top Obama administration officials to quickly clean up a landfill with radioactive waste that they believe could catch fire.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working for 25 years on the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo., which has housed barium sulfate waste from the Manhattan Project since the 1970s.

The EPA is still studying the site and considering a wide range of actions to contain the radioactive material under its Superfund program for cleaning severe environmental contamination.

{mosads}But with an underground, smoldering fire in an adjacent landfill, residents and leaders say it’s only a matter of time before the flames hits the radioactive waste, potentially sending it airborne and spreading it in an unpredictable way.

“What we have is an emergency,” said Ed Smith, energy program director with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “It’s a slow-moving emergency.”

Dawn Chapman, an organize of local activist group Just Moms STL, along with Byron DeLear of Energy Equity Funding, called directly on President Obama to act in a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch opinion piece.

Matt LaVanchy, a local fire department official, told radio station KTRS that he believes the fire could be less than 1,000 feet from the radioactive material, and is trying to train firefighters for possible outcomes.

“There’s a possibility, the potential, of radioactive material being carried away by the result of the smoldering or the combustion event,” he said.

Residents have been working closely with Sens. Claire McCaskill (D) and Roy Blunt (R) and Reps. Lacy Clay (D) and Ann Wagner (R), who have written multiple letters and taken other action to put pressure on the Obama administration to take care of the problem.

Beyond the fire risk, locals argue that the radioactive material could also be compromised by floods, tornadoes, earthquakes or other disasters.

Angered with what they see as EPA’s slow movement on the matter, local leaders want the Army Corps of Engineers to take over as the lead agency overseeing the radioactive waste.

The Army Corps oversees the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), which is in charge of remediation for many radioactive contaminated sites that resulted from Department of Energy research and programs. It is helping the EPA currently, but it is not the main agency.

That includes numerous sites in and around St. Louis that were discovered in the early 1990s to have waste from the Manhattan Project that was allegedly illegally dumped.

“Given that this is a problem that began with the federal government, we believe that the Corps of Engineers is the best suited entity to handle West Lake Landfill,” said Smith, whose group has been communicating with the White House to encourage President Obama to hand over the site to the Army Corps.

“We believe that it would be within the power of the president to issue an executive order to clean up the bureaucratic administrative mess at West Lake Landfill, put one government agency in charge and utilize the EPA, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, what have you, as experts on these issues while having one quarterback instead of two,” he continued.

The congressional delegation made a similar plea in a July letter to the EPA.

“Given the Corps’ expertise in this area, and the local community’s faith in the Corps’ FUSRAP mission, we request that the EPA consider contracting directly with the Corps to handle any and all remediation needed at the site,” they wrote.

A spokesman for the White House said it is aware of the pleas from the area, but would not say if anything will happen.

The EPA says it hears all of the concerns and it is working diligently on overseeing the actions of Republic Services, the company that currently owns the West Lake Landfill, but that the effort will take time.

“We absolutely understand their frustrations. We know that this seems like it is taking a long time,” said Chris Whitley, spokesman for the EPA’s region 7, which includes Missouri. “But it boils down to this: good science takes time, and it cannot be rushed.”

The EPA also says the situation is not as urgent or dire as some have made it out to be.

The landfill garbage, Whitley said, is not actually on fire but only smoldering, a common occurrence, and the agency does not believe local residents are in immediate risk.

“We have yet to find issues that indicate that anything at the landfill site is causing exposures to anyone in the community,” he said, adding that the EPA is well aware of the smoldering waste and its consequences.

The EPA proposed in 2008 to require that the radioactive material be permanently capped. But in the face of opposition, officials decided to consider other options, and Whitley predicted that the agency will propose one within a year.

But Whitley warned against moving the site to Army Corps jurisdiction. He said it is not within EPA’s power to do that, and even if it could, it would be enormously expensive.

Republic Services, which owns the landfill complex and could be on the hook for remediation costs, said it is working effectively with the EPA.

“That robust, normal Superfund process is very mature and, left alone, will produce a fully protective remedy in the shortest time without requiring taxpayers to pay the entire cost,” said Russ Knocke, a company spokesman. “A transfer to FUSRAP would cause needless delay, and is likely to waste taxpayer dollars for no reason.”

The Department of Energy and Exelon Corp., which used to own the company that processed the uranium thought to have produced the waste, are also potentially responsible for the cleanup.

— This story has been updated.

Tags Claire McCaskill Environment Protection Agency Missouri Radioactive waste Republic Services Roy Blunt St. Louis
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