By Bonnie Urfer and Kelly Lundeen
Nukewatch Winter Quarterly 2018-19
As it turns out, combining radioactive waste with fire is not unique to California.
Just outside St. Louis in Bridgeton, Missouri sits the radioactive West Lake Landfill, an illegal dumping ground for nuclear weapons production waste. The Bridgeton Landfill, 600 feet away, has since 2010 been threatening the radioactive waste with an underground fire smoldering at 300 degrees. Both of the problematic sites lie within a Superfund site 1.2 miles from the Missouri River. As recently as Nov. 2 the fire reached the surface for two hours before being extinguished and could be seen from several hundred feet away.
To the relief of many, on Sept. 27, 2018, US EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler signed the Record of Decision Amendment to clean up the Superfund site. It’s taken 45 years for the EPA to come up with a plan for partial cleanup of the 143,000 cubic yards or 43,000 tons of radioactive waste. Unfortunately it comes too late for the more than 2,725 residents already living with cancers, tumors and related illnesses stemming from the dumping of radioactive waste in the north St. Louis area. (See “Authorities Dismiss Coldwater Creek Cancer Cluster” in Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2013.)
The story is another tragedy of the Manhattan Project that continues to kill today through exposure to the radioactive waste all along the nuclear fuel cycle. The spread of St. Louis’s radiation began with uranium mining in the Congo, and later by processing the uranium by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works. The West Lake Landfill is only one of several sites around St. Louis where radioactive waste was scattered. In 1973 the Cotter Corporation started secretly transporting what the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health considered the most highly radioactive of the wastes to the West Lake site. Even the truckers were unaware of the contents of the black contaminated soil they carried, taking some home for their gardens. It had previously been left near Coldwater Creek, a popular place for swimming, and along the highways, where it was found by children who played in the thick, dangerous mud.
While cleanup is pending residents continue to be exposed to gamma radiation, benzene and hydrogen sulfide fumes. Aerial readings of gamma rays show the contamination plume has not spread, but the existence of gamma rays prove that the whole area is being continuously saturated with radiation.
The cost estimate of cleanup comes in at $205 million over three years and will be covered by the Department of Energy, Exelon (current owners of the Cotter Corporation), and Republic Services (owners of the West Lake and Bridgeton Landfills); however some estimates put the project on a 5-year track. The to-do list for clean-up includes excavating the hottest spots at a depth of 8 to 12 feet, and in some instances as deep as 20 feet, then leaving the rest capped and in the ground. About 61,000 cubic yards of non-radioactive waste will remain buried, 70% of the radioactive dirt will be removed, but radioactivity in the water has not been addressed.
The cleanup plan is the result of a hard-fought struggle by local grassroots organizations like Just Moms STL and Coldwater Creek-Just the Facts Please, which are made up of community members directly impacted by health issues related to the radioactive waste. Karen Nickel, co-founder of Just Moms STL and co-recipient of the 2018 Whistle Blowers Award told reporters, “Some of us can go to sleep a little easier tonight knowing that we were successful.” The fight is not over for the local community, but regarding the decision, Nickels applauded the strength of their fight. “Every single voice matters, every single letter that was written, every single call that was made: those all matter.”
—Just Moms STL, Nov. 2, 2018; St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KDSK News, Sept. 27, 2018; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Feb. 11, 2016; Coldwater Creek – Just the Facts Please, 2015; and see the 2018 documentary Atomic Homefront.