What happens when radioactive byproduct from the Manhattan Project comes into contact with an “underground fire” at a landfill? Surprisingly, no one actually knows for sure; but residents of Bridgeton, Missouri, near the West Lake and Bridgeton Landfills — just northwest of the St. Louis International Airport — may find out sooner than they’d like.
And that conundrum isn’t the only issue for the area. Contradicting reports from both the government and the landfill’s responsible parties, radioactive contamination is actively leaching into the surrounding populated area from the West Lake site — and likely has been for the past 42 years.
In order to grasp this startling confluence of circumstances, it’s important to understand the history of these sites. Pertinent information either hasn’t been forthcoming or is muddied by disputes among the various government agencies and companies that should be held accountable for keeping area residents safe.
West Lake Landfill was placed on the National Priorities List in 1990, giving the Environmental Protection Agency regulatory authority through its designation as a Superfund site. However, the area wasn’t a planned radioactive waste storage site. Uranium processing residue leftover from the World War II-era Manhattan Project was originally dumped there, illegally, by a contractor for former uranium processing company and General Atomics affiliate, Cotter Corporation in 1973.
Cotter, Republic Services subsidiaries Bridgeton Landfill LLC and Rock Road Industries LLC, as well as the U.S. Department of Energy are “potentially responsible parties” for West Lake under Superfund guidelines. Power company Exelon Corporation, which owned Cotter from 1974 until 2000, “agreed to retain certain financial obligations relating to environmental claims arising from past Cotter actions, including those at West Lake,” reported St. Louis Public Radio journalist, Véronique LaCapra, who has extensively covered this mess. Bridgeton Landfill falls under the regulatory control of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and is owned and managed by Republic Services subsidiary, Bridgeton Landfill LLC.
Unfortunately, though at least 100,000 tons of nuclear weapons-related residue made their way to West Lake, the exact physical boundaries marking the location of this radioactive waste remain unknown to this day. In fact, because of the ongoing subsurface “fire” at the Bridgeton Landfill, the EPA began conducting tests, which in March 2014 detected the presence of radioactive material further south than it expected — 100 feet inside the bounds of the Bridgeton fill. According to Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., Robert Alvarez, in a 2013 report investigating the West Lake site:
Of significance is the fact that the largest estimated amount of thorium-230, a long-lived, highly radiotoxic element is present at West Lake — more than any other U.S. weapons storage or disposal site. Soil concentrations of radium-226 and thorium-230 are substantially greater than mill tailing waste. The waste residues from the Mallinckrodt [Chemical Works uranium processing] site were found to contain the largest concentration of thorium-230 from any single source in the United States and possibly the world. Thorium-230 concentrations were found to be some 25,000 times greater than its natural isotopic abundance. […]
“Given these circumstances, the West Lake Landfill would violate all federal legal requirements, established over 30 years ago, for licensing of a radioactive waste disposal site.
Though the EPA promised results of testing to determine the physical extent of the makeshift nuclear disposal site would be reported by November or December, according to its site, those determinations won’t be available until early spring 2016. In the interim, a small brush fire near West Lake on October 24 prompted the EPA to order the responsible parties to implement a specific prevention work plan on December 9, due to concerns radiologically impacted material (RIM) — present in surrounding trees and vegetation — could catch fire and thus migrate from the area. In the Endangerment Determination section of the report, the EPA stated:
The actual release or threatened release of hazardous substances at and from the Site, if not addressed by implementing the [specified steps] in this Action Memorandum, may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health, or welfare, and the environment.
Later that month, torrential rains brought what is now being described as ongoing historic flooding to the area — and with it, yet another set of problems and controversy to West Lake Landfill and the people of Bridgeton and nearby Coldwater Creek.
On Dec 30, a peer-reviewed study, published in the Journal for Environmental Radioactivity, disclosed a startling fact about West Lake: radiological contamination has, indeed, seeped outside the already vague boundaries of the site. According to the study:
Analysis of 287 soil, sediment, and house dust samples collected in a 200 km2 [77.2 mi2] zone in northern St. Louis County, Missouri, establish that offsite migration of radiological contaminants from Manhattan Project-era uranium processing wastes has occurred in this populated area.
In fact, nearly half the samples were found to have concentrations of Lead-210 above the acceptable limits established by the U.S. Department of Energy in managing the uranium plant in Fernald, Ohio, which stored the same Manhattan Project-era wastes. The samples “are consistent with water and radon gas releases” from landfill sites employed for storage of such legacy uranium. Alvarez, who wrote the previously-mentioned report in 2013 and who co-authored this study, stated in an interview Tuesday,
The stuff we’re talking about at West Lake is hotter than what you would find in a typical uranium mill tailings operation.
As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has previously explained, West Lake Landfill emits radon gas because of the radium, thorium, uranium, and other radioactive substances in the decay series. This radon gas decays into Lead-210, a solid particulate — which is the substance the study investigated — once it drifts from the site. Because the Lead-210 detected in the samples “showed distinctive secular disequilibrium among uranium and its progeny indicative of uranium ore processing wastes” — in other words, distinguishable from naturally-occurring uranium — “this is strong evidence that the Lead-210 originated by decay of short-lived, fugitive radon gas that escaped the landfill.”
As journalist Byron DeLear noted in the Examiner, “It’s important to recognize that the radon daughters, Lead-210, Polonium, Bismuth, etc., are what makes radon exposure the second leading cause of lung cancer.”
Earlier this week, as rain inundated the area, several stills and videos uploaded to the West Lake Landfill Facebook page evidenced spontaneous, active runoff waterfalls flowing directly from areas designated radioactive, collecting in pools, traveling in drainage ditches to streams and creeks — and ultimately, pouring into the now epically-flooded Missouri River. “How could anyone make the argument that RIM is not leaving that site?” State Rep. Bill Otto asked rhetorically after viewing the footage. But EPA spokesperson, Angela Brees, did exactly that, saying — despite strikingly plain evidence to the contrary — the runoff rainwater “came from within the Bridgeton Landfill.”
There is, of course, yet another aspect to this radioactive tangle: the ongoing subsurface fire at Bridgeton Landfill, West Lake’s all-too-immediate neighbor.
Technically, what is occurring isn’t a typical fire with thick, black smoke and flames; rather, “it is a self-sustaining, high-temperature reaction that consumes waste underground, producing rapid ‘settlement’ of the landfill’s surface.”
Bridgeton Landfill LLC alerted MDNR on Dec. 23, 2010, that it discovered high levels of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, low levels of methane, as well as elevated temperatures from several gas extraction wells in the area of the fill known as the south quarry — all indicators of a chemical reaction known as a “subsurface smoldering event” or “underground fire.”
Todd Thalhammer, a landfill fire consultant with the state of Missouri, explained there are several characteristics to determine the presence of an ongoing subsurface fire, including underground temperatures in excess of 170°F and substantial settlement of the land in a short time period. At Bridgeton, an event Thalhammer described as both “catastrophic” and “preventable,” temperatures have been recorded over 300°F, and Republic Services stated the hottest area of the fire is settling at a rate of two to three feet per month. Though it would be impossible to determine the exact cause of this fire, often, such events occur if oxygen manages to permeate below the surface should underground gases be vented too rapidly.
Residents in Bridgeton and nearby Coldwater Creek noticed unusually strong fumes from the fill beginning in early spring 2012, for which MDNR began more frequent monitoring. Though unsafe levels of certain compounds are occasionally indicated, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) recommends “that during periods of objectionable odor, sensitive individuals should stay indoors as much as possible …”
Of greater urgency for many, partly due to a number of unknowns, concerns the increasing likelihood the subsurface fire will reach and ignite the nuclear weapons-waste material.
As of May 2013, Republic estimated the fire to be only 1,200 feet from the radioactive waste, but this contradicted Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s determination the same month that the distance measured just 1,000 feet. Of course, until the bounds of the radioactive waste are thoroughly mapped, it’s impossible to determine an accurate distance — but, as mentioned above, the EPA found evidence that waste extended 100 feet into the landfill, which would make that distance a mere 900 feet.
In September, Koster released nine reports about the West Lake and Bridgeton maelstrom. In one of those reports, landfill fire expert Tony Sperling explained the subsurface fire had “unequivocally” gone beyond two gas interceptor wells designed to halt its progress, and with “the reaction moving closer to the North Quarry there exists only a very limited window to take further action to prevent [the underground fire] from once again escalating out of control and causing additional hardship on the community of Bridgeton.”
Sperling inexplicably backed down from the emphatic statement in a deposition in October, but his original assertion certainly raised the level of concern. Republic continues to contest claims the fire isn’t contained within the south quarry, and says temperatures have stabilized in the so-called ‘neck’ area running between the landfill and the nuclear waste fill.
All of this depends on the rate at which the underground reaction is advancing, which, unsurprisingly, is also an open question.
In June 2013, the MDNR commissioned a report that found the fire had slowed its advancement from a rate of three feet per day to around one to two feet per day. Then, in March 2014, a spokesperson for Republic said the rate had slowed to a mere six inches per month, though MDNR did not corroborate, except to agree — based on the company’s temperature evaluation along with physical observations by Bridgeton Landfill — the subsurface fire had “slowed substantially.”
However, Sperling’s report last month claimed drastically accelerated figures, stating the fire had spread north into the neck area of the site, while the reaction in the south quarry sped along at around 150 to 300 feet per month, or five to ten feet per day. If the smoldering reaction were to advance into the north quarry at a similar rate, “high temperatures from the reaction could conceivably reach [the radioactive waste area] in 3 to 6 months.” Sperling’s report came out in September.
The EPA disputes all the findings in Koster’s reports, saying the agency “completely disagrees” and hasn’t found evidence to support claims the fire is nearing the radioactive fill at all.
In order to better understand what would happen should the subsurface fire actually reach the radioactive waste, in 2014, Kansas City Region 7 EPA asked officials from the EPA in Cincinnati to review a report prepared by contractor Engineering Management Support, Inc. In March of that year, the Cincinnati EPA published its analysis, which agreed heat from the reaction would not make the waste more or less radioactive, nor would it explode on its own; however, due to possible unknown substances mixed with the radiological materials, the potential for explosion does exist.
Second, in 2008, the EPA released its Record of Decision, which proposed a “cap” of clay, rock, and soil to constrain the weapons-waste to the West Lake site. Though capping hasn’t begun, it now appears such a cap would be adversely affected by heat generated from the subsurface reaction — thus cracking and releasing radon gas, steam, and radioactive dust.
Further, the constant heat generation could increase pressure below the surface under the cap and force the release of radon gas — which, if only inspected once a year, could avoid detection for months. Also, should the fire continue consuming radioactive waste long-term, area residents would be exposed to unsafe levels of radon gas. Further still, liquid building up below the surface could evacuate radon gas and other radioactive contaminants into groundwater supply.
Residents near the smoldering fill have expressed increasing frustration with the quarreling agencies offering few answers for an increasing number of health issues, like asthma. Meanwhile, a group of residents in Coldwater Creek, nearer the West Lake site, filed a class action lawsuit against Mallinckrodt, the original handler of the nuclear waste material, claiming there have been an astonishing 2,700 cancer cases clustered around the creek — including a number of rare cases of appendix cancer. Even fully testing the creek for radioactive materials will take years to complete.
By its very nature, this incredibly complex and interwoven morass makes solutions difficult and laboriously slow in coming. Theoretical fixes that could apply to, say, containing radioactive materials to the West Lake site, might have negative consequences should the long-smoldering subsurface reaction come into play. Inaction in containing the subsurface fire, in the hope of definitively locating bounds of radioactive waste, have meant further advancement of that very fire in the meantime. With so many unknowns, St. Louis County issued an emergency plan in 2014 “to save lives in the event of a catastrophic event at the West Lake Landfill” — which, though well-intentioned, did nothing to calm nervous residents in the area.
For now, it’s startlingly apparent no one knows exactly what’s happening with the West Lake and Bridgeton Landfills — though the smoldering below the surface doesn’t cease and floodwaters continue to rise.