Underground fire 300 meters from nuclear waste causes St. Louis to hatch contingency plan

AP

Beneath the surface of a St. Louis-area landfill lurk two things that should never meet: a slow-burning fire and a cache of Cold War-era nuclear waste, separated by just 300 meters.

Government officials have quietly adopted an emergency plan in case the smoldering embers ever reach the waste, a potentially “catastrophic event” that could send up a plume of radioactive smoke over a densely populated area near the city’s main airport.

Although the fire at Bridgeton Landfill has been burning since at least 2010, the plan for a worst-case scenario was developed only a year ago and never publicized until this week, when St. Louis radio station KMOX first obtained a copy.

County Executive Steve Stenger cautioned that the plan “is not an indication of any imminent danger.”

“It is county government’s responsibility to protect the health, safety and well-being of all St. Louis County residents,” he said in a statement.

Landfill operator Republic Services also downplayed any risk. Interceptor wells — underground structures that capture below-surface gases — and other safeguards are in place to keep the fire and the nuclear waste separate.

“County officials and emergency managers have an obligation to plan for various scenarios, even very remote ones,” landfill spokesman Russ Knocke said in a statement, calling the landfill “safe and intensively monitored.”

The cause of the fire is unknown. For years, the most immediate concern has been an odor created by the smoldering. Republic Services is spending millions of dollars to ease or eliminate the smell by removing concrete pipes that allowed the odor to escape and installing plastic caps over parts of the landfill.

Directly next to Bridgeton Landfill is West Lake Landfill, also owned by Republic Services. The West Lake facility was contaminated with radioactive waste from uranium processing by a St. Louis company known as Mallinckrodt Chemical. The waste was illegally dumped in 1973 and includes material that dates back to the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bomb in the 1940s.

The Environmental Protection Agency is still deciding how to clean up the waste. The landfill was designated a Superfund site in 1990.

The proximity of the two environmental hazards is what worries residents and environmentalists. At the closest point, they are 1,000 to 1,200 feet apart (305 to 365 meters).

If the underground fire reaches the waste, “there is a potential for radioactive fallout to be released in the smoke plume and spread throughout the region,” according to the disaster plan.

The plan calls for evacuations and development of emergency shelters, both in St. Louis County and neighboring St. Charles County. Private and volunteer groups, and perhaps the federal government, would be called upon to help, depending on the severity of the emergency.

No reports of illness have been linked to the nuclear waste. But the smell caused by the underground burning is often so foul that Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster sued Republic Services in 2013, alleging negligent management and violation of state environmental laws. The case is scheduled to go to trial in March.

Last month, Koster said he was troubled by new reports about the site. One found radiological contamination in trees outside the landfill’s perimeter. Another showed evidence that the fire has moved past two rows of interceptor wells and closer to the nuclear waste.

Koster said the reports were evidence that Republic Services “does not have this site under control.” Republic Services responded by accusing the state of intentionally exacerbating “public angst and confusion.”

Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment said he would like to see the county become even more involved “to ensure that businesses, schools, hospitals and individuals know how to respond in a possible disaster at the landfill, just like preparing for an earthquake or tornado.”

Underground smoldering is not unheard of, especially in abandoned coal mines. Common causes include lightning strikes, forest fires and illegal burning of waste.

At least 98 underground mine fires in nine states were burning in 2013, according to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Few underground fires can match one in Centralia, Pennsylvania. In 1962, a huge pile of trash in the town dump, near a coal mine, was set on fire, and it has burned beneath the town for more than half a century. Only a few people remain in a community that once had 1,000 residents.

  • Tracy D

    Thank you for publishing our story. Our local and federal government have all but ignored this problem for several years while a fire burns underground in a landfill only a few thousand feet away from nuclear waste that was dumped illegally and has been buried there for decades. Recent testing has shown that the temperatures of the fire are hotter and moving toward the nuclear waste, and that the landfill is leaching radiation outside of the perimeter. If the fire reaches the waste, and perhaps it already has, it could spew radiation into the air right in the middle of a major metropolitan area. The federal agency (EPA) has not done their due diligence at the landfill so they aren’t even sure where all the waste is located and they don’t know how many different types of dangerous waste there is. The community is urging officials to put out the fire and to move the nuclear waste to a facility that was designed to safely hold it.

  • Tracy D

    “No reports of illness have been linked to the nuclear waste. ” This is categorically untrue. There have been many studies linking increases in cancer, specifically rare cancers and cancer in children.

  • Christen Commuso

    “No reports of illness have been linked to the nuclear waste.” I beg to differ. With all 5 atomic weapons waste sites in St. Louis included, we are seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of reported illnesses. The St. Louis County Health Department did a preliminary study of the 8 zip codes surrounding the waste and found a substantial increase in cancer in all 8 studied areas. In fact, in Maryland Heights, about 1-2 miles away from the West Lake Landfill, there is a 302% statistical increase in childhood brain cancer. If that doesn’t suggest, WE ARE BEING EXPOSED, then I don’t know what will. Please visit a new Facebook page, Humans of West Lake Landfill, dedicated to those suffering illness and death due to this waste. See for yourself. The photos will continue to come.
    To respond to Stenger’s comment that we are not in imminent danger – another statement I cannot agree with- the Attorney General gave us 90 days to 6 months before the fire reaches the atomic weapons waste. By the way, that was one month ago. Many who have been involved in seeking a resolution believed the EPA would not let it get to this point. However, that was 5 years ago and nothing has been done to ensure our safety. This site has been classified one of the most dangerous Superfund Sites in America, yet the fire still burns. The EPA has never even properly characterized the site and still has no idea where or how much more waste sits in this unlined landfill, in the Missouri River flood plain.
    Please visit the West Lake Landfill Facebook page for more information. This group has spent years digging through old government documents and has more knowledge of the site than even the EPA.
    We need help! Move the people! Move the waste!

    • Starviking

      Do you have a link to the St. Louis Country Health Department report?

      • Sam Gilman

        I think this is the report here:

        http://health.mo.gov/living/healthcondiseases/chronic/cancerinquiry/pdf/ccanalysisSept2014.pdf

        This is about a different landfill adjacent to the one discussed here. In this other landfill there was an amount of radioactive material (some of it as old as the Manhattan Project) illegally dumped in the 1970s. For years there have been people complaining about excess cancers. In a previous report that included only 6 zipcodes, there didn’t appear to be any link between those areas and radiation: all significanty elevated illness were ones not known to have a relationship with radiation, but instead with lifestyle (obesity etc.) However, under pressure, a subsequent study (the one linked to above) expanded the area to include two extra zipcodes, and more recent data.

        According to this latest report, there do appear to be significantly elevated levels of leukaemia across all areas, but a lower rate of thyroid cancer. It is possible therefore that exposure to the dumped waste in the 1970s has had an impact on human health. There is an elevated rate of brain cancer in children too. Regarding brain cancer, the report says that the causes of brain cancer are little known, but notes that treatment with ionising radiation can increase brain cancer.

        But all of this is to do with the illegally dumped material, not the material properly stored that is currently under theoretical risk from fire.

    • Starviking

      Do you have a link to the St. Louis Country Health Department report?

    • Sam Gilman

      Is that not related to the adjoining landfill where nuclear waste was dumped illegally and improperly in the 1970s?

    • Starviking

      I read that the St. Louis County Health department didn’t attribute any diseases to radiation, they attributed them to lifestyle.

      Is that not the case?

  • Toolonggone

    >The proximity of the two environmental hazards is what worries residents and environmentalists. At the closest point, they are 1,000 to 1,200 feet apart (305 to 365 meters).

    That gives us warning about environmental hazard risk. Who would believe that nuclear stock piles stacked closely to the waster resources are safe? The piles can easily catch fire and give out radiation through fracking.

  • Tracy D

    No one believe what the EPA says anymore, they have lost all credability.

    • Starviking

      Why have they lost credibility?

  • Starviking

    What are the qualifications of Russ Knocke?

    What are the qualifications of Chris Koster’s landfill experts?

    • Robbin Ellison Dailey

      A couple of Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s landfill experts who wrote the Subsurface Self Sustaining Exothermic Reaction are Drs. Tony Sperling & Ali Abedini. Sperling is a landfill expert & professional engineer. Abedini is a landfill-gas specialist. Sperling’s company: Landfill Fire Control Inc/ #8 – 1225 East Keith Road/ North Vancouver, B.C., V7J 1J3 (604) 986-7723 sperling@sperlinghansen.com. Another of the AG’s landfill experts is Todd Thalhamer, P.E. based in California. Russ Knocke is a public relations spokesperson for Republic Services.

      • Starviking

        OK, I thought you were comparing like with like, my mistake.

        So it’s really the EPA vs. the AG’s hired experts?

  • timetorun

    bring in some large earthmovers and backhoe shovels and unearth the smouldering landfill debris and spray with water til its out. aggressive action while its not deadly instead of blame is the correct direction. do it now.

  • Saul Fein

    Bill Gates is the largest stockholder of Republic Svcs! He has the power to tell Republic to put out the fire and remove the nukes! But he doesn’t, he is silent on the matter! Why?

    Ticking time bomb it is without a doubt! If you want to really know what we have to live with every day, for 6 years now,
    just come to shop around St Charles Rock Rd near 270/70. You will smell the toxins on any given day! Residents, workers, transients have to deal with it every day yet Republic and EPA say everything’s under control and there’s no health hazard. If that is what their scientific data tells them then I say their “scientific data” is faulty and/or those interpreting the data are idiots! Besides the toxic gases, don’t forget the 150,000 tons of nuclear weapons wastes ( according to the NRC) which has already been proven to have migrated outside the landfill onto private property and into the groundwater beneath the landfill! Please go to West Lake Landfill on Facebook.