A radioactive waste dump in Missouri, USA, is under threat from an underground fire. The fire at Bridgeton Landfill, near St. Louis, is as close as 350−400 metres from the West Lake Landfill. The West Lake facility was contaminated with radioactive waste from uranium processing. The waste was illegally dumped in 1973 and includes material that dates back to the Manhattan Project.1,2
The cause of the fire is unknown. It has been burning since 2010. The issue has received media attention recently because of the release of a St Louis County emergency plan.3
The emergency plan states that 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." The plan calls for evacuations and the development of emergency shelters, both in St. Louis County and neighbouring St. Charles County.
Last month, Missouri Attorney General Chris 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 radioactive waste. Koster said the reports were evidence that Republic Services, operator of both the Bridgeton Landfill and the West Lake Landfill, "does not have this site under control."4
Four school districts near the radioactive West Lake Landfill recently sent letters to parents explaining their plans for a potential emergency at the site. "We remain frustrated by the situation at the landfill," wrote Mike Fulton, superintendent of the Pattonville School District. Rhonda Marsala, a local who has two children at nearby schools, said: "We prepare our kids for tornadoes, fire drills, intruder alerts, but how do you prepare them for something like this? The fact that these young children know about it, and they have anxiety over it, it's very unfair to them."5
The state of Missouri is taking legal action against Republic Services, initiated in 2013, alleging negligent management and violation of state environmental laws. The suit is set for trial in March 2016.4
Missouri Coalition for the Environment wants the radioactive waste removed, saying that the EPA's 2008 decision to "cap and leave" means the wastes will remain a constant threat to drinking water, public health, and the environment.6
The 'Just Moms St Louis' group wants responsibility for the site passed from the EPA to the US Army Corps of Engineers and for it to be managed under its 'Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program'.7 That call has also been made by St. Louis-area members of Congress and both of Missouri's U.S. senators.2
Underground smouldering is common, especially in abandoned coal mines. At least 98 underground mine fires in nine states were burning in 2013, according to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Perhaps the most notorious was the fire that began in 1962 and burned near and beneath the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, for more than 50 years. Only a few people remain in a town that once had 1,000 residents.1
1. 10 Oct 2015, 'Underground fire outside St. Louis has burned since 2010, nears nuclear waste dump', www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/midwest/ct-st-louis-underground-...
2. Editorial Board, 10 Oct 2015, 'Editorial: Help residents near West Lake and Bridgeton landfills breathe easy', www.stltoday.com/news/editorial-help-residents-near-west-lake-and-bridge...
3. St Louis County, Oct 2014, West Lake Landfill Shelter in Place / Evacuation Plan, https://cbsstlouis.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/3062_001.pdf
See also Kevin Killeen, 5 Oct 2015, 'St. Louis County Releases Disaster Plan for West Lake Landfill', http://stlouis.cbslocal.com/2015/10/05/st-louis-county-releases-disaster...
4. Attorney General's Office, 3 Sept 2015, 'AG Koster releases new expert reports concluding radiation and other pollutants have migrated off-site at Bridgeton Landfill', www.ago.mo.gov/home/ag-koster-releases-new-expert-reports-concluding-rad...
5. Blythe Bernhard, Oct 2015, 'School districts prepare for West Lake Landfill emergency', www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/school-districts-prepare-for-west-lake...
Missouri Coalition for the Environment: http://moenvironment.org/program-areas/radioactive-landfill-fire-risks
Just Moms St Louis: www.stlradwastelegacy.com/