In recent weeks, there’s been a flurry of stories and reports about the Bridgeton (Mo.) Sanitary Landfill. An underground fire has smoldered on the site for nearly five years, which is of concern because of radioactive waste that was buried on the site illegally in 1973.
Technically, what's taking place is not a fire. It is an exothermic reaction, meaning it is a chemical, heat producing reaction.
Here is what you need to know about the situation in Missouri.
What are the basics?
According to a history of the site compiled by KSDK.com, the West Lake Landfill began as a quarry operated by the Westlake Quarry Company in 1939. Landfilling operations began in the 1950s. In 1973, 8,700 tons of barium sulfate and 39,000 tons of soil from the Manhattan Project were illegally dumped at the site. This was later discovered and, as a result, West Lake officially became listed as a Superfund site in 1990.
The landfill contains two operable units (OU-1 and OU-2), both of which contain radioactive material. Soil samples indicate the presence of leached barium sulfate cake, Uranium and Thorium.
According to a spokesperson for Republic Services, "The reference to leached is relevant. It was actually leached twice, meaning that Mallinckrodt squeezed every isotope of value out for purposes of their work. The higher level materials that were not used were shipped out to Canyon City, Colorado. The low-level leached barium sulfate is what was left behind and eventually mixed in with soil as top cover."
But the radiation levels are low, as described Dr. Henry Royal in a recent interview with St. Louis Public Radio
The 200-acre site includes the Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill, which is owned and operated by Republic Services Inc., and several old inactive areas. The Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill stopped receiving waste last December.
In 2014, Republic agreed to a settlement potentially worth up to $6.8 million for more than 900 residents resulting from odor issues caused by the underground fire earlier that year. Republic paid out $4.8 million. That is among one of several legal issues.
How has the radioactive waste been dealt with?
The EPA unveiled a plan in 2008 to contain the sites by covering OU-1 and monitoring the site. A supplemental feasibility study was released in 2011 and in 2013 the EPA reported that the waste remained contained and posed no safety risk.
What has changed?
In 2010, the underground fire broke out. In the nearly five years since, the fire has crept steadily closer to where the radioactive waste is buried. Recent reports indicate the fire is now less than 1,000 feet away from the waste, raising fears about what will happen if the fire eventually reaches the radioactive waste.
In early September, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster raised the alarm further by releasing a report saying the fire could reach the radioactive waste within three to six months and that the fire is out of Republic’s control.
For its part, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has disputed the report saying it “strongly disagrees” with Koster’s assertions and there is no risk to surrounding communities. Republic has also responded to the report. Additionally, a deposition with the lead author of the Koster report reverses many of the findings.
What has Republic’s approach been?
Republic has long tried to contain the effects of the fire.
Republic added a new odor-neutralizing technology earlier this year that uses a vaporizing system to neutralize odor-causing molecules by seeking out, attaching to and eliminating lighter and faster molecules. It complements a synthetic liner system that covers the South Quarry and portions of the North Quarry and the substantially upgraded gas and leachate collection systems, as well as the existing water-based misting and atomizing systems. The new system was completed in December 2014 and consists of approximately 1,300 feet of tubing set approximately 10 feet above ground.
The landfill also implemented a cloud-based app to collect and analyze daily odor data in September following an announcement.
Republic also operates a leachate pretreatment plant designed to remove certain constituents in leachate, and currently treats approximately 180,000 gallons of leachate per day—about half of the leachate generated within the site each day. The system is designed to comfortably accommodate 100 percent of the landfill’s leachate output, with a capacity of approximately 300,000 gallons per day or nine million gallons per month. The plant will reach full processing capacity in the coming months as operations progressively increase.
In September 2014, Bridgeton also expanded a one-year pilot program that will use cooling lines to extract heat from the landfill’s subsurface. The Alternative Heat Extraction Pilot Study involves the installation of closed-loop cooling lines within six gas interceptor wells in the “neck” of the landfill, between the North Quarry and South Quarry, as well as 11 temperature monitoring probes in the vicinity of these wells to measure heat extraction in the area.
What else has the state asked for?
Despite these improvements, the state asked a St. Louis circuit court in January to issue a temporary restraining order against the landfill’s operators. The state cited data received Dec. 23, 2014, that indicated the possible development of a subsurface fire in the North Quarry area of the landfill, at or near some radiologically impacted materials.
Saint Louis County, meanwhile, in February launched a survey to assess the health of people living near the landfill. And the EPA in May began conducting radioactive tests at the West Lake and Bridgeton landfills.
Are there other parties involved?
In addition to Republic, Exelon Corp. and the U.S. Department of Energy are "potentially responsible parties," meaning that all three entities would be responsible for implementing any final remedies recommended by the EPA.
What will happen if the fire reaches the waste?
How common are landfill fires?
More than 8,000 landfill fires occur each year, and can range from minor surface fires to massive blazes that can release harmful emissions. The cost of these fires is about $8 million annually in property losses, about 30 firefighters injured each year, and health and environmental dangers the toxic smoke and gases released during the fire. But there are no previous cases of landfill fires reaching nuclear waste.
How is the surrounding community reacting?
Last week, four school districts around the landfill sent letters to parents detailing plans for potential emergency. Meanwhile, a recent community meeting organized by Just Moms STL drew more than 500 residents. The group is also maintaining a Facebook page with dedicated to sharing news about the fire.