Coalition Report

by Kathleen Logan Smith
Director of Environmental Policy Coalition For The Environment

STL Radwaste Issue Heats Up

Just when we thought having uncontained radioactive waste in the floodplain upstream from people’s drinking water couldn’t get any worse, now there’s a new threat to public health.

First, the background: St. Louis was ground-zero for Uranium purification during World War II and the Cold War for the development of nuclear weapons. All of the Uranium used in the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was purified in downtown St. Louis in 1942 and continued in the area through the 1960’s. The waste products from uranium enrichment remain radioactive and contain elements like Uranium-238 and Uranium-235 and its ‘daughter’ products like Thorium-234, Radium and Polonium. The radioactive wastes will actually become more radioactive over the next 9,000 years.

One St. Louis area site, the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, MO, is home to an estimated 8,700 tons of radioactive wastes that were dumped there in 1973. West Lake sits in the Missouri River floodplain, upstream from where over 300,000 people in North St. Louis County receive their drinking water. West Lake is a former limestone quarry-turned-landfill and it lacks groundwater protection components modern landfills are required to have. West Lake was just a hole filled with garbage, debris, industrial chemicals and radioactive wastes.

For a decade the EPA has dawdled and delayed action. The agency’s only plan thus far is to leave the waste on site. It is foolish to abandon radioactive waste in a floodplain of the Missouri River, which has been experiencing more frequent and higher level floods in the past decade than ANYTIME in its recorded history. The site has been designated a ‘Superfund’ site. At this time, its owners and a few other parties are responsible for funding the clean up.

Adding to the challenges of cleaning up West Lake now is the growing subsurface landfill fire on the adjacent property. Officials say the fire is 1,200 feet from West Lake. Residents in the area are being subjected to foul smelling odors from the subsurface fire as Republic Services, the landfill owners, endeavors to contain it. Actions are being taken to stop the fire from reaching the radioactive materials while an evacuation plan is being prepared in event of a worst case scenario.

The radioactive wastes at West Lake Landfill are the same radioactive wastes that contaminated Coldwater Creek in North St. Louis County. People who grew up along the creek have begun to connect with each other to find out whether other families who lived there are experiencing rare cancers, health problems, and birth defects. One analyst said the cases of some rare cancers were so prevalent as to be a statistical impossibility in such a small population, suggesting the problems are not random but related to a common cause. As families that are now scattered across the county retrace their health histories to their childhood years near Coldwater Creek, they have empowered a small team of former residents to create a map and a record that reveals a human cost to the nuclear weapons work that is reaching far beyond the Cold War.

As a regional community it is our duty to help our neighbors who are just now learning that they grew up in a radioactive world without knowing it. Let’s be sensitive to the needs of families impacted by diseases and proactive by keeping our elected officials accountable for safe water and clean air. The radioactive wastes in St. Louis need to be removed from the floodplain, away from water and away from people so that future generations are spared costly tragedies from invisible and forgotten materials. The Missouri General Assembly needs to support Representative English’s resolution, House Concurrent Resolution 18.

For more information you can contact the Missouri Coalition for the Environment at 314-727-0600 or visit www.moenviron.org.