Coalition Report

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

Active or Radioactive?

A catchy tune by Imagine Dragons has become the unofficial anthem for many of the activists in north St. Louis County who learned earlier this year that they live in the shadow of radioactive uranium wastes now threatened by a subsurface landfill fire. The haunting lyrics of “Radioactive” begin: “I’m waking up to ash and dust/I wipe my brow and I sweat my rust/I’m breathing in the chemicals”.

For people living within a five mile radius of the West Lake landfill near Earth City, the lyrics hit close to home. The landfill fire stench ruined many outdoor events this spring with the acrid odors burning throats and forcing people indoors where, sometimes, even walls were insufficient barriers. Asthmatics and people with respiratory illness experienced particular distress. People living nearest the landfill continue to report odors, despite efforts at the site to curb the source of the odors and to block the advance of the subsurface landfill fire.

Since 1973, the West Lake Landfill, on St. Charles Rock Road west of I-270, has been the unfortunate home of dumped radioactive nuclear weapons waste that originated at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works during its work for the WWII/Cold War pursuit of nuclear bombs (1943-the late 1960’s). The subsurface landfill fire that now threatens the waste began in an adjacent landfill and was first reported in 2010. The landfill fire, or “subsurface smoldering event” has since spread throughout the southern area and is about 1,000 feet or less from the nuclear weapons waste. The fire moves from half a foot up to 3 feet per day. We are all concerned about the exposure to the community if the fire reaches the radioactive waste. Exposure to the same contaminants at other sites is linked to high rates of rare cancers and leukemia, birth defects, reproductive disorders, and autoimmune disease. No one from any of the government agencies has been able or willing to explain what would happen in the event of a worst-case scenario. Instead, they assure us, “It won’t happen”.

But it is happening. And plans to block the fire’s advance were stalled by the government shutdown. Tens of thousands of people live, work, and attend school in the area.
A committed group of area residents has come together to protect their families and their investments in their property and community. You can connect with them at www.radwastelegacy.com or on the West Lake Landfill group Facebook page. Together we can insist on necessary precaution, planning, and long-term solutions.

You couldn’t find a worse place than West Lake for the long-term storage of highly radioactive materials. The site is in a populated area, near a busy interstate (I-70), in a floodplain of a river that is the drinking water source for St.Louis and St. Charles, in a seismic zone, in an area prone to tornado strikes, with no liner separating the radioactive wastes from the groundwater. Schools, churches, day care centers, hospitals and Earth City businesses are within two miles. Studies continue to pile upon studies and no data supports the idea that leaving the waste in place, where it sits in contact with groundwater, is a safe, long-term storage plan. The waste is a mixture of radionuclides including Uranium and Thorium and it will become more radioactive for thousands of years before it begins to stabilize and then, eventually, to decay.

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment is supporting the community in pressing for the safe removal of the radioactive wastes found in the northern section of the property – which would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revise its plans to leave the waste in place.

As you plan ways to help make our planet healthier, consider what you can do to support our friends and neighbors in northwest St. Louis County. A worst case scenario means this is a regional problem. Public meetings are held monthly to share new information; research is continuous. Phone calls demanding Senator Claire McCaskill and Senator Roy Blunt support the removal of the radioactive wastes are always in order. Raise your voice, take a stand, learn more. Start here: www.moenviron.org.

And you can help monitor the site by reporting odors you smell in the area (270-St. Charles Rock Road) to the Missouri Dept. of Natural Resources immediately. You can find links to report forms at http://www.stlradwastelegacy.com/links/odor-log/. If you choose the Missouri Coalition for the Environment’s odor log we will keep your identity private.