EPA Puts Off Clean-up of Nuclear Dumpsite, As Lawsuits Pile Up and Activists Circle the Wagons

It'll take a few billion years for 8,700 tons of radioactive waste illegally dumped in a suburban landfill in St. Louis County to stop emitting deadly radionuclides.

But before that happens, if this apocalyptic cocktail of Cold War-era nuclear byproducts and municipal toxic waste (just your garden-variety carcinogens and PCBs) continues to sit in an unlined, uncovered dump within the Missouri River floodplain, scientists say we should anticipate disaster, even if the federal government won't. You can bet that a flood will come along at some point and carry this dangerous radioactive material into municipal water supply. The site is less than a mile from the river on St. Charles Rock Road, after all. Or maybe there will be a tornado that will sweep the stuff into the air. Or perhaps an earthquake that'll force this toxic goop deeper underground and into groundwater. A lot can happen in a few billion years. The next Fukushima could be in St. Louis' backyard, warns Bob Criss, an isotopic geologist who works at Washington University in St. Louis.

Related Content: --The Right to Answers (RFT's 2001 feature on a nuclear dumpsite near Weldon Spring) --Nuclear Half-Lives (RFT's 2003 feature on the St. Louis workers charged with enriching uranium for Mallinckrodt Chemical Works during the Cold War)

Last night Criss and members of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment held a public forum on the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, which unlike a dozen other radioactive dumpsites scattered across St. Louis, is managed by the Environmental Protection Agency. The history of the site is complicated, rooted in the early days of the Manhattan Project (a timeline follows) and it's seen numerous stops and starts on clean-up initiatives.

In 1973, Cotter Corp, a Colorado-based waste management company, was tasked with getting rid of the 50,000 chemical drums of nuclear sludge that have been cast off by Mallinkrodt Chemical Corp, the St. Louis-based chemical company that enriched uranium for the federal government throughout the Cold War. A lot of that waste had been stored in dry casks near Lambert Field Airport until the site was shut down the Atomic Energy Commission (it didn't meet basic safety standards) in 1973.

Cotter trucked most of Mallinkrodt's waste out to Colorado, but for some reason 47,700 tons of soil mixed with leached barium sulfate, uranium, and thorium were illegally dumped in the West Lake Landfill at 3570 St. Charles Rock Road, an unregulated site that has never met federal standards for the storage of nuclear waste. The site is now at the center of several lawsuits, in which residents allege that improper waste management resulted in illnesses like lupus, Hodgkin's lymphoma, and various cancers (we'll have more on that tomorrow).

Environmental activist Kay Drey of University City has been trying to draw the public's attention to the site for three decades.

"I think the federal government should pay to clean this up, as they are for a dozen other sites in St. Louis. This is the federal government's responsibility," Drey said last night.

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