EPA: Don’t worry about underground fire near radioactive waste

Her first clue that something was wrong came as she ran her hands through her baby boy’s hair. “My child was losing his hair in clumps,” Meagan Beckermann recalls. A doctor traced the problem to alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that can be triggered by environmental factors.

A frantic search for a likely source ended when neighbors advised Beckermann to follow her nose. That’s when she learned that the charms of her St. Louis suburb of Bridgeton — with its green parks and quality schools — masked two massive landfills, one filled with radioactive waste, about a mile from her home. No one had mentioned them when she’d bought her house, she says.

Four years later, she and other residents now describe the situation as only more extreme. Volatile chemicals 60 feet to 200 feet down are smoldering beneath one of the landfills in what scientists call a sub-surface burning event. The underground burn is only a few thousand feet from a Superfund site filled with waste from the World War II-era Manhattan Project, the federal government’s ultimately successful effort to build an atomic bomb.

The site is managed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which neighbors and state officials say has done little to stop the burn from reaching the radioactive waste.

“Every day, I live with anxiety. I live in fear,” said Beckermann, a 34-year-old mother of two.

Before the agency was forced to defend itself against critics in Flint, Mich., who say it bears some of the responsibility for that city’s lead-contaminated drinking water, EPA was on the defensive in north St. Louis County. Members of Missouri’s congressional delegation have authored two bills that would strip EPA of its oversight of the 200-acre Superfund site, which is known as the West Lake Landfill. The legislation would give the Army Corps of Engineers authority over the clean-up and removal of up to 48,000 tons of nuclear waste.

One bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Roy Blount, passed that chamber earlier this month, while the House bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. William Clay, is working its way through a committee. Missouri’s attorney general is urging Clay to press on.

“A burning radioactive waste dump requires the government to act with urgency, but EPA seems unable to move forward with a meaningful solution,” State Attorney General Chris Koster wrote last week in an angry letter to members of the delegation, in which he called for the Army corps’ intervention.

The federal Superfund program addresses large and highly toxic hazardous waste sites. Although no credible link has been established between air quality near the landfills and prevalence of disease, residents are concerned about adverse health impacts. Mothers such as Beckermann, whose 6-year-old son Trevor now has no hair on his entire body, worry about the possible effects of the West Lake site’s contaminants on their children. Some people have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

The burn at the Bridgetown Landfill has increased the stench. “It makes you gag,” resident Robbin Dailey said. Families within a mile of both properties are demanding that the EPA relocate them, a move that would cost a half-billion dollars, according to some estimates. A group of mothers from the area traveled to Washington last week to press for action. While on Capitol Hill, they told lawmakers that their requests to speak with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy had been ignored.

At the EPA’s regional headquarters in Kansas City, Kansas, Administrator Mark Hague counters that officials are acting as quickly as possible. “There was a lot of critical investigative work that went on for a period of time,” stressed Hague, who said he has met “several times” with the mothers and has relayed their concerns to McCarthy.

Scientists contracted by the EPA have determined exactly where the underground burn is located, and in late December the agency ordered the Bridgeton Landfill’s owner, Republic Services, to construct a barrier to isolate the burn from the other site. Hague said that barrier will take a year to build. A Republic Services spokesman said in an email that the company would be responsible for costs up to $30 million unless the project is transferred to the Army corps.

“It’s my job to get this done,” Hague said.

The scientists’ investigation showed that the burn is not moving toward the Superfund’s radioactive material, but the barrier was ordered as a protective measure along with equipment to cool what’s smoldering underground, Hague said. Air-quality monitoring to date shows readings in keeping with a metropolitan area, he added.

But Bridgeton residents and state officials have little trust in the agency’s actions and assurances. They say radioactive waste has been found beyond the area that EPA originally identified. The attorney general called for more extensive testing, and he and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources sued Republic Services for environmental violations at the Bridgeton Landfill. The company has denied the claim, and the litigation is pending.

The West Lake Landfill is surrounded with a fence and notices identifying it as a Superfund site, but there’s no other warning in the community. An EPA website allows Americans to “Search for Superfund Sites Where You Live,” and the agency also puts notices in newspapers — although an EPA spokesman for the region acknowledged that local residents can miss seeing those.

Dawn Chapman, who lives nearby, said she’s furious that federal government, state, county and local authorities didn’t notify residents who purchased property in the area that a Superfund site had been designated there in 1989.

Chapman discovered she was pregnant with her first child a few months after buying a house 11 years ago. Each of her three children have developmental problems that require special care. “I didn’t know a landfill was there, and I definitely didn’t know a Superfund site was there,” she explained while in Washington.

“Everybody has responsibility,” Chapman said. “If you knew about this, you have responsibility. The failure to notify residents, the failure to advocate, falls on every elected official that covers the district. This is no place to raise a family.”

As the one landfill smoldered and word about it spread, Chapman and two other women co-founded a protest group. They called it Just Moms because whenever they contacted elected officials to help them, they’d be asked if they were advocates. “No,” the women responded, “we’re just moms.”

The St. Louis County health department soon will survey residents living within a two-mile radius of the Bridgeton site to determine if they have a higher rate of certain health problems compared to populations elsewhere in the county or state. Its director said the study will focus on asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and allergy-type symptoms.

Beckermann said she worries constantly. In October, a letter from her children’s school district scared her further. “Since the eastern part of our school district is only a few miles away from the West Lake Landfill,” Superintendent Jeff Marion wrote, “please know that I will be working with the city and county emergency management officials to ensure we are prepared to respond in the event of an environmental accident.”

“It was terrifying as a parent to read that letter,” she said. “It’s terrifying every morning when you drop your kids somewhere knowing you might not be able to pick them up.”

One elementary school also sent a letter home advising parents to ask their children’s doctors about medications they might need in case they are detained at the school during an emergency. Parents should consider leaving the medicine at school, the letter suggested.

Both Beckermann and Chapman were women on edge as they made the rounds on Capitol Hill last week. “I don’t want to be here,” Chapman said. “I just want to be home with my kids.”

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