West Lake Landfill: 6 decades of radioactive waste bungling

How a six-figure deal from the 1960s blocked clean-up of radiotoxic site, Examiner, Byron DeLear , 13 Oct 15 One hundred and twenty-six thousand dollars. That’s how much money was offered by Contemporary Metals Corporation in 1962 to acquire all the contents of the world’s first nuclear waste dump. It may seem unbelievable and incredibly reckless by today’s standards for the U.S government to even consider off-loading thousands of tons of highly dangerous radioactive material to a small private entity, but at that time the dangers were neither fully known nor appreciated. A subsequent owner illegally dumped a large quantity of this radioactive material at the West Lake Landfill.

Today, an underground fire threatens to ignite these dangerous substances inundated with uranium, thorium, and radium — a radiotoxic concoction found to be unique to nuclear weapons-related waste. Recently, experts brought by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster estimate the fire could reach the radioactive waste in as little as 3-6 months. These same experts cite evidence of the radioactive contaminants leaching off-site into trees and groundwater. Emergency evacuation plans warning of a potential “catastrophic event” have also been released by St. Louis County — naturally, as can be expected, folks are growing restless.

Yesterday, four local school districts have sent letters to parents letting them know of the potential emergency and that the circumstances are being closely monitored. “We remain frustrated by the situation at the Landfill,” said Mike Fulton, superintendant of the Pattonville School District. “This impacts not only our community, but the entire St. Louis region.”

With the underground fire burning for nearly six years, four decades of inaction by a rotating cavalcade of shape-shifting private interests, numerous state and federal agencies, officials, and politicians, one might wonder:

What’s makes the West Lake Landfill case so special? — so absolutely unique a situation to have foisted upon this region a decades-long, ongoing saga of bungled management, finger-pointing, and negligence? Why hasn’t the site been cleaned-up?

Out of nearly 100 contaminated sites in the region, only one has been excluded from the federal program (FUSRAP) designed to clean-up nuclear weapons-related waste: the West Lake Landfill. Why? It all comes down to an obscure transaction in the 60s where the U.S. government sold all the waste from the world’s first nuclear dump. Yes, you heard that correctly: All the highly dangerous and radioactive material from the first nuclear waste dump was sold to a small private outfit under license from the now defunct Atomic Energy Commission.

In the following months, the first private owner of the material went bust, then a second went down, and we have the beginning of a deadly game of “nuclear hot-potato.” Since then, federal authorities have essentially claimed that the results of this transfer have exculpated their responsibility to clean-up the contaminated site in the same manner as the 100 other sites in St. Louis. As such, the West Lake Landfill is not considered a “FUSRAP property” — at least not yet………….

The radioactive material, now privately owned, was recklessly hauled and dumped out in the open at another north St. Louis County site known as “Latty Avenue,” or Hazelwood Interim Storage Site (HISS). After Continental Mining went bust, Commercial Discount Corporation acquired the substances. Later, it was sold to Cotter Corporation which shipped much of it to its Canon City, Colorado processing facility. However, what they didn’t want to ship or reprocess was a problem.

Eventually, in 1973, Cotter mixed the remaining radioactive waste with what was claimed to be merely “topsoil” and then illegally dumped 47,700 tons at West Lake. But what they claimed was topsoil was actually heavily contaminated material from the Latty Avenue site. In 1988, the landfill operator later told Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) investigators that the material was described to him as “clean fill dirt.” At the behest of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the NRC in its 1988 investigation stated that there are 165,000 tons or 150,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil in two areas at the West Lake Landfill.

“The transfer of the Cotter wastes to the West Lake Landfill was the culmination of almost 40 years of careless management, inadequate containment, and careless transportation practices,” stated a 1996 report from the St. Louis Site Remediation Task Force. “The activities of this 40-year period resulted in the contamination of the banks of the Mississippi River, the river itself, numerous roadways and railroad right-of-ways, over 100 vicinity properties, a major urban stream (Coldwater Creek), and groundwater in the vicinity.”

The AP reported this week on the disaster plan developed by government officials to contend with a potentially “catastrophic event” should the fire continue its course of migration toward the radiotoxic material. Although this specific scenario is unprecedented—there is no other radioactive site in the world with an underground fire burning next to it—as mentioned earlier, some experts predict that in as little as 3-6 months a radioactive plume of particulates and smoke could be lofted-up over the densely populated area. The human cost, societal disruption, and economic damage to the entire region could easily exceed tens of billions of dollars.

This is a real risk—albeit the most harrowing of a number of possible outcomes—but despite the risk, the impasse on resolving the crisis persists. After 42 years, continuous finger-pointing, and an endless train of studies and reports, little has been done to clean-up the site. Cancers and other illnesses are presenting in the surrounding community at statistically higher rates than average. Property values have plummeted. Calls have been flooding to Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to declare an emergency, or at least attempt to pre-empt an emergency much like preparing for a hurricane on approach. The White House has also been engaged in the last few months with calls for an executive order to clean-up the site.

What the local community is requesting is for the callous stare-off between private companies and the government to stop. The impasse has persisted for decades while the region continues to suffer elevated rates of cancer, noxious odors, and plummeting property values. These local citizens are neither seen nor treated as if they are part of America’s national security equation—but they are. And St. Louis, in this case, should not be left to fend for itself. This community has paid a heavy price for its role in processing all the uranium for the Manhattan Project and early U.S. nuclear weapons program and its time for a grateful nation to offer rightful compensation.

Due to the underground fire, the “impasse at West Lake” has now been exposed for all to see. In a very real sense, the greater metropolitan St. Louis region could face a potential $10B+ in catastrophic damage in a worst case scenario, or perhaps, preemptively, approximately $500M in clean-up costs which should be covered by the federal government………http://www.examiner.com/article/how-a-six-figure-deal-from-the-1960s-blocked-clean-up-of-radiotoxic-site

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