Dawn Chapman can put up with the noxious smell caused by smoldering trash in a landfill near her suburban St. Louis home. But if the burning creeps close to buried nuclear waste, she’s ready to get out.
It’s a problem that worries many people in this densely populated area near Lambert Airport, where the trash burns just 1,200 feet from another landfill that holds radioactive waste dating back to the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bomb in the 1940s.
“We’re talking about just walking away from our home, honestly,” said Chapman, a mother of three young special-needs children. She’s not comfortable selling the house, even if she could.
“I’m a moral person. I can’t just sell it to another family. If I feel like it’s unsafe for my children, how could I do that to somebody else?” she asked.
Just below the surface of the Bridgeton Landfill, a layer of trash has been burning since at least 2010, fueled by an underground reaction of decomposing waste. The smoldering causes a noxious odor so overpowering that people in surrounding neighborhoods are reluctant to come out of their homes. Republic Services, the Phoenix-based owner of Bridgeton, is spending millions of dollars to ease the smell problem.
But the smell is just the most immediate concern. Environmentalists are alarmed by the possibility that the fire could someday reach the nuclear waste in the neighboring West Lake Landfill, owned by a subsidiary of Republic Services.
“I think what we’re seeing is the possibility of a slow-moving disaster right before our eyes,” said Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
A St. Louis company, Mallinckrodt Chemical Co., processed uranium for the Manhattan Project starting in the 1940s. In 1973, nuclear waste was dumped at West Lake and mixed with other waste and soil. The EPA designated it a Superfund site in 1990.
The original cleanup plan called for leaving the waste on-site, covering it with rocks, clay, fill dirt and vegetation, and installing monitoring wells for groundwater. After an outcry from residents and politicians, the agency agreed “to step back and take another look at it,” Whitley said. A new plan isn’t likely until 2014.