The Bridgeton Landfill, about 20 miles northwest of St. Louis, is in many ways a typical pile of trash. Bridgeton is a layer cake of garbage and dirt at the bottom of an old limestone quarry, all of it covered with a frosting of clay, plastic liner, soil and grass. But for the last six years, there’s been something wrong at the core of Bridgeton — a wrongness that has led to lawsuits, angry neighborhood activists and national media attention. It’s confusing and scientifically strange — and all those problems are exacerbated by the nearby presence of a big old pile of nuclear waste.
Down beneath the layers of trash bags, banana peels, Chinese takeout cartons, diapers and dirt, the Bridgeton Landfill has become very hot. Normally you’d expect the process of decomposition to heat the interior of a landfill to around 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Parts of the Bridgeton landfill, in contrast, have reached temperatures as high as 260. That 120 degrees is the difference between a healthy landfill, decomposing merrily along, and one in which the systems of safe waste management are falling apart.
And then there’s the bit about the radioactive waste. Bridgeton is not the only landfill with a hot spot, but it is the only one with a hot spot that’s around 1,200 feet away from about 8,700 tons of radioactive barium sulfate — a byproduct of uranium processing. It came from a factory in St. Louis that produced uranium for the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction. That material, mixed with dirt, is part of the layers that make up the nearby West Lake Landfill. The Environmental Protection Agency, which manages West Lake as a Superfund site, believes that if the radioactive waste becomes hot, it could release cancer-causing radon gas into surrounding neighborhoods. Suffice it to say there are many reasons people want Bridgeton Landfill to cool down.
Unfortunately — despite an April 28 announcement of an agreement between the EPA and Republic Services, the company that owns Bridgeton — that’s not going to be easy. Bridgeton may be a typical pile of trash, but this is no typical trash fire. The heat exists 40 to 140 feet below the surface, in places where Republic Services believes no oxygen is present. It exists in places that are wet, soaked with leachate. Those are not conditions where fire should exist, by most common-sense standards.