BRIDGETON — The Environmental Protection Agency released new maps Friday of radioactivity at West Lake Landfill, showing contamination extending up to and, in at least a few places, slightly beyond the fence line of the Superfund site.
Planning the long-awaited cleanup has slowed and become murkier — straining the patience of some residents, even as more waste is found. But EPA leaders on Friday did not revise the time frame for the planning or removal of the World War II-era radioactive waste.
The meeting wasn’t open to the public, but the EPA invited a few concerned local residents.
“This cleanup better start progressing,” said Karen Nickel, a co-founder of Just Moms STL, a volunteer group that closely tracks issues at West Lake. “We have frustrations.”
The radioactivity at the site traces back to the development of nuclear weapons in World War II through the Manhattan Project, which used uranium processed in St. Louis. Starting in the early 1970s, however, an estimated 8,700 tons of radioactive waste ended up at the landfill illegally, after being mixed with 39,000 tons of soil. The landfill used that mixture as cover material in its operations.
In 1990, West Lake was made part of the EPA Superfund program’s National Priorities List. But the years since have seen inaction and, until recently, indecision about how to clean up the site. In addition, an underground fire has smoldered in an adjacent landfill for more than a decade, elevating concerns about West Lake’s hazards.
In 2018, the EPA announced a decision to excavate most of the site’s radioactivity and take it to an out-of-state facility. That year, the agency estimated the process would take 4½ years to finish: 18 months for a “design phase” to plan the cleanup and then about three years to dig up the waste and build a cover for the site.
But nearly four years later, the cleanup’s design phase continues as more contamination is found. The design phase no longer has a target date for completion.
At present, the agency said, the contamination does not present a threat to the public.
Local residents, though, remain worried.
The cleanup is estimated to cost $205 million.
Responsible parties include landfill operating giant Republic Services, the U.S. Department of Energy, and Chicago power utility Constellation Energy Corp. Republic Services was the only one of the group with representatives at Friday’s meeting.
Attendees criticized the absence of the other parties — particularly the Department of Energy, which some argue bears the most responsibility for West Lake’s contamination and could wield the most influence in charting or funding an effective cleanup.