There's a fire burning in Bridgeton, Missouri. It's invisible to area residents, buried deep beneath the ground in a North St. Louis County landfill. But the smoldering waste is an unavoidable presence in town, giving off a putrid odor that clouds the air miles away – an overwhelming stench described by one area woman as "rotten eggs mixed with skunk and fertilizer." Residents report smelling it at K-12 school buses, a TGI Fridays and even the operating room of a local hospital. "It smells like dead bodies," observes another local.
On a Saturday morning in March, one mile south of the landfill, several Bridgeton residents have gathered at a small home in a blue-collar subdivision called Spanish Village. Concerned citizens Karen Nickel and Dawn Chapman are here to answer questions posed by four of their neighbors. "How will I ever sell my house?" "Am I going to end up with cancer 20 years down the road?" "Is there even a solution?"
In February, the landfill's owner, Republic Services, sent glossy fliers to residents within stink radius claiming the noxious odor posed no safety risk. But official reports say otherwise. Temperature probes reveal the fire has already surpassed normal heat levels. Reports from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) indicate dangerously high levels of benzene and hydrogen sulfide in the air. In March, Missouri's Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) – which has jurisdiction over Bridgeton Landfill – quietly posted an Internet notice cautioning citizens with chronic respiratory diseases to limit time outdoors. A month after Republic distributed its potentially misleading flier, the state attorney general sued the company on eight counts of environmental violations, including pollution and public nuisance. And this week, as part of a settlement set to be announced Tuesday, Republic sent another round of fliers offering to move local families to hotels during a period of increased odor related to remediation efforts.
Nickel and Chapman are stay-at-home moms; Chapman has three special-needs kids. Neither of them wants to spend her time worrying about a damn landfill fire. But until someone higher up the power chain intervenes, they have sworn to call municipal offices, file Sunshine requests and post notices to the community's Facebook group, no matter how unsettling the facts they uncover. Scariest of all: The Bridgeton landfill fire is burning close to at least 8,700 tons of nuclear weapons wastes.
"To have somebody call you at 11 P.M., and they're in tears, concerned for their family, that's heartbreaking," Chapman tells Rolling Stone. "We're doing this because we don't have a choice. If we don't come together as a community and fight, no one's going to do it for us."
West Lake Landfill is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site that's home to some of the oldest radioactive wastes in the world. A six-foot chain-link fence surrounds the perimeter, plastered with bright yellow hazard signs that warn of the dangers within. On one corner stands a rusty gas pump. About 1,200 feet south of the radioactive EPA site, the fire at Bridgeton Landfill spreads out like hot barbeque coals. No one knows for sure what happens when an underground inferno meets a pool of atomic waste, but residents aren't eager to find out.
At a March 15th press conference, Peter Anderson – an economist who has studied landfills for over 20 years – raised the worst-case scenario of a "dirty bomb," meaning a non-detonated, mass release of floating radioactive particles in metro St. Louis. "Now, to be clear, a dirty bomb is not nuclear fission, it's not an atomic bomb, it's not a weapon of mass destruction," Anderson assured meeting attendants in Bridgeton's Machinists Union Hall. "But the dispersal of that radioactive material in air that could reach – depending upon weather conditions – as far as 10 miles from the site could make it impossible to have economic activity continue."
In a response offered to Rolling Stone, Republic Services says, "Mr. Anderson made his statement without any proof or evidence, and he ignored the fact that ongoing evaluation by MDNR, EPA and local authorities have confirmed that the increased heat at the Bridgeton Landfill has not impacted West Lake and does not pose a threat to the materials at West Lake." Republic Services also denies that it is dealing with a "fire" – the company prefers the euphemism "subsurface smoldering event." Under orders from the state, Republic is drilling holes to contain this "smoldering event." Republic estimates it's already spent over $20 million – about 0.25 percent of its 2012 revenues – on such mitigation efforts, "not because we have to, but because it is the right thing to do."
When Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster sued Republic Services on March 27th, outlining a host of alleged odor pollution and public health violations at Bridgeton Landfill, he described the risk of the fire contacting the nearby radwaste as a mere "remote hypothetical." But many residents are far from reassured.
The story of West Lake's radioactive waste goes back to April 1942, when a St. Louis company called Mallinckrodt Chemical Works began purifying tens of thousands of tons of uranium for the University of Chicago as part of the Manhattan Project. Mallinckrodt's workers did not receive adequate safety protections and had little knowledge of what they were dealing with – oversights that would lead to disproportionately high cancer death rates among workers, as documented in books, dissertations and journalistic accounts, including a groundbreaking seven-part series from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1989. Over the next 25 years, the company's uranium processing also created huge amounts of radioactive waste, much of which was secretly dumped at sites throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area, including West Lake.
Today, West Lake's radioactive waste – all 143,000 cubic yards of it – sits on the outskirts of a former quarry with practically none of the standard safety features found in most municipal landfills. No clay liner blocks toxic leachate – or "garbage juice" – from seeping into area groundwater. No cap keeps toxic gas from dispersing into the air. This unprotected waste sits on a floodplain 1.5 miles away from the Missouri River. Eight miles downstream is a drinking water reservoir that serves 300,000 St. Louisans. Worst of all: The materials dumped in this populous metropolitan area will continue to pose a hazard for hundreds of thousands of years.
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