St. Louis Is Burning

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The EPA's Region 7 is based in Lenexa, Kansas, about 250 miles west of St. Louis. The agency operates from a glass-paned office building that once housed the international headquarters of Applebee's. In an empty conference room on the ground floor, Dan Gravatt, the EPA manager tasked with handling West Lake, looks every bit the government scientist in his blue work shirt, khaki pants and thin-framed glasses.

In 2008, the EPA decided to cap the radiotoxic material dumped at West Lake and leave it there. Capping the site meant piling five feet of dirt and rocks on top and implementing long-term monitoring for contamination. Facing widespread public pressure, including a letter from St. Louis mayor Francis Slay, the EPA postponed its decision pending further studies.

Gravatt has a smooth, rehearsed response to almost any question about the West Lake landfill – a skill he put to use at a community meeting on January 17th, when more than 300 concerned citizens gathered to hear the results of those EPA studies. One person in attendance was Kay Drey, an 80-year-old civil rights and anti-nuclear activist who's been advocating for the removal of wastes from the St. Louis area for more than three decades. "I was very disappointed," Drey tells RS. "The evidence is clear. This is radioactively hot stuff and it shouldn't be in the floodplain by the Missouri river. And if they can't admit to that – well, it's incomprehensible."

Back at his office, Gravatt insists that West Lake's radioactive wastes only pose health risks for people who come in direct contact with the site, adding that the nuclear dump "doesn't pose any current exposure pathways to area residents as it stands now."

But Robert Criss, a geochemist at Washington University in St. Louis who has studied the issue closely, says the EPA is grossly underplaying a host of risks surrounding West Lake – flooding, earthquakes, liquefaction, groundwater leaching – that could pave the way for a public health crisis. That's not to mention the recent development of an underground fire nearby. Says Criss, "There is no geological site I can think of that is more absurd to place such waste."

Digging through old Nuclear Regulatory Commission studies, he recently stumbled upon what he describes as an error with major implications. For the last three decades, various government documents have referred to the waste at the landfill as "leached barium sulfate," a nearly insoluble compound generated from uranium processing. But Criss says that the NRC's own data shows the material dumped at West Lake contains far too little barium and sulfate to compose barium sulfate – by factors of 100 and 1000, respectively. "If I had this long to study something, I would be pretty embarrassed if this is what I came up with," says Criss. "It is inconceivable for these people to promote remedies when they don't even know what they're dealing with."

In a statement to Rolling Stone, the EPA disputed Criss' findings, but declined to offer further explanation, instead deferring to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Upon request for a chemical analysis proving the waste is barium sulfate, the NRC sent RS the same 1982 report that Criss disputes.

So what happens now? The EPA officially lists four potentially responsible parties for the West Lake Superfund site. One is the U.S. Department of Energy. A second is Cotter Corporation, a company whose contractors secretly dumped nuclear waste at West Lake in the Seventies, as uncovered soon after by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The others are Bridgeton Landfill LLC and Rock Road Industries LLC – both subsidiaries of Republic Services, which currently runs the landfill. Under Superfund law, these four parties must ultimately foot the bill for any remedial actions ordered by the EPA; at the same time, it is these same four parties that contract and pay for all EPA studies leading up to a decision. This might seem like a conflict of interest, but Gravatt insists it's all on the up and up: "We tell them what to do." It must be a coincidence, then, that the EPA's capping plan cost the potentially responsible parties only $41 million, compared to up to $415 million required to actually excavate the waste.

Missouri State Representative Keith English has another idea to fix the mess at West Lake. In February, English and 12 co-sponsors filed a resolution with the state assembly to transfer control of the site from the EPA to the Army Corps of Engineers' Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Actions Program (FUSRAP) – a proven success that has already cleared more than one million cubic yards of atomic waste from other sites in the St. Louis area, shipping the radioactive contaminants to safe disposal cells in Utah and Idaho. A nearly identical resolution filed by State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal in Missouri's other legislative body garnered three co-sponsors. "The educated people that deal with this type of waste can see that there's an issue with just putting a cap on top," says English.

Unfortunately, anything that passes through Missouri's statehouses would only represent a symbolic victory. Since West Lake remains under federal jurisdiction, only an act of Congress could transfer the site to the Army Corps. For this reason, many are looking to Missouri's U.S. Senate delegation – Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Roy Blunt – to lead on this issue. "I hope that our resolutions pass and get to Senator Blunt and Senator McCaskill's office," English says. "Because they've been sweeping it under the rug for the past several years."

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment, which has advocated for the removal of West Lake wastes for more than a decade, in part blames Missouri's ties to the nuclear energy industry for the senators' lack of action. Both McCaskill and Blunt, as well as Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, have pushed for bringing more nuclear reactors to the state. Any more attention to a hazardous radioactive dump might get in the way of that messaging. "They won't touch this with a 10-foot pole," says the Coalition's safe energy director, Ed Smith. "It doesn't fit their narrative of clean nuclear power and 'jobs, jobs, jobs.'"

Blunt has yet to make any public statement on the issue, and his office has not responded to requests for comment. McCaskill, meanwhile, supported the 2008 cap-and-leave plan for the West Lake radwaste; on March 12th of this year, she sent a response to several concerned citizens, assuring them, "I will continue to monitor these situations and ensure that any proposal put forward to address them provides a safe, cost-effective solution for Missourians."

McCaskill's reference to a "cost-effective solution" didn't sit well with the activists in Bridgeton. "I don't give a flying fuck how much it costs," says Chapman. "This is about my children."

Bridgeton's underground fire was news to Ramona Herbert, who moved to Spanish Village with her family last November. She and her husband, Joshua, came here from St. Louis' inner city, hoping for a safer place to raise their kids. When the Herberts signed a five-year lease for their new home, no one disclosed to them that hot nuclear dumps sit a mile north from their children's bedrooms. No one told the Herberts that an ongoing landfill fire burns just down the street from their local Bob Evans restaurant. After two months in her new home, Ramona Herbert noticed an EPA flier on her door announcing a community meeting, but it meant little to her.

"My landlord said to me that we have a little sewage problem," she recalls. "So I'm thinking the sewage system isn't working right." But the stench only got worse, and she started having trouble sleeping. Parents stopped letting 14-year-old Mateo Herbert's friends shoot hoops in his neighborhood, because something in the air was making their kids' eyes water. And Joshua Herbert, who boasted a nearly spotless medical history, started suffering terrible headaches.

Ramona Herbert learned about St. Louis' nuclear waste legacy from a Rolling Stone reporter. As soon as she found out, she got in touch with Chapman, and she is now part of a growing coalition. Like hundreds of other concerned citizens in North St. Louis, she wants answers. "When were we going to be warned?" Herbert wonders, standing at the door of her new home. "When is it too late?"

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