Hot Spots Spark Congressional Appeal for a Takeover of West Lake

In recent days, I blogged about the hazardous state of the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Missouri, and the growing public outcry regarding the radioactive waste that is buried there. To refresh your memory: the West Lake Landfill contains (“contains” is probably not the right word under the circumstances) tons of nuclear waste, generated by Mallinckrodt Chemical during and in the years following World War II. After the War, Mallinckrodt turned to the U.S. government asking for its help in disposing of the material. The government obliged, ordering the material to be moved surreptitiously to various sites around St. Louis. There was little official oversight in this process, and subcontractors distributed the waste willy-nilly in scattered sites around St. Louis, eventually to include West Lake where it was dumped without any sort of protection, in open barrels that would eventually corrode.

The West Lake Landfill sits high on Missouri’s floodplains, almost within eyesight of Lambert International Airport and only eight miles from an intake valve on the Missouri River that provides drinking water for 300,000 people living in and around the metropolitan area. Dr. Robert Criss, a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University, has been concerned about the West Lake Landfill for years, pointing out that its location on a high, wet groundwater table made it an “absurd place” for dumping such waste.

That’s not the only problem with its location. The West Lake Landfill has garnered special notoriety in the past year because of its proximity to the Bridgeton Landfill where a fire smolders underground, occasionally breaking to the surface, and emitting a noxious smell that can be detected as far away as three miles. The worry, of course, is that the fire could eventually reach the radioactive waste next door…or vice-versa and then all hell could break loose (literally), an inferno spewing and dispersing the radioactive waste further into the groundwater and co-mingling with the  winds wafting above St. Louis.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the governmental agency tasked with oversight and clean-up of the site, sought to calm residents’ concerns about the hazard created by the smoldering fire, saying that it would erect a barrier between West Lake and the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill. In the meantime, it maintained its position that Lest Lake was safe and did not pose a health hazard to residents living in the area. In response, residents who had grown up in the vicinity of West Lake and Coldwater Creek, one of West Lake’s tributaries, point to staggering rates of cancers, autoimmune disorders and birth defects, including three sets of conjoined twins: rates that one data expert have described as “statistically impossible odds”.

Area 1 Hot Spots

Last week, KSDK Channel 5 obtained a map of a portion of the landfill known as “Area 1” “. It showed evidence that the EPA had found new radioactive hot spots during ground testing done while trying to locate a place to build the barrier between West Lake and the Bridgeton Landfill. Many of these hot spots were outside the area where radioactive material was thought to be, and some were even outside a fence that had been built to protect workers.

After reviewing the map, Professor Criss said that the levels of contamination at some of these hot spots appeared significant and conjectured that the radioactive waste might be spreading through groundwater. He also challenged the way that the EPA had gathered its radioactive levels, contending that the EPA’s machines were calibrated too close to the landfill. As such, he said that the landfill and the hot spots could be even more radioactive than the numbers showed. The EPA struck back, vociferously rejecting Dr. Criss’ assertions and defending the way that it had gathered its samples. (Of note, the EPA did not dispute the findings of the hot spots.)

An Appeal to the Army Corps of Engineers

For at least the last year, many residents in the area have asked why the Army Corps of Engineers couldn’t take over clean-up efforts. They have pointed out that the Corps has a successful record of cleaning up several smaller radioactive sites in the metro area. However, Karl Brooks, Regional Administrator for the EPA’s Region 7 in Lenexa, Kansas, responded that the EPA could not simply “hand off” West Lake to the Corps. That, he said, would require congressional action.

Late last week, Missouri’s congressional delegation formally asked the EPA to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to assume responsibility for the site. In a letter sent to Karl Brooks and signed by Sen. Claire McCaskill, Sen. Roy Blunt, Rep. Lacey Clay and Rep. Ann Wagner, the delegation wrote: “Given the Corps’ expertise in this area, and the local community’s faith in the Corps … we request that the EPA consider contracting directly with the Corps to handle any and all remediation needed at the site.”

Brooks responded by saying that he too wanted to know from the experts with EPA that conditions in the Bridgeton community “remain protective of human health”.  He added:  “I am regularly assured by these experts that the community is being protected from the nuclear waste that was dumped illegally at West Lake four decades ago.”

As to Brooks’ reference to nuclear waste being dumped “illegally”, hmmm… I suppose so, although the U.S. government’s hands are certainly glowing dirty in this catastrophic mess.

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