ST. LOUIS (AP) – Initial testing is about to start on a trench to help prevent underground smoldering at a suburban St. Louis landfill from reaching World War II-era nuclear waste buried 1,200 feet away.
Environmental Protection Agency Region 7 officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday that initial survey work for the fire break at the Bridgeton Landfill will begin next week. Construction will start early next year and could take several months.
“We need to know what’s there before we make an estimate on construction time, but we are committed to doing it ASAP,” said Ron Hammerschmidt, director of the EPA Region 7 Environmental Services Division.
The testing phase was originally scheduled to start Oct. 10 but was delayed by the federal government shutdown, EPA Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks said.
Bridgeton Landfill owner Republic Services Inc. is paying to build the dirt-filled trench aimed at keeping the smoldering away from the adjacent West Lake Landfill.
Republic Services has said that even without the trench, there was virtually no chance the smoldering would reach the nuclear waste. Spokesman Richard Callow said the firebreak adds another level of certainty.
Callow said the design work will confirm that the barrier is outside the area containing nuclear material.
St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. processed uranium as part of the Manhattan Project. The waste was dumped at West Lake in 1973, buried at levels ranging from near the surface to around 12 feet deep. The EPA designated it a Superfund site in 1990.
The smoldering just below the surface of the Bridgeton Landfill was discovered in 2010. It’s not technically a fire but is fueled by an underground reaction of decomposing waste. Few people were aware of it until last year, when the smoldering began to produce an odor so strong that residents complained they couldn’t go outside.
The odor prompted Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster to sue Republic Services earlier this year. Republic Services is spending millions of dollars to install wells, add thick tarp and take other measures to reduce the smell.
If the nuclear waste caught fire, experts say it would not cause any sort of meltdown but could pose a health risk for nearby residents. Heat could spark an explosion in methane pockets or buried gas cylinders, potentially throwing radioactive particles into the air. The fire could also create subsurface voids that might expose nuclear waste to wind and rain especially problematic because the landfill sits in the Missouri River flood plain.
An original EPA remediation plan called for leaving the waste on-site, covering it with rocks, clay, fill dirt and vegetation, and installing monitoring wells for groundwater. After an outcry from residents and politicians, the agency agreed to revisit what to do with the waste. A new plan isn’t likely until next year.
Ed Smith of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment said the trench has some value, but the best answer is digging up the nuclear waste and removing it.
“As far as we’re concerned this is not adequate,” Smith said of the trench.
But the EPA’s Hammerschmidt said the trench “preserves the integrity of the West Lake site and allows EPA to go through the process of selecting a remedy to handle the radioactive material deposited on the West Lake site.”
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