Bridgeton’s West Lake landfill sits atop 40,000 tons of radioactive waste, illegally dumped there nearly five decades ago. Much of the buried material was left over from experiments conducted as part of the Manhattan Project, the top secret crash project during World War II to build an atomic bomb. Now, an underground fire in a connected landfill could spread to the buried cache, which could send radioactive waste into the local air and water supply.
Or, if local EPA officials and geological experts are to be believed, maybe not. There are conflicting studies commissioned by the various parties in this saga that, maybe predictably, have produced very different results.
Since the fire began years ago, residents, activists, politicians and the landfill owners have battled over the smell coming from the underground fire and the future of the radioactive waste buried several hundred yards away.
Where There’s a Smell…
In early December 2009, a subsurface thermal reaction (better known as an “underground fire”) started in the Bridgeton landfill. These types of fires are self-sustaining, consuming the fuel around them (in this case, trash) and releasing large amounts of heat and gases into the atmosphere.
Republic Services, which owns the Bridgeton site through a subsidiary company, reported high levels of hydrogen and carbon monoxide coming from the site and noted subsurface temperatures as high as 300 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the landfill.
Residents of Bridgeton and the other middle-class suburbs near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport started complaining about the foul fumes in early 2012.
Complaints about headaches, nosebleeds, aggravated asthma and other respiratory ailments had begun years earlier. But even these concerns paled before fears of the fire’s possible path toward the radioactive waste.
Since public debate began over the landfill, the major players have agreed on only two salient facts: a subsurface fire is burning in the Bridgeton landfill, and that fire is only a few thousand feet from a radioactive-waste dump. Virtually everything else about the situation is under dispute.