Behind Closed Doors

While the underground fire continues to burn at the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill, the federal government seems more concerned about quietly hashing out deals with corporate interests. 

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Attend any West Lake Community Advisory Group meeting and you’ll see them there. They’ll be scribbling notes. More often than not, they’re well-dressed women in business suits, serious professionals. But they’re not government officials, scientists, or engineers.

They’re lawyers. Private lawyers.

The attorneys are quietly noting every detail being discussed at the public forums so they can report back to their corporate clients. They are the hired guns of the potentially responsible parties, those companies held liable under the EPA Superfund law for the cost of the  West Lake Landfill clean up. Except for these rare appearances, the lawyers mostly work behind the scenes, with little or no accountability to the public.

It’s not unusual for private attorneys to meet on the low, but in this case their talks are being  facilitated by the Department of Justice. Involvement of the DOJ, which is keeping an unusually low profile, raises more questions about the situation at West Lake, which is already mired by doubts and suspicions due to a lack of transparency by government regulators.

While the lawyers meet behind closed doors, an underground landfill fire is approaching the radioactive waste at the site, exposing residents to unknown risks.

The three potentially responsible parties that share the liability for the clean up of the site are the U.S. Department of Energy,  Exelon Corp., and Republic Services, owner of the troubled dump.

DOJ’s involvement isn’t new. It’s been going on a long time, sanctioned by obscure federal rules and regulations and codified by law.  But few people in the impacted community of North St. Louis County are aware of the DOJ’s influence.

After the Nuclear Regulatory Commission handed over control of the site to the EPA decades ago, the DOJ stepped in to act as an arbiter among the potentially liable parties [PRPs], negotiating the terms of a settlement agreement, a pact which is referred to as a “non-binding allocation of responsibilities.” In short, the deal specifies who pays for what.

The quiet DOJ negotiations  would have remained so if not for efforts of environmentalists intent on uncovering the tangled relationships among government regulators and private industry. The revelation was exposed by the recent release of internal EPA email records obtained by the Environmental Archives under the Freedom of Information Act. One of the emails references DOJ’s role.

On Nov. 23, 2015, Jessie Kerrigan of Lathrop and Gage law firm wrote to Alyse Stoy, EPA Region 7 general counsel:

“As I mentioned the parties do have an existing settlement agreement for allocation of SFS costs to DOJ. I have attached it for your information and to share with DOJ if that would be useful (given that the DOJ team has changed since the execution of this).”

Lathrop and Gage represents  Republic Services, one of the PRPs.  SFS stands for “supplemental feasibility study.” The supplemental feasibility study is being done as a part of reconsidering the EPA’s 2008 Record of Decision.

The message is vague but indicates that DOJ’s current role goes beyond being a mere negotiator. Instead, the email suggests that the DOJ is paying the cost of the supplemental feasibility study or  playing the role of  the EPA’s collection agent. But just how much money is being paid out by whom and for what purposes is unclear because DOJ’s books are closed.

 

 

 

 

 

A Longstanding Relationship

Five years after B&K Construction illegally dumped Cotter Corp.’s radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill, the two companies continued doing dirty business with each other. 

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In July 1978, Cotter Corp., the owner of the radioactively-contaminated site on Latty Avenue, solicited a bid from  B&K Construction to “decontaminate” 14.5 acres at the location in Hazelwood. B&K proposed doing the job for more than $492,000, according to a company record made public today by the Environmental Archives.

Five years earlier, in 1973, B&K had dumped radioactive waste belonging to Cotter at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton. The EPA Superfund site has yet to be cleaned up.

Cotter’s proposal was broken into two parts. B&K offered to remediate the  north end of the 3.5-acre Jarboe Property at 9200 Latty Avenue for $139,900,  and bid more than $355,900 to clean up 11 acres at Cotter’s property next door.

The proposal called for hauling the radioactive waste materials back to the 22-acre airport site, where they had originally been stored years earlier.

An investigation by the Atomic Energy Commission discovered the illegal dumping at West Lake in 1974. Though the AEC found violations of its regulations had occurred, neither company was held accountable for its actions.

 

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Documents show toxic leachate from West Lake Landfill was dumped in the Mississippi River for decades. 

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Until last year, Republic Services, the owner of the troubled West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo., shipped as many as 200 truckloads of toxic leachate  daily to the Metropolitan Sewer District’s Bissell Point treatment plant on the Mississippi River.

The shipments stopped in April 2015 after the completion of  a 7.2 mile pipeline that links the landfill with the MSD treatment plant in north St. Louis. The pipeline project corresponds with other belated measures taken by the landfill owner and the sewer district to control an estimated 300,000 gallons of noxious liquid produced at the site each each day. The increased levels of leachate are in part due to the underground fire burning at the EPA Superfund site, which is moving dangerously close to nearby radioactive waste.

In 2013, MSD refused to accept leachate from the landfill for several months because it contained high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen. This forced Republic to dispose of the toxic shipments elsewhere.

Odor complaints against the landfill have risen dramatically in recent years due to the underground fire, at the same time public concerns increased due to concerns over the radioactive waste, which is known to have migrated off site and contaminated the groundwater. The landfill is located in a flood plain about one mile from the Missouri River.

Hauling the the West Lake leachate from the site and dumping it into the Mississippi River didn’t develop overnight, however. It’s been going on for more than 35 years, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

MDNR records recently released to the Environmental Archives under the Freedom of Information Act indicate leachate was hauled from West Lake to Bissell Point on a daily basis as far back as 1980. The state regulatory agency calculated that an estimated 48,000 gallons was removed from the landfill daily and ultimately released into the Mississippi River.

Prior to last year, the landfill’s leachate operation did not have an onsite treatment plant. The stringency of MSD’s treatment process in the past remains uncertain. It is unclear whether the radioactive materials in the leachate were monitored before disposing of the shipments in the river.

 

Was West Lake Landfill a Nuke Dump Before 1973?

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A 1981 report prepared for the Nuclear Regulatory Agency raises more questions about the origins of the radioactive waste at the controversial  West Lake Landfill Superfund site, including who dumped it and when.

No doubt exists that B&K Construction Co. hauled more than 40,000 tons of radioactive material from Cotter Corp.’s  Latty Avenue storage site in Hazelwood, Mo. and illegally dumped it at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo. between July and October of 1973.

But a 1981 government report obtained by the Environmental Archives now suggests some of the nuclear weapons waste at the landfill was quietly disposed of years earlier. Forty-five years later it remains a mystery where the latter nuke waste originated or who dumped it

The report, released under the Freedom of Information Act, is based on a 1980 site investigation by the Radiation Management Corp., a Nuclear Regulatory Commission contractor. The report states that the then-landfill superintendent recalled with certainty that the Latty Avenue waste was disposed on approximately two acres in the southern portion of the landfill.

Vernon Fehr, the superintendent who had first-hand knowledge of the landfill operations for the time periods in question, also said with certainty  that none of the radioactive materials from Latty Avenue  were dumped in the other contaminated part of the landfill, which is comprised of approximately 8 acres in the northeast section.

The NRC report states, “the second area is at least 10 years old (in 1981), and no one had any idea what radioactive material might be present there.” If that timeline is correct, it means large volumes of radioactive waste were secretly dumped at the landfill at least two years prior to  B&K arriving on the scene.

 

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Radiation Management based its findings on both the landfill manager’s testimony and a 1978 aerial survey of the landfill by EG&G engineering firm. The aerial survey discovered radioactive contamination above background on  2.6 acres acres in the southern part of the landfill and also present on  8 acres in the northeast portion of the site.

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Current attention has been directed mainly at area of the landfill nearest the underground fire, which is burning at the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill.

The eight acres in the northeast sector of the site include a toxic stew of chemical waste in addition to the radioactive materials. The mixed contaminants are known to be migrating off site and leaking into the aquifer. The landfill is in the flood plain, approximately 1.5 miles away from the Missouri River.

The exact nature of the all radioactively-contaminated materials and their precise locations remains uncertain because the EPA has failed to fully characterize the site since taking over the clean up in 1990.  In short, despite untold numbers of various tests and surveys over the years,  a comprehensive grid test of the entire 200-acre Superfund site has never been conducted.

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Hot Wheels

When cyclists spin their wheels this weekend to commemorate the illegal dumping of  radioactive waste at West Lake Landfill, they’ll be riding over a very hot roadbed. 

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The Latty Avenue roadbed in Hazelwood, Mo. is constructed of highly radioactive nuclear weapons waste, according  to an overlooked Department of Energy document uncovered this week by the Environmental Archives.

Just hot is it under Latty?

In 1987, Aerospace Corp.,  a DOE contractor, reported the levels of radiation in one hot spot under Latty Avenue were literally off the charts.

“Activities in the “hot spot” sample were so high that quantitative determinations using initial analytical techniques were not possible, and further analyses (sic) will be required,” according to the then-DOE contractor.

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The online database released the revelation along with a cache of other records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The release of the document coincidentally corresponds with a planned ride by  bicyclists this Saturday to draw attention to St. Louis’ longstanding radioactive waste problem.

Tons of radioactively-contaminated materials at the Latty Avenue site were transported and illegally dumped at the West Lake Landfill in 1973 over a three-month period.

More than four decades later, the waste is still there, which has led in recent years to a fight by community members to get the EPA to relinguish control of the site to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps has cleaned up the former storage area on  Latty Avenue and other sites in the St. Louis area as a part of the Formerly Utilized Site Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP).

But the haul route contamination, for the most part, has not been addressed  because it allegedly falls below the current clean-up standards set by the Corps. Radioactive contamination that lies under the pavement is now deemed as safe.

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In 1987, it was a different story, however, according to the DOE report made public by the Environmental Archive. At that time, the Aerospace Corp., a DOE contractor, expressed concerns over the high levels of Thorium 230 used to construct the Latty  Avenue roadbed.

The report concludes that the radioactive materials used to build the road in the 1960s or 1970s most likely came from processing waste generated by the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis under contracts with the top secret  Manhattan Project and later the Atomic Energy Commission. Analysis revealed that the high levels of Thorium 230 were evidence that the radioactive contamination was a byproduct of Congolese pitchblende, which is known to be the hottest uranium ore on the planet.

The pitchblende refined by Mallinckrodt was used to build the first atomic bombs.

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