“One Good Reason to Avoid Landfills”

In a sarcastic email exchange, a Missouri Department of Natural Resources expert gives his candid assessment of the situation at West Lake Landfill, circa 2013. In a word, it’s “HORRIBLE.”

 

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For years, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has remained quiet regarding the situation at the West Lake Landfill. The state regulatory agency claims it can’t comment publicly because of pending litigation filed on its behalf by the Missouri attorney general against Republic Services, owner of the smoldering, radioactive landfill.

As a result, DNR’s reticence has helped spur mistrust among residents, who remain enraged over the stalled clean up of the EPA Superfund site in North St. Louis County, where an underground fire has been smoldering for more than four years.

The DNR email cited in this story — which was released by the state agency under the Missouri Sunshine Law, takes a small step towards breaks the state agency’s silence.

Unfortunately, it’s bad news.

In a word, the state official who penned the correspondence considers the stench wafting from West Lake Landfill as “HORRIBLE.” At the same time, he appears relieved that he isn’t responsible for dealing with the problem.

“The gas seeping out is HORRIBLE,” said Chris Cady, a DNR project manager for the agency’s Brownfields Clean Up Program. When Cady sent the message on March 28, 2013 to a family member, he also mentioned another danger: “If that wasn’t enough, a remote section of the landfill has thousands of tons of radioactive tailings from uranium enrichment by the Malinkcrodt (sic) Chemical St. Louis plant during the cold war which was moved and re-disposed there in 1973.”

Of course, there is nothing “remote” about the location of the radioactive waste at the landfill. The contamination is present prominently in two location, one of which borders the front of the landfill along St. Charles Rock Road. Moreover, since Cady wrote the email three years ago, the underground fire has moved even closer to the radioactive materials.

Cady, a PhD, also took exception to a warning raised in 2013 by an unnamed academic expert who also holds a doctoral degree. “Now some university professor (darn those PhDs) says the landfill gas could explode in a dirty bomb scenario and contaminate everyone with rad waste. Which is bogus, but simply adds fuel to the fire,” Cady wrote.

The recipient of Cady’s email responded by saying “the dirty bombe (sic) scenario is funny, or would be if it wasn’t so sad.”

Cady titled the subject of his email: “One good reason to avoid landfills,” and described the situation as a “mess.” He judged the problem to be “a bad one, [a] real public health threat and an emergency.” At the same time, Cady seemed to dismiss the risks posed by the radioactive materials, and said that the subsurface smoldering event at West Lake was not that “uncommon” despite their presence.

Based on his cavalier tone and condescending attitude, it’s a safe bet that the agency he represents is not intent on doing anything beyond kibitzing in private, and letting the fire run its course. In the meantime, about the only action the DNR can be counted on to do is  doles out more contracts to privateers.

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Rocky Top

Home values in Spanish Village may have declined due to its proximity to the stinking West Lake Landfill. But besieged subdivision dwellers also live on top of a limestone deposit worth a fortune.

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In 1986, the West Lake Quarry and Material Company sought to expand its quarry operations to an adjacent hillside next to Spanish Village subdivision, thereby gaining access to valuable limestone deposits. The city of Bridgeton nixed the proposal.

The ranch-style homes in the Spanish Village subdivision are reminiscent of the not-so-distant past, an idyllic reflection of the 20th Century in our collective rear-view mirror.  Driving by the neatly  trimmed lawns there is no clue that the Bridgeton city park at the end of a cul de sac was once owned by the West Lake Quarry or that it is potentially contaminated with radioactive waste. There’s no hint of the valuable natural resources that lie beneath the surface, either.

Some older residents may remember the park deal that was hashed out in the 1970s by the city council and the then-landfill owners. Records of the sale are buried in the Bridgeton Council minutes. The memory also may lingers the minds of a few present and former locally elected officials.

But they’re not talking.

Talking is something that comes naturally to trial lawyers, however, and, in the summer of 2014, personal injury attorney Daniel P. Finney held court under the eaves of the park pavillion.  A midday thunderstorm rumbled over the hill, but the lawyer didn’t pause. The ensuing rain, offered him a captive audience under the shelter.

As the rain poured down, the lawyer made his best case for signing up with his law firm. He was forthright in his pleadings and offered no promises. He understood the difficulty of proving that radioactive and chemical contaminants from the nearby West Lake landfill had effected the subdivision residents’ health.

Last week, 34 residents, who signed with Finney, reached an out-of-court settlement with a subsidiary of Republic Services, the current owner of the West Lake Landfill Superfund site, where radioactive waste was dumped in 1973. The lawsuit compensates homeowners for their exposure to noxious odors due to an underground fire at the landfill. Terms of the agreement were not made public, but the settlement likely denies the plaintiffs any future redress of grievances.

Those who didn’t take part in the lawsuit remain in limbo. One of the obvious negotiating issues for the Spanish Village property owners is their individual home values, which is based on comparable residential real estate in St. Louis County. The toxic odors wafting from the landfill have decreased home values in the subdivision.

But there is an added value to their property that isn’t being considered. The missing factor in the property evaluation is that the houses are built on top of a precious natural resource — limestone.

The landfill itself, after all, is located at the site of a former quarry, which sits on the edge of the Missouri River flood plain.  Past owners of the landfill founded their business on the presence of the abundant limestone deposits, which are an essential commodity of the construction trade.  In a nutshell, they dug huge holes in the ground to mine and sell the rock deposits and then made more money by charging waste haulers to fill the excavations with all manner of trash, including toxic nuclear and chemical pollutants. The resulting contamination is now leaking into the groundwater.

The EPA has announced it will make its final decision on the clean up plan for West Lake by the end of the year. Under the EPA’s guidelines, there are three proposed alternatives: capping the waste and leaving it in place; excavating and removing it; or a compromise solution that involves a partial excavation. All three alternatives will require massive amounts of  limestone rock materials in one form or another. Transporting the rock from other quarries would be a time consuming and expensive operation.

But there is another option. The nearest limestone deposits to West Lake Landfill are on the adjacent hillside — the location of the Spanish Village subdivision.

The public, including some residents of the subdivision, may not be aware of the limestone deposits, but it is not a secret to state and federal agencies. The U.S. Geological Survey is aware of the limestone deposits because they surveyed the area decades ago. USGS’s counterpart, the Missouri Geological Survey, mapped the area to ascertain the location of mineral deposits in the area. So they know about the location and value of the deposits, too. Moreover, the Missouri Geological Survey is an arm of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for monitoring the underground fire that is burning at the Superfund site.

There is evidence that that the landfill owners in the past have also been aware of the value of the nearby limestone. That’s because they asked the city of Bridgeton to rezone part of the adjacent hill so it could be quarried more than 30 years ago.

In 1986, West Lake Quarry and Materials Co. asked permission from the city of Bridgeton to expand its quarry operations south of Boenker Lane on 23-acres of a 180-acre tract of land it owned — which abuts Spanish Village. The monetary value of the limestone deposits at the site were estimated in 1986 to be worth $64 million. The Bridgeton Planning and Zoning Commission denied the request.

The  value of the limestone deposits in 2016 would obviously be far greater because of its proximity to the Superfund site. It’s a matter of supply and demand. In short, whoever is contracted to remediate the contaminated landfill by the government is going to need large quantities of limestone rock, gravel and cement.

The radioactive waste at West Lake Landfill was first generated as a part of the Manhattan Engineering District’s secret project to build an atomic bomb. The uranium was processed in St. Louis under a classified contract between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and  the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works.

The Manhattan Project was born in secrecy and secrecy remains a constant variable in the 70-year-old saga. There is every reason for this dire situation to be handled with expediency. But history tells us that timely action has never been part of this catastrophe’s chronology.

Openness would offset the doubts and fears that besiege the residents of Bridgeton and the entire region. Instead, negotiations concerning this eminent public health threat are far too often still conducted behind closed doors. Deals are struck, moneyed interests placated.

The trash company liable for this mess bears a name and a logo that evokes patriotism. Its shiny blue trucks lumber through our neighborhoods.  Other responsible parties include Chicago’s electric utility company and the Department of Energy, the successor to the Atomic Energy Commission, which was spawned by the Manhattan Project. This trio’s  combined lobbying power extends from City Hall to the White House.

To believe that they will do the right thing of their own volition is like the proverbial frog  trusting the scorpion to act against its predatory instincts. As the compromises are hashed out and alliances shift, lawyers will continue to talk,  politicians will keep making deals, and the free marketeers will line up once again to feed at the trough.

None of these machinations confront the dangers posed by the nuclear waste that is hitching a ride with fire, wind and rain. Nature is undeterred by human folly. Frankly, it doesn’t give a damn.

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Equally obscured by the carefully landscaped yards is the interest that the Missouri Geological Survey had in the area back in the late 1980s, when the agency partially redrew its maps to better understand the composition of natural resources that lie beneath the surface. Understanding the area’s geology of the nearby hills and  adjacent Missouri River flood plain is driven as much by commerce as science.

That’s because the underground karst topography is composed  deposits of limestone, a valuable commodity used for various construction purposes, including levees, roads and home construction.

Residents of Spanish Village nowadays are more concerned about the stench of toxic chemicals whaffing from the nearby West Lake Superfund site, which

 

ecades ago the Missouri Geological Survey took an interest in the area for reasons other than

 

New Effort Planned To Get Quarry OK’d

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) (Published as St. Louis Post-Dispatch) – February 26, 1990Browse Issues

The Bridgeton City Council has rezoned about 173 acres near the Spanish Village subdivision so that the land owner, West Lake Cos., can build a factory. But that’s not what West Lake wants.

The company has applied for rezoning that would allow quarrying. The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission is expected to make a recommendation on that matter at a meeting scheduled for 7:30 tonight at Bridgeton City Hall, 11955 Natural Bridge Road.

The company wants to quarry the limestone that lies just under the dirt on the ridge. Company officials say that a 20-year supply, with a value estimated at $64 million, is sitting there. The company has been trying for four years to get at it.

The council rezoned the land at a meeting Wednesday. This was the latest move in a series of rezonings, driven by court rulings since 1986.

West Lake Cos. is owned by the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the Shrine of St. Jude and the Propagation of Faith.

The company owned and operated West Lake Landfill nearby until l988, when Laidlaw Waste Systems bought it. But West Lake Cos. retained ownership of the remainder of the land.

In late 1985, West Lake Cos. determined that it was running out of rock at its quarry north of Boenker Lane and applied to Bridgeton to dig a new quarry south of Boenker. The landfill is operating in the depleted quarry hole.

The land where West Lake wanted the new quarry was zoned for single-family houses. Rezoning was required.

But the landfill and quarry and the potential quarry are situated behind Spanish Village subdivision. Residents there adamantly opposed a new quarry. They said that blasting at the old quarry had shaken their houses and caused them distress.

West Lake officials said that if they didn’t open the new quarry, they would have to lay off most of their workers at the company’s plants nearby.

At one point, the City Council got a petition signed by 125 Spanish Village residents in protest against the proposal for a new quarry and a petition signed by 114 West Lake employees in favor of it.

The City Council declined to change the zoning. West Lake sued. A judge ordered Bridgeton to find a more reasonable zoning than residential for the property. Bridgeton rezoned it to B-5, planned commercial, and M-3, planned manufacturing. Offices could be built in both zoning classifications.

But West Lake pressed the matter in court.

Bridgeton had an M-2 manufacturing classification that would have allowed quarrying with a special-use permit. The city removed the quarrying provision from the M-2 classification. And M-2 is what the council rezoned the area to on Wednesday.

But West Lake has applied to the city for M-1, manufacturing zoning, the only zoning classification that allows quarrying, with a special-use permit. The Planning and Zoning Commission held a hearing on the rezoning at a meeting Feb. 12 and may make a recommendation at tonight’s meeting.

If the council agrees to rezone the area for M-1, then the commission may take up the matter of the special-use permit.

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.

 

2004: A Nuke Odyssey

The Department of Energy finally promises to clean up the St. Louis areas’s long-neglected radioactive waste in the next 8 years, but leaves many questions unanswered

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Dec. 11, 1996

It took more than 50 years, but last week the federal government finally pledged to clean up the St. Louis area’s long-neglected radioactive waste sites by 2004.Undersecretary of Energy Thomas P. Grumbly made the historic announcement on Thursday at the Clayton Community Center. The 850,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste — located at scores of sites around the area — are a byproduct of the nuclear weapons manufacturing dating back to World War II. Those attending Grumbly’s speech included public officials and members of a citizens’ task force who submitted recommendations to the Department of Energy (DOE) in September.

“There will never be a bunker in the St. Louis area — at least on my watch.” — DOE undersecretary Thomas P. Grumbly, December 1996.

Grumbly drew applause when he announced “there will never be a bunker in the St. Louis area — at least on my watch.” The applause echoed the results of a 1990 non-binding referendum in which city and county voters overwhelming disapproved of any plan to permanently store the nuclear waste here.

One result of that public outcry has been bi-partisan political support for disposing of the waste outside the area. Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, and Democratic St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and County Executive Buzz Westfall all attended last week’s meeting to show support for the DOE’s commitment to ship the waste as soon as possible. Some 28,000 cubic yards of contaminated materials from 21 sites have already been sent to a low-level radioactive waste dump in Utah. Moreover, Congress allocated an additional $23 million to continue the clean up in 1997.

But the fate of the remaining nuclear waste is still very much a matter of speculation. “There are some serious issues that remain,” said Talent, after the meeting. “It’s promising, but I don’t want to pretend that it’s all worked out, that it’s to everybody’s satisfaction.”

The congressman’s reservations may be understated. One sticking point in completing the project appears to be the 22-acre airport site — the largest in the area. In his speech, Grumbly emphasized that the DOE remains unconvinced of the need to clean up the airport site to the unrestricted-use level recommended by the local task force, the Sierra Club and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“He (Grumbly) just doesn’t feel that a site at the end of a runway needs to be cleaned up … the same way you would a residential site,” says Talent. “It’s a legitimate point, but I don’t think that the DOE has looked adequately at the effect on the ground water. The (waste) is sitting on an aquifer.”

Leaving any of the radioactive material at the site would risk further contamination of underground and surface water. But earlier this year, a report by a DOE-appointed panel of geologists declared that the water would miraculously not migrate off the site, and, therefore, it would be safe to leave the waste in place. Two of the six panel members – including one from the DNR — took exception to the findings, however. On Thursday, Grumbly suggested that another hydro-geological study be conducted in the next three months to determine what level of safety would be required.

“We all feel like it needs to be cleaned up so it won’t continue impacting Coldwater Creek,” says environmentalist Kay Drey, a member of the citizens’ task force. The creek is on the long list of remediation sites, which also includes: haul routes, a former athletic field in Berkeley, a landfill in Bridgeton, and parts of the Mallinckrodt chemical plant on North Broadway, where uranium was first purified in 1942.

The DOE, according to Grumbly, would like the entire mess tidied up within eight years, an optimistic goal given the bureaucratic impediments. Aside from the DOE’s lead role, the DNR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are mandated by Superfund law must to oversee and approve the project. Grumbly, nevertheless, expects a formal Record of Decision (ROD) for the clean up by the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30. That gives the DOE a little more than nine months to work out a myriad of details.

One of those details is prefaced by a dollar sign and has a lot of zeros behind it. “We have no money to do this,” says Drey. The environmentalist points out that the $23 million dollars earmarked for the clean up this year represents a significant increase in past funding for the project, but is still only a fraction of what will be needed to complete the job. The uncertainty over future funding is not expected to abate so long as the Clinton administration and the Republican-led Congress try to out hack each other in deficit reduction. Or as Grumbly puts it, “We’re in a very competitive budget environment.” The effect of the imminent departure of Energy Sec. Hazel O’Leary is also unknown.

As recently as July, the DOE estimated that removal and off-site storage of the waste would cost $778 million. A revised estimate cited last week ranges from $250 to $600 million. The wide difference in the bottom line hinges on, among other things, the choice of technology and the level of clean up specified in the yet to be completed ROD. The contract to carry out the clean up is held by Bechtel National, Inc., a subsidiary of the giant engineering corporation. Potential local sub-contractors that are queuing up include: Sverdrup Evironmental,the National Center of Environmental Information and Technology, Clean Earth Technologies and R.M. Wester and Associates.

Despite the expertise and available alternative technologies, Grumbly gave little indication Thursday that the DOE is seriously considering anything more than digging the irradiated dirt up and hauling it away. If the DOE chooses to clean up the airport site to less stringent levels than recommended locally, it will save money. But the legal and ethical question then becomes whether the scaled-back remedy is protective or human health and the environment.

For many Westerners, who will likely be on the receiving end, there is nothing ethical about any of this. The probable final destination for St. Louis’ radioactive waste seems to be either Utah or Washington state. The Envirocare low-level radioactive waste depository in Clive, Utah has already received some St. Louis shipments. In 1993, before any of the St. Louis waste arrived, state inspectors found Envirocare in violation of a dozen safety regulations.

But the questionable Utah facility now has competition. Last year, the Washington state Department of Health granted a low-level radioactive dump license to the Dawn Mining Co. in Ford, Wash. The majority of Dawn Mining is owned by Denver’s Newmont Mining Co., the largest mineral extractor in North America. Rather than pay for filling a 28-acre, 70-foot-deep, uranium-tailings pond on the Dawn property, Newmont wants to charge the government $5 a cubic foot to accept low level radioactive waste. Although the DOE hasn’t agreed to the proposal yet, representatives of Dawn Mining have tried to solicit the support of the St. Louis citizens’ task force as far back as November 1995.

The Spokane Indian tribe and Dawn Watch, an environmental group, are opposed to shipping the St. Louis waste to their community. “Our position is the site is still an unacceptable location for a commercial waste dump,” says Esther Holmes, a member of Dawn Watch. “(We) have been advocating that the site be cleaned up using clean fill at the company’s expense.” The tailings pond is located near a tributary of the Columbia River and threatens a nearby Indian fish hatchery.

Fly Me to the Moon

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What’s up at the West Lake Superfund site? It’s anybody’s guess. The official operational status of the smoldering landfill at the site has been in limbo for months.  The extent of the ambiguity and accompanying confusion is reflected at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources website, which indicates the Bridgeton Landfill project at the site was completed mere months after the first men landed on the moon.

The unfortunate reality is that cleaning up Manhattan Project radioactive waste at West Lake and other sites in the St. Louis area remains incomplete 46 years after NASA’s successful Apollo 11 lunar landing.

 

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A War of Words

Environmentalist Kay Drey continues to advocate for the removal of waste from the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill

first published at stlreporter.wordpress.com, Jan. 23, 2015

“It just makes me sick,” say Kay Drey. The 81-year-old dean of the St. Louis environmental movement is sitting at her dining room table, which is scattered with various paperwork, including two dogeared reports issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency in the 1980s.

As the sun streams through a window of her University City home on this mild January morning, she bemoans the state of affairs related to the stalled clean up of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, a nearby St. Louis County suburban municipality.

The NRC reports to which she refers both candidly recommend the removal of the radioactively-contaminated materials from the landfill, which is located in the Missouri River flood plain upstream from water intakes for the city of St. Louis.

The waste, a byproduct of decades of uranium processing carried out by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works on behalf of the government’s nuclear weapons program, was illegally dumped at West Lake 40 years ago. Drey has been fighting various regulatory agencies to get it removed for almost as long.

On this day, Drey’s voice is failing. It can’t compete with Moxie, the family’s small dog, who yaps at a visitor’s feet. After the canine commotion subsides and breakfast dishes are cleared, Drey explains what is bothering her.

“They’re not talking about digging it up,” she says.

Removing the radioactively-contaminated materials from the St. Louis area to a federally-licensed nuclear waste depository in the sparsely-populated West has long been her goal.

In 2008, Drey and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment challenged the EPA’s record of decision on West Lake, which would have mandated a relatively cheap fix — capping the landfill with dirt and leaving the nuclear materials in place. Republic Services, the liable landfill owner, favors this remedy, which would allow the contamination to continue migrating into the ground water. The final decision is still up in the air along with noxious landfill fumes that have been the bane of nearby residents for the last four years.

Since 2010, public outrage over the issue has grown due to an underground fire at the adjacent Bridgeton landfill, which is part of the same EPA Superfund site. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is overseeing efforts to contain the fire, which is moving in the direction of the radioactive waste. To bolster DNR’s authority, the Missouri Attorney General’s office has filed suit against Republic for various infractions. Splitting responsibility for dealing with the problem between the state and federal agencies has led to further bureaucratic snafus. One of the impasses involves a state-mandated barrier wall to stop the fire from advancing.

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Drey and other activists advocate turning the clean up over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that has remediated other St. Louis radioactive sites under the Formerly Utilized Site Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), which targets sites contaminated with nuclear weapons waste from World War II. Gaining congressional approval for such a change has not happened, however, despite efforts by the activists to spur the St. Louis congressional delegation to sponsor the requisite federal legislation.

Meanwhile, Republic, the responsible party, keeps pushing the original capping proposal. The company’s public relations efforts have included backing a rural-based front group, the Coalition to Keep Us Safe which is against shipping radioactive material through the state. The Coalition to Keep Us Safe, via their twitter feed, routinely uses the words “capping” and “encapsulation” to mean the same thing. The terms are used interchangeably by the group, but “encapsulation” is not part of the 2008 Record of Decision issued by the EPA. The confusion of terms is not clear to a casual observer or to many members of the Coalition as seen in the tweets they post.

As the debate wears on, Drey sees support for removal of the waste waning. But she’s standing her ground. There is no compromise on this subject when viewed from her eyes. Those who consider capping as an option are abandoning the goal. In her opinion, it is indefensible to leave deadly radioactive waste to drain inevitably into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers forever.

Drey also sees how language is being used to obfuscate the issue. Supporters of capping the landfill often use the word “encapsulation” to describe the plan to leave the waste in the floodplain, leaking into the aquifer.

To make her point, Drey gets up from the dining room table and retrieves a worn dictionary from a bookshelf. She runs her index finger down the page to the entry and recites the definition: “Encapsulate: to encase in or as if in a capsule.”

“Does a capsule have just a top?” she asks.