St. Louis’ West Lake Landfill: A Runaway, Ticking, Nuclear Time Bomb That Has Residents Terrified (Pt. 3)
(EnviroNews DC News Bureau) — Editor’s Note: The following news piece represents the third in a 15-part mini-series titled, Nuclear Power in Our World Today, featuring nuclear authority, engineer and whistleblower Arnie Gundersen. The EnviroNews USA special encompasses a wide span of topics, ranging from Manhattan-era madness to the continuously-unfolding crisis on the ground at Fukushima Daiichi in eastern Japan. The transcript is as follows:
Excerpt From Public Meeting on West Lake Landfill:
Dawn Chapman: The federal government is [the] responsible party on paper for what happens at West Lake Landfill.
Crowd Member #1: And Exelon.
Dawn Chapman: And Exelon will write the check for [inaudible] is our understanding.
Crowd Member #2: What about Mallinckrodt?
Chapman: Mallinckrodt when they entered into a contract with the DOE, the DOE took away all… Mallinckrodt signed away their ability to be charged in just about anything. They have immunity.
Josh Cunnings (Narrator): Thank you for tuning in to the EnviroNews USA news desk. I’m your host Josh Cunnings. Today, we pick up where we left off in our 15-part mini-series, Nuclear Power in Our World Today.
In episode one we discussed America’s toxic legacy in the West concerning 15,000 abandoned uranium mines — still open, and still left in ruin. In episode two, we discuss another Manhattan-era mess — the uranium enrichment facility at Paducah, Kentucky.
In this third episode, we pick up the simply mind-opening interview between EnviroNews Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry and the esteemed nuclear expert, industry whistleblower, and expert witness Arnie Gundersen, with another Manhattan-era nightmare that remains unchecked. Here’s that segment from the Gundersen interview:
Emerson Urry: Speaking about some of these accidents — some of these releases that you don’t hear about so much, one thing we are definitely hearing about right now is the contamination at Coldwater Creek in Missouri — and certainly, the landfill — the radioactive landfill that is on fire there — of which Bill Gates is a majority shareholder in that company. Have you been following that issue at all in Missouri, and what does that look like at the moment? Sounds pretty scary.
Arnie Gundersen: Well, Fairewinds, just two days ago, put up a video about the fire at the St. Louis landfill, and it is frightening. And it’s one of those situations where like Santa Susana, when all that stuff was dumped there, there were no major towns, there were no major suburbs — but over the last 50 years, it’s been surrounded by towns like Ferguson. It butts up against now, significant amounts of population. And what will happen there is as the fire gets close — right now it’s perhaps 700 feet away — as the fire gets close, it will liberate radioactive radon, americium, [and] other material, into the air.
Urry: A very dangerous isotope (meaning americium).
Gundersen: Yes. Right now the fire is liberating all sorts of nasty chemicals because the dump that’s on fire is a chemical dump, but as it approaches the area that’s radioactive, we’ll have those chemical releases as well as radon and other radioactive gasses. It’s not good, and there are no good alternatives.
Urry: Is there any way they can stop it? I mean, is there any plan underway? We know that Bill Gates is involved in this company, and we also know that he is a huge proponent of fourth generation nuclear power and has huge ideas about basically turning Paducah, Kentucky into plutonium to power the planet for the next hundred years. Is he engaged at all? Is he involved? Are there strategies to actually stop this fire? Or is just kind of, well…
Gundersen: Yeah. It’s not being handled by commercial ventures. There may be commercial liability at the end of this, but Department of Energy has been there for three or four years — and there are no good solutions. I had thought, why don’t they just build a trench between the radioactive and the non-radioactive to prevent the fire? But the problem with that is that if the trench is there, it’s going to allow oxygen to get into the fire, and release even more toxic stuff. So, right now, it’s Department of Energy, and they’re putting injection wells, and trying to squirt stuff in it. By the way, they don’t even call it a fire. If they call it a “fire,” there’s liability. If they call it an “underground combustion,” it’s not. So, you will not get any of the authorities to admit, that all that smoke and all that heat is actually coming from a “fire.”
Urry: So, we’ve heard that actually several months from now the fire would make its way directly to the radioactive heaps that are there. What would that look like? Would it be a full-scale nuclear meltdown essentially? What does that look like if it actually makes its way to that waste?
Gundersen: What’s in the dump are the leftovers — the dregs from all of the uranium that was processed there in 1940, ’41, ’42. What that means is that the americium and other things are decaying away to radon, and it’ll be an increased amount of radon gas — which is highly radioactive and carcinogenic, being liberated — because all that heat will push the radon gasses up. [Editor’s Note: Gundersen informed EnviroNews he intended to say Americium is “decaying away to radium” in this passage.]
It’s not a meltdown, and it’s not highly enriched uranium like we have in a nuclear reactor. It’s what’s left over after they stripped out the highly enriched uranium. But there’s so much of it, and as the soil gets hot, like I said, it’s going to drive off an enormous amount of alpha emitters like radon.
Cunnings: To be frank, St. Louis has been absolutely hammered with radiation — so much so, that even the Missouri State Department of Health has even acknowledged several cancer clusters in the Coldwater Creek area that Urry mentioned in the interview.
Excerpt No. 1 From Archival KSDK (Missouri-Based NBC Affiliate) Investigative Report No. 1:
KSDK News Anchor Mike Bush: There are radioactive secrets beneath the banks and waters of a North County creek that may be linked to a staggering number of cancers, illnesses and birth defects. As the ITeam’s Leisa Zigman reports tonight, in just four square-miles there are three reported cases of conjoined twins and cancer rates that one data expert says is statistically impossible.
Former KSDK Reporter Leisa Zigman: The inviting currents of Coldwater Creek wind through miles of North County neighborhoods, parks and schools.
Karen Nickel: Why are all these people in North County sick?
Zigman: Strange coincidence? Or, was something else at play? Another classmate is now a professor of statistics at Northwestern University and she ran her own analysis. She says the likelihood of so many of her peers having cancer is .00000001 — a statistical improbability. Connected by Facebook, high school and illness, they made a startling discovery: the creek where they played as children carried a secret.
Cunnings: When the bomb rush began, the government needed a contractor that was qualified and capable of purifying uranium to the highest possible degree, and those contracts ended up going to a company named Mallinckrodt.
Excerpt No. 2 From Archival KSDB Investigative Report No. 1:
Zigman: In the 1940s Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in downtown St. Louis purified thousands of tons of uranium to make the first atomic bombs. But the process also generated enormous amounts of radioactive waste. Citing national security, the government quietly ordered the material moved to North St. Louis County in 1947.
21 acres of airport land became a dumping site where a toxic mixture of uranium, thorium and radium sat uncovered or in barrels. In the 60s government documents noted contents from the rusting barrels were seeping into nearby Coldwater Creek — and by the 90s the government confirmed unsafe levels of radioactive materials in the water.
Janelle Wright: You’re having to grasp this idea that there was something wrong that nobody knew about — our parents didn’t know.
Janelle and the 2,000 people now on her Coldwater Creek Facebook page, wonder if, over the years, they breathed in radioactive dust that blew in from the dump, or swallowed small amounts of toxic creek water.
Wright: It’s just too surreal that this many people are sick.
Zigman: Some of the same nuclear waste that contaminated Coldwater Creek, ended up at the West Lake Landfill in Earth City.
Excerpt From Archival KSDB Investigative Report #2:
Zigman: The majority of St. Louisans that get their water from the Missouri River have most likely never heard of the West Lake Landfill — but they should. Since 1973 8,000 tons of nuclear waste has been decaying at this landfill no protective liner to separate it from groundwater. As frightened homeowners plead for help, I take an in-depth look at whether the EPA’s latest assurances can be trusted.
To understand the depth’s of concern…
Crowd Member #3: It’s shameful! Shameful!
Zigman: Just look at the faces of those who wanted EPA officials to hear them.
Crowd Member #4: I am sicker than a dog.
Nickel: Autoimmune diseases, autism, Alzheimer’s….
Zigman: Karen Nickel, who battles lupus, believes she too is sick because of the nuclear waste dumped here nearly 40 years ago.
Nickel: West Lake especially is a ticking time bomb right now.
Zigman: The origins of the waste date back to the Manhattan Project and the creation of the first atomic weapons. Enormous amounts of uranium were purified at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in downtown St. Louis. The process generated piles of nuclear waste that the government sent to disposal sites near the airport. In the 70s about 8,000 tons of uranium, thorium and radium were dumped at West Lake.
Robert E. Criss, Ph.D.: There’s a high groundwater table. There’s people nearby. It’s really stupid. It’s a stupid place for it.
Zigman: But Criss, a geochemist at Washington University, says few things are as absurd as burying this waste in a substandard landfill, in a floodplain, in an urban area.
Criss: This material can kill you and you don’t even know, practically until you’re dead.
Zigman: Five years ago in 2008, the EPA decided to put a cap on the landfill and cover it with layers of clay, rock and dirt. The problem according to Criss is that this stuff gets more toxic over time, and that it lasts for billions of years.
There was such a public outcry that the EPA wasn’t moving the stuff out of Missouri, that the Agency decided to conduct more tests. The latest test, made public two weeks ago, show 25 wells are contaminated with high levels of radium.
Zigman (to EPA Official): Do you understand how alarmed the public is with this radioactive material in a floodplain in an urban area?
EPA Official (to Zigman): People are not drinking the water that has the low levels of radium at the site.
Zigman (to EPA Official): What about air? What about breathing it in?
EPA Official: The radon? Radon comes out of the ground everywhere. It’s a naturally occurring element. It does come out of the ground a little bit more from this landfill, but it dissipates pretty quickly.
Zigman: Those at this meeting were not comforted by what the EPA had to say, especially because those water samples were taken this summer during the drought — and the government paid the companies responsible for cleaning up the mess to conduct the tests.
Nickel: I guess me, just being a plain old citizen thinks, “Ok, well if you know it’s dangerous, chop chop! Get it done!”
Zigman: The EPA plans on doing more tests before issuing a final decision. One quick note about my report last night into the contamination of Coldwater Creek: The Facebook page that has been set up to collect cancer data was inundated after the story aired. In 24 hours nearly 1,000 new visitors registered on the site to learn more.
Cunnings: Mallinckrodt, one of America’s original chemical companies, ran several uranium-processing facilities around the Midwest, and was responsible for some unbelievable mucks. The West Lake Landfill is part of that toxic legacy, but the waste that was chucked by the wayside there was never supposed to have made its way into the landfill to begin with. Still, no one has ever bothered to ever clean up that part of the dump.
Excerpt From CBS News Report:
CBS News Anchor Scott Pelley: In another important story, we’ve been reporting on an unusual number of rare cancers near an old nuclear waste dump outside St. Louis. Well tonight, the folks that live nearby have a more immediate worry. There is a fire burning underground — possibly within 1,000 feet of the nuclear waste. And Vinita Nair is following this.
Karen Nickel at Public Meeting: We are sick! Our kids are sick! And we’re dying!
CBS Reporter Vinita Nair: Hundreds of people jammed into a Bridgeton union hall last night demanding to know if nuclear waste sitting in their local landfill could lead to disaster.
Crowd Member #5: We don’t go outside. We don’t open our windows.
Dawn Chapman in Crowd: You can’t 100 percent guarantee that we’re ok.
Nair: The nuclear waste was illegally dumped in the landfill in the 1970s. It was the byproduct of processing uranium for America’s nuclear weapons program. An underground fire has been slowly burning at the landfill for five years. Residents are worried the fire could ignite the nuclear material that’s about 1,000 feet away. The Environmental Protection Agency and the landfill owner, Republic Services, insist that’s not true. Russ Knocke is the company’s spokesman.
Nair (to Russ Knocke): Are you guys 100 percent sure that the underground fire will never touch the waste.
Knocke (to Nair): We are confident that the Bridgeton landfill is in a managed state.
Nair: Missouri’s Attorney General is not so confident. He is suing Republic Services saying his experts tell him it’s possible the underground burn could reach the nuclear material in three to six months.
Ed Smith, from the non-profit Missouri Coalition for the Environment, says if the underground fire meets the nuclear material, he fears an environmental emergency.
Ed Smith: It’s not some wild speculation that if there’s a fire, which will disturb the surface of the landfill, that we would see the radioactivity move offsite.
Nair: Just this month, the county notified residents of an evacuation plan in case nuclear material is released. Dawn Chapman is a mother of three who lives less than two miles from the landfill.
Chapman: How dare they come out and tell us everything’s safe when they don’t know what it is, or where it is, and how much they have.
Nair: This scenario has never happened before, so at this point there is a lot of educated guessing going on. Scott, that is little comfort to the residents here.
Cunnings: The West Lake situation has a bunch of citizens up in arms in some frightful arms in, and around, the St. Louis area.
Mixed Sound-Bites From Various Concerned St. Louis Residents (Mostly Moms):
Resident #1: We don’t know who to believe. We don’t know anything. I mean, this is scary!
Resident #2: I’m afraid of cancer. I’m afraid of my kids and grandkids getting sick and dying.
Resident #3: The cancer rates in this area are just through the roof. Our children are suffering. That’s the biggest reason I’m here, is for our children and their future.
Resident #4: I’m afraid that the fire is going to reach the radioactive material and there is going to be a disaster.
Robbin Dailey: I’m afraid of… Really, you know, I don’t know what I’m afraid of anymore. They’ve destroyed my quality of life. I still continue to be exposed to radon and benzene, as they slowly release it in the air. I have no more value in my home. So, really, I don’t have anything to fear anymore. I am a person with a cause to regain my quality of life — to regain my property value — to regain the health of my community, and that’s where I’m going to start at — with every breath I’ve got left in me — to fight for this radwaste to be removed.
Resident #5: We’ve been fighting for three years folks. Join us in the effort to clean up this radiotoxic waste from West Lake Landfill.
Resident #6: As a resident of Spanish Village — we have been dealing with this — we have been sheltering in our homes for over five years. We can’t open our windows. Our eyes burn when we walk outside. We vomit when we get out of our cars. This is what we’ve been dealing with. We know there’s something in that dirt. Where they are telling us it is at… And then they are telling us now — the Attorney General saying it’s outside the perimeter of the property. Why would it not be right there in the middle then? It didn’t jump over what’s on fire. But they won’t test it. They haven’t tested it. We don’t know what’s burning right now. We don’t know what’s going into those flares right now. We have no clue.
Mark Deitrich of St. Louis County’s Office of Emergency Management: We won’t know how far anything is going to reach, until the even happens. I mean, I understand that that’s not an answer that you want to hear.
Cole Kelley: This is not just limited to Hazelwood and Bridgeton. You’ve got highly densely populated areas of St. Louis County, and people aren’t even aware that this is existing. We are doing a disservice to the residents of St. Louis County by not educating them that this is going on. (Applause)
Resident #7: Since I moved here in June with my four children — and we are packing up and leaving in a few weeks — and everybody in my community that I have told thinks that I am crazy to believe that there’s nuclear waste next door. It needs to come from a public official. It can’t come from a Facebook page. They don’t believe it. (Applause)
Resident #8: Since I received a letter from the Orchard Farms School District… It was so vague and… Who is feeding the school district the information? It said, “there’s a hazardous waste situation.” That’s bogus. Hazardous waste can be, you know, disposable nail polish remover. This is so major.
Deitrich: It’s best to stay inside. That is the best advice that any… coming from the CDC…
State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal (to Deitrich): Are you familiar with Bhopal India?
Deitrich (to Chappelle-Nadal): Yes I am.
Chappelle-Nadal (to Deitrich): 1984. And on December 2, these people were not aware of what that chemical company was doing, and they stayed in shelter, and then tens of thousands of those people died. People still have to breathe. For you to say that shelter-in-place is the right thing to do without having any other precautious — without knowing the jet stream [and] how it’s moving — without talking to any of these first responders on how they’re going to do… [or] which neighborhood goes first… It is uncalled for and disrespectful to the people who live in this region for you to not have a better plan.
Cunnings: To the best of our knowledge, Bill Gates himself, happens to be one of the largest stockholder in Republic Services, the company that currently owns the mess.
Perhaps, Gates should consider cleaning up just this one nuclear mess, before attempting to fast-breed Paducah, Kentucky into plutonium to power the planet for the next 100 years — just a thought. You can hear more about Gates’ Paducah plan in the previous episode if you haven’t seen it yet.
Please make sure to join us tomorrow for episode four in our series, where we continue our tour of Manhattan-era nuclear nightmares that continue to threaten people in America and beyond. The next stop: Washington State’s notorious atomic dump, Hanford. Until then, I’m Josh Cunnings — signing off from the EnviroNews USA news desk.
Excerpt From the Documentary Safe Side of the Fence:
Interviewer Dick Welsch (to Paul Mitchell): They didn’t try to inform you about the potential dangerous of this stuff?
Paul Mitchell, Former Mallinckrodt Employee (to Dick Welsch): Oh no. Nobody never, ever, never, never, never… I wouldn’t have worked there, and I don’t think anybody else would. Nobody even knew what uranium was. They might as well have said they was producing coffee down there. I wouldn’t have known any difference.
Sound Bite From Public Meeting:
Karen Nickel: The best-case scenario is the fire is going to burn for five years per Republic Services. Five — more — years!
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FILM AND ARTICLE CREDITS
- Emerson Urry - Interviewer, Research Journalist, Producer, Video Editor, Sound Editor, 3D Animator, Director of Photography (News Desk), Lighting, Transcript
- Josh Cunnings - Anchor, Narrator
- Louis Ekrem - Director of Photography (Gundersen Interview), A Cam, B Cam, C Cam, Lighting (Interview)
- The Editors - Author
- Dakota Otero - Production Assistant