Scott Pruitt, Superfund, and Communities: A Burning Desire to Remediate the West Lake Landfill Superfund Site

, research scientist, Center for Science and Democracy | March 1, 2018, 4:36 pm EDT
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There is a smoldering fire raging beneath the Bridgeton Landfill in the St. Louis, Missouri suburb of Bridgeton. Just 750 feet away, in the adjacent West Lake Landfill, tons of radioactive material remain. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Superfund program web page describes how “In 1973, around 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate from the Manhattan Project, a World War II nuclear bomb development program, was mixed with approximately 38,000 tons of soil and used to cover trash being dumped during daily operations.” The site was listed as part of EPA’s National Priorities List in 1990.

The EPA ordered a cleanup of the site on February 1 with a release of the agency’s proposed plan for remedial activities. The partial remediation proposed would remove 67% of radioactive materials at a maximum depth of 16 feet. EPA will then install what they call a low permeability engineered cover that the agency says will “limit radon releases, protect groundwater, and be effective for at least 200 to 1,000 years.”

Nearby communities weigh in on remediation plan

There also is a fire raging in the hearts of the communities that live near this Superfund site who say they want it cleaned up now. Some residents are happy to simply have a cleanup plan proposed since the site was listed 27 years ago. Others are saying that the proposed plan isn’t good enough and should aim to remove as much radiation as possible. Some nearby residents have filed lawsuits with attempts for class action status seeking compensation for various damages they say negligent cleanup of West Lake has caused.

Local non-profit organizations, Just Moms STL and Missouri Coalition for the Environment, have expressed concerns about EPA’s proposed remediation plan. Both organizations support remedial alternative 7 in EPA’s proposed plan and reinforce requests for: 1) a voluntary relocation plan for residents living nearby, 2) off-site storage for excavated at an out-of-state licensed nuclear facility, and 3) the percentage of wastes removed to the “highest possible amount.” Dawn Chapman, a founder of Just Moms STL, said that the organization will “…stay here and watch and see it through,” referring to the ensuing years the cleanup will take. Additionally, a documentary, Atomic Homefront, recently aired on HBO chronicling the communities’ fight for a clean and safe environment (available free until March 18).

Pruitt’s priorities

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has claimed that cleaning up superfund sites is a priority for him. If Administrator Pruitt is serious about prioritizing Superfund clean-ups, then it is interesting that he hired Albert Kelly, a former banker who has been banned from the industry and has had no environmental policy experience, to lead those efforts. And while Administrator Pruitt commissioned a task force to address superfund clean-ups, he claimed that no records of deliberation among the task force existed bringing up issues of program transparency. Administrator Pruitt also has claimed to want to go “back to basics” of air and water pollution mitigation, but his actions have yet to follow. The EPA has been losing significant portions of its workforce, enforcement of air and water quality laws is down from previous administrations, and Administrator Pruitt has taken steps to undermine science-based air and water quality standards, like dismantling and dismissing EPA’s science advisory committees. West Lake is a prime example of the kind of site that should be prioritized for a clean-up, so let’s hope Administrator Pruitt keeps to his word.

Community input is needed

The Superfund program is guided by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). According to EPA’s website on CERCLA, the law does three things: 1) establishes prohibitions and requirements concerning closed and abandoned hazardous waste sites; 2) provides for liability of persons responsible for releases of hazardous waste at these sites; and 3) establishes a trust fund to provide for cleanup when no responsible party could be identified.

Also codified and emphasized in CERCLA is that EPA, which oversees the Superfund program, takes into consideration community input on proposed remediation activities to clean up hazardous sites. In fact, there is a whole section of CERCLA that describes the importance of public participation. The law reads:

Before adoption of any plan for remedial action to be undertaken by the President, by a State, or by any other person, under section 9604, 9606, 9620, or 9622 of this title, the President or State, as appropriate, shall take both of the following actions: 1) Publish a notice and brief analysis of the proposed plan and make such plan available to the public; 2) Provide a reasonable opportunity for submission of written and oral comments and an opportunity for a public meeting at or near the facility at issue regarding the proposed plan and regarding any proposed findings under section 9621(d)(4) of this title (relating to cleanup standards).

The EPA is currently taking comments on the proposed remediation plan for West Lake that will stay open until March 22, 2018. The EPA also is holding a public meeting to discuss the proposed remediation plan on March 6, 2018, 6-9pm CST at the District 9 Machinists Hall in Bridgeton, Missouri. Those living in communities near West Lake will have the opportunity to ask questions and voice their concerns about EPA’s proposed remediation plan (if you want to give testimony, contact Ben Washburn, community involvement coordinator, at 913-551-7364 or washburn.ben@epa.gov). These voices will be quintessential for determining how EPA will move forward in remediating the site. The agency should listen to these citizens who have endured 27 years living near some of the most hazardous chemicals known to mankind.

CORRECTION: The original version of this post described the fire as occurring below the West Lake Landfill itself rather than the neighboring Bridgeton Landfill. 

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