Radium in groundwater near West Lake Landfill in St. Louis County forces more testing

The West Lake Landfill in St. Louis County, Missouri, is a Superfund site that contains thousands of tons of nuclear waste and byproducts from World War II-era atomic bomb development efforts. The landfill, originally a municipal landfill, is located in Bridgeton, approximately a mile from the banks of the Missouri River.

In a recent update to nearby communities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported the detection of contamination in nearby groundwater, prompting an investigation into potential radium migration from the site. As a result, the EPA has expanded its groundwater monitoring network around the landfill to determine the extent of the contamination and its potential movement towards the Missouri River.

The EPA initially anticipated installing all necessary groundwater wells by August 2022, but further investigations and detections of contamination at offsite locations required a significant expansion of the monitoring network. The process is ongoing as the EPA seeks to delineate the edges of the impacts.

St. Louis was a significant player in the development of the world’s first atomic bomb in the 1940s. Uranium refined in downtown St. Louis was used in experiments in Chicago as part of the Manhattan Project, the World War II-era nuclear weapons program. After the war, radioactive waste from the downtown uranium plants was illegally dumped at the West Lake Landfill, remaining there for decades.

Before reaching West Lake, the waste had been stored at the St. Louis airport, with some spilling off trucks en route and contaminating Coldwater Creek. The waste was later moved to a property in nearby Hazlewood, still adjacent to the creek. In the early 1970s, valuable metals were extracted from the waste, after which it was trucked to the West Lake Landfill and dumped illegally.

Dawn Chapman, a co-founder of Just Moms STL, a nonprofit advocating for communities near contaminated sites around St. Louis, expressed concern about the EPA’s lack of clarity regarding the edges of the contamination. Given the radioactive waste and other chemical contaminants in the landfill, Chapman fears the contamination could form a “one hell of a nasty plume.”

The parties responsible for the site – the landfill’s owner, the company that dumped the waste, and the U.S. Department of Energy – are nearing the end of the process to plan the cleanup at West Lake. Chapman hoped that, by now, the EPA would have determined the edges of the contamination. The story is published under the Creative Commons license by the Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics, and policy.

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