Is Chappelle-Nadal right when she says 'radioactive waste is killing our residents?'
On Oct. 19, a group of residents from north St. Louis County met with the Environmental Protection Agency to discuss health concerns. The town of Bridgeton is also home to the West Lake Landfill, which has been getting a lot of attention from Missouri Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal.
Chappelle-Nadal, a Democrat, has been vocal about radioactive waste problems in her district since she was first elected to the Missouri Senate back in 2010.
On Aug. 11, Chappelle-Nadal announced via a Facebook post, "Radioactive waste is killing our residents."
We wanted to see evidence of whether radioactive waste is killing residents in Bridgeton. What we found isn’t completely convincing one way or the other, so we’ll withhold a rating on the Truth-O-Meter. But our research still helps explain what’s going on.
Although Chappelle-Nadal did not respond to a request for evidence to this claim, we know she is referring to two different incidents near the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton.
The first incident is an underground fire burning within an area of the West Lake Landfill, according to a nine-page report released in 2015 by then-Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. The fire is only separated from nuclear waste by a little over 1,000 feet. The fire has been burning since 2010, and although this is an issue that has been cause for safety discussion in the past, it isn’t directly affecting any residents’ health, at least not until the fire meets any radioactive waste.
When Chappelle-Nadal discussed residents dying of cancers, she is directly referring to the residential area around the West Lake Landfill.
The site, which was historically used for agriculture, became contaminated with waste in 1973 according to a report by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Waste material, coming from Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, contained approximately 8,700 tons of leached barium sulfate cake residue. This material, mixed with 39,000 tons of soil, was disposed of at the site.
Republic Services, the waste management company that owns the landfill, said multiple times that the landfill is safe and that it has done everything the Environmental Protection Agency has asked of it.
However, residents of Bridgeton disagree. Residents of Bridgeton and EPA officials discussed the safety of the West Lake Landfill at a meeting on Oct. 19.
Residents argued the radiation exposure from the landfill was causing health issues and called for the removal of the radioactive waste, said Ed Smith, policy director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, who attended the meeting.
"The site has been determined as an EPA Superfund site, which means doing nothing will present an unacceptable risk to the public health," Smith said.
A Superfund site is an area that requires a long-term response to clean up hazardous material. These locations are placed on the EPA’s National Priorities List. As of February 2014, there were 1,322 Superfund sites nationwide, including 38 in Missouri, according to the EPA’s website.
Jeffrey Dimond, a spokesman for the registry, pointed us to an Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry report about the safety of West Lake Landfill that was released in 2015. In it, the agency "reviewed groundwater, air, and soil data from the West Lake Landfill to determine whether the site posed a threat to the health of the public."
While on-site groundwater was found to have potential effects, off-site water, the agency found, did not have a complete pathway to residential areas since the direction of the water traveled northwest. The groundwater is also not a part of public water supply. The report concluded, "Radiation in the groundwater will not harm people’s health as there is no indication that contamination is migrating off the site."
Air-related pathways presented a different result. The report found that air presents a potential pathway to residential areas. However, the agency concluded, "Although elevated, these out-door levels are not expected to cause harm to people as the levels are below the levels associated with increased lung cancer."
Soil data collected along the haul roads bordering the landfill showed no evidence of contamination along roads leading to the landfill property.
Beginning in January 2017, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, using air monitoring data, conducted weekly reports in the Bridgeton landfill area.
January reports concluded, "Gamma radiation rates continue to be indistinguishable from natural background levels and were below levels of public health concern." The same result was found in Julyof this year.
According to Benjamin Washburn, an EPA spokesperson, the agency’s primary concern is radionuclides.
"While there is no current unacceptable off-site health concerns, if individuals in the future were to be exposed to radionuclides, it could result in an increased risk of developing cancer," Washburn said.
Washburn went on to say the likelihood of cancer is based on a number of factors, which include the levels of radiation emitted, duration of exposure and distance from the source of radiation. He added that the distance between the landfill and the nearby community of Spanish Village is approximately one-half mile and the distance between Terrisan Reste mobile home park is approximately one-quarter mile from the landfill.
In 2016, a couple in Spanish Village filed a lawsuit, which prompted residents to express their health concerns. In response, EPA personnel and contractors, sampling and screening two residential homes in Spanish Village, concluded "all of the laboratory results were below EPA’s residential screening levels."
The EPA, potentially responsible parties and other government agencies have taken a number of steps to combat short-term health concerns and are in the process of developing a long-term remedial plan. A list of actions since 2008 can be found on its website.
"While there is no current unacceptable off-site health concern arising from the radiological waste contained at the West Lake Landfill, the EPA is overseeing the investigations and, ultimately, the implementation of a remedy that will protect human health and the environment over the long-term," Washburn said.
So if the area is safe, like governmental research studies claim it is, why would Chappelle-Nadal make a claim like this?
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found in a 1996-2004 cancer study for residents adjacent to the West Lake Landfill "several types of cancer were found at significantly higher incidence rates than expected, including female breast, colon, prostate and kidney."
The study also mentions, "while female breast cancer can be associated with radiation, there is minimal evidence for low to moderate level environmental radiation exposure as a risk factor share." The study concludes that higher cancer rates are more likely caused by common risk factors, such as smoking, physical inactivity, unhealthy diets and diabetes.
In an aggregate study about cancer rates in Missouri counties from 2003-2013, St. Louis County, which includes Bridgeton, contained the highest rates of cancer. St. Louis County includes Bridgeton.
So while levels of cancer are higher in this area, there is no way to tell if this is directly due to the West Lake Landfill, nor is there any way to prove higher cancer rates have anything to do with the radiation from the landfill.
Following the October meeting, EPA officials said they expect to complete a final remedy proposal in the coming months. The agency has collected reports from potentially responsible parties; the reports contain site investigations describing the extent of radiologically-impacted material. The EPA has also reviewed initial drafts of Remedial Investigation Addendum and Final Feasibility Study reports. These documents and community input are needed to support the final remedy decision. More information on draft documents can be found on the EPA’s website.
Chappelle-Nadal said, "Radioactive waste is killing our residents" in the town of Bridgeton.
West Lake Landfill is an ongoing battle among the EPA, Republic Services, Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and Bridgeton residents.While Republic Services, the owner of the landfill, and governmental studies say the air, soil and groundwater surrounding the West Lake Landfill is safe for the most part, Bridgeton residents say the area and the radiation from the landfill causes everything from asthma to cancer.
Although cancer levels are higher in the St. Louis County area which contains Bridgeton, there is no way to tell if this is due to the West Lake Landfill.