Nation & World

EPA orders cleanup at St. Louis nuclear waste site

What does it mean for the nation's other toxic messes?

(File photo) Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, answers a question during the Concordia Summit in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 19, 2017. (REUTERS/Jeenah Moon)
(File photo) Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, answers a question during the Concordia Summit in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 19, 2017. (REUTERS/Jeenah Moon)

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday ordered a long-awaited cleanup of a Superfund site northwest of St. Louis, saying residents living near the landfill contaminated with World War II-era nuclear waste deserve action after waiting 27 years for federal regulators to issue a decision.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to partially excavate tons of radioactive material from the West Lake Landfill over the next five years — at an expected cost of $236 million to the liable companies — goes beyond a 2008 solution proposed by the George W. Bush administration to merely cover and monitor the waste.

“The people of the St. Louis region deserve clarity and answers,” Pruitt said in a statement Thursday. “I promised them an answer, and today I am making good on that commitment.” He added that he sought a remedy at the controversial site that would “protect public health, comply with the law, and hold potentially responsible parties accountable.”

Thursday’s announcement also was intended to be Exhibit A in demonstrating Pruitt’s commitment to revitalizing the agency’s Superfund program, which includes the nation’s most polluted sites, by streamlining and accelerating cleanups. Few sites have easy answers, but nearly all draw intense emotions, as seen in the fast reaction of some residents in the West Lake area.

“Partial removal is a partial solution. In fact, it’s not a solution at all,” said Dawn Chapman, co-founder of Just Moms, an activist group that has long pushed for an extensive excavation and relocation of families near the landfill. “It makes no sense to remove some of the waste while leaving some behind. We are no closer to a safe and permanent solution than we were 28 years ago.”

Pruitt’s order goes beyond the action sought by Republic Services and Exelon Corp., the firms on the hook for the cleanup. They have argued that the EPA’s own science shows capping the waste is the safer option and that excavating the toxic material could create serious public health risks. Yet the companies were likely relieved Thursday. The $236 million price tag is significantly higher than what they had hoped to spend but well below the cost, projected at nearly $700 million, of a full excavation. Neither company issued an immediate comment.

What remains to be seen is whether the decision on West Lake represents how Pruitt is likely to approach other Superfund sites or it is merely an outlier.

In recent months, Pruitt has promised aggressive Superfund cleanups and made a public show of butting heads with corporate interests — something he has rarely done on other issues during his first year at EPA. But aside from creating a list of 21 targets needing “immediate and intense” attention, as well as forming a special task force to recommend ways to expedite cleanups and “reduce the burden” on companies involved, Pruitt has explained very little about how he intends to deal with the hundreds of other toxic waste sites around the country.

“What’s the plan for the other sites that aren’t on [Pruitt’s] priority list?” asked Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. She said Pruitt’s decision at West Lake might be “a positive step” but added, “It raises the question of whether Superfund is being used to showcase a few projects without actually doing more to clean up contamination at all 1,300 [Superfund] sites.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has proposed cutting the Superfund program’s budget by 30 percent, or about $330 million annually. And while there are responsible companies that EPA can legally force to pay for cleanups at many of the locations Pruitt has mentioned, many others are “orphan” sites where the polluters have gone bankrupt or are no longer legally liable for remedying the problem. At those, the federal government still shoulders most of the tab — and the pot of available dollars keeps shrinking.

“I am concerned about orphan sites across the country in the Superfund portfolio,” Pruitt told lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week. “I think there are greater challenges beyond money. But money matters in that side of our responsibilities.”

Pruitt highlighted West Lake early in his tenure at EPA.

“The past administration honestly just didn’t pay attention to [it],” he insisted on a local radio show in April. “We’re going to get things done at West Lake. The days of talking are over.” In May, Pruitt took to television to say a plan was coming “very soon.”

Eight months have passed since then. But families in the shadow of West Lake, which was added to the Superfund program in 1990, are no strangers to waiting. The site’s 200 acres include not just the radioactive waste illegally dumped in 1973 but also a former sanitary landfill. Decomposing trash is smoldering underground in what scientists call a “subsurface burning event.” There have been ongoing concerns about the fire reaching the radioactive waste, though the companies there have taken numerous steps to prevent that.

Over the years, local residents have complained of quality-of-life and health problems, from a periodic stench in the air to anecdotal tales of cancers, autoimmune disorders and miscarriages in adjacent neighborhoods. At the same time, numerous air, water and soil tests from the EPA and other government agencies have shown no link to such conditions.

Pruitt’s plan will now be open for a period of public comment before it is finalized.

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