WhoWhatWhy reporter Dan Mika discusses his recent article on an underground fire in a landfill that also holds Manhattan Project-era nuclear waste on national radio.
Did you read WhoWhatWhy’s article on a scary underground fire at a landfill that also contains tons of atomic waste? The author, Dan Mika, one of our apprentice reporters, was interviewed on the Thom Hartmann program. You can listen here.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Dan Mika (WhoWhatWhy), View of Perimeter Sump and Toe Drain Installed. (EPA.gov)
Danielle: Welcome back to the Thom Hartmann Program. I’m Danielle, here with Dan Mika sitting in for Thom today. Thom’s on his way to Minneapolis for the 12th annual blue state ball and check it out at am950radio.com. In the meantime, we are joined by Dan Mika contributor at whowhatwhy.org, which you can check out at whowhatwhy.org, about Dan’s great article about landfill fire creeps toward buried tons of atomic waste. Talk about things that should be getting more attention. Dan, thank you so much for joining us.
Dan: Thanks for having me, Danielle.
Danielle: So I doubt many people listening are familiar with this landfill fire that is a stunning story all on its own, but also the fact that it’s creeping towards nuclear waste. Can you explain the setup here and what’s going on in Missouri?
Dan: Sure, just a disclaimer, in this story I might get a little too technical, so if I do, you can reel me back.
Danielle: We’ll pull you back, so it’s OK.
Dan: Since 2010, an underground fire which is just another term for a subsurface reaction, which essentially is not an open fire but it’s basically a very large amount of heat that’s just burning up trash and is self-sustained because it is located underneath a landfill.
Danielle: Kind of like smoldering underground.
Dan: Yes, exactly like that, has been burning since about 2010 and local residents have been complaining about it for quite some time because as you can imagine it doesn’t smell very good. They’ve been reporting a lot of respiratory illnesses, nosebleeds, since that time. And later on they discovered that some time in the last century a company that worked with the Manhattan Project to produce radioactive material illegally dumped a couple thousand hundred of the material underneath the Westlake landfill which is a couple hundred yards north of where the subsurface reaction is.
Danielle: So, this area Bridgeton, Missouri, it’s kind of near St. Louis, you have a community there, number one finds out, “Hey, there’s a bunch of nuclear waste underneath you,” and then there’s also this underground fire that is creeping or possibly has already reached that nuclear material. Is that a quick summary?
Dan: Ah, yes, it hasn’t reached the waste yet but the attorney general, Chris Koster, is currently suing Republic Services which is the owner of the Bridgeton landfill. He is saying that the underground reaction is moving towards the waste.
Danielle: So what’s being done? I mean you would think that a problem like this would be getting national attention, having an immediate response, but it seems like as far as I can find you’re the only one reporting about this, Dan.
Dan: I’m certainly not the Alpha and the Omega of reporting. This story has been covered locally since 2010 and it’s going to keep going until either the waste is capped, which is what landowners and several other supporters of the landfill want to do. Or until it is removed, which would probably require the Army Corps of Engineers to take over the site, extract the waste and remove it from the community.
Danielle: And there’s a whole organization devoted to fighting the removal of that nuclear waste, which of course is one of these very conveniently named organizations. I’m trying to find it here in your reporting.
Dan: ‘The Coalition to Keep Us Safe’.
Danielle: Yes, The Coalition to Keep Us Safe, is the group that doesn’t want to clear up the nuclear waste that’s almost on fire, just so we’re clear.
Dan: Yes, and on its website it openly says that it’s supported by Bridgeton landfill LPC which is the subsidiary of Republic Services.
Danielle: I’m shocked. Not really. Just a reminder, we’re speaking with Dan Mika contributor of whowhatwhy.org which you can check out at whowhatwhy.org about this amazing story of a landfill fire creeping toward buried tons of atomic waste. Now, Missouri’s been in the news a lot in the recent year, couple years here. We’ve talked about Ferguson. We talked about St. Louis, the tension in those areas, the type of economic depression, the racial tensions etc. What’s the makeup of this community? I’m curious if you happen to know if this is a poor neighborhood, rich neighborhood, you know any economic or socioeconomic information about?
Dan: It’s the northern suburb of St. Louis County. It’s not too far from Ferguson, but Bridgeton itself is a pretty diverse neighborhood, pretty middle-class.
Danielle: OK, so do you think that this would be getting more of a response from the state legislators or perhaps even the national legislators if this was say a really wealthy predominantly white suburb?
Dan: I can’t speak on behalf of the state legislature or Congress, but I can tell you that there are some efforts both at the state level and national level. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, the state senator from the area, this year introduced a bill that would allow homeowners in that area to sell their homes to the state at fair market value if they want to. And also at the national level, Missouri is not known for its bipartisanship at any level, but at the senate level, Democrat Claire McCaskill, and Republican Roy Blunt, recently cosponsored and passed a bill that at the national level would send the Bridgeton landfill under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers. And right now that’s at the House.
Danielle: Awesome, so people can call their representatives and ask for this legislation to be considered and passed.
Dan: Yes, and the same bill on the House side is also sponsored by William Clay, a Democrat from St. Louis, and Ann Wagner who’s also from St. Louis County, the St. Louis area. So this does have bipartisan support in Congress.
Danielle: How in your experience, how are people living in the community dealing with this problem? I can imagine just on its own, an underground landfill fire seems like a pretty big health hazard. Is anything being done to help the community deal with health adverse effects or to protect them from the radioactive particles that you say has been detected in the air and water and surrounding trees?
Dan: Like I mentioned before, the Attorney General Chris Koster currently has a lawsuit against Republic Services wanting an injunction, injunctive relief, and he has sent a letter to Congress requesting that they approve that the landfill goes under control of the Army Corps of Engineers. But right now the problem with an underground fire, the subsurface reaction, is that you cannot put it out with water and since it’s so far underground and producing so much dust that if you try to essentially excavate it, and tried to put it out there, you’re going to release more particles into the atmosphere. So right now it’s a very sad situation with the residents of Bridgeton and I have to commend them. I was speaking with Dawn Chapman who is in the story. She’s one of the cofounders of Just Moms STL which is one of the groups that’s very vocal about this situation and she said that a lot of people do want to move but she said personally she doesn’t because at some point someone has to deal with it, and if she moves she’s just passing off the keys to somebody else.
Danielle: And, I would also be very suspicious of the government deciding fair market value there, which is often what happens in those kind of, “You know, we’re to pay you for your homes.” But it’s something that we should all be aware of because there’s these type of landfills all over the place, and Dan, I commend you for your great reporting on this that everyone else seems to be ignoring.
Dan: OK, thank you very much Danielle, and I just want to remind your listeners you can catch all our stories at whowhatwhy.org.
Danielle: Perfect. Dan Mika. We’ll be back with more.