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Suburban St. Louis Feels Ground Burning Beneath Its Feet, Worries Missouri Nuclear Waste Dump Ready to Explode

Suburban St. Louis residents say it is time for President Obama to take responsibility for a nuclear waste mess left in their neighborhoods by the federal government before it’s too late and the whole thing burns, or worse.

They are clamoring for the EPA to stop studying a 200-degree Fahrenheit underground landfill fire that could be moving dangerously close to 50,000 tons of highly radiotoxic, uncontained nuclear waste from the World War II Manhattan Project in St. Louis County, Mo.

The time for study, they say, is over. They want action.

Chris Nagel, the director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources Solid Waste Management Program, released a study Aug. 10 that showed the inferno is burning hotter, sucking up more oxygen, and moving dangerously close to the nuclear waste.

To make matters even worse, the report shows that material from another landfill seems to be sinking into the patch of the “subsurface smoldering,” as Nagel’s team described it.

The study calls on Republic to take immediate action to quell the flames.

It’s not like Republic Services, which operates the burning landfill, is ignoring the situation. The company has already invested $100 million in trying to contain the smoldering, to no avail.

“I applaud them for trying,” Dawn Chapman told KSDK-TV. She’s leading a local watchdog group, Just Moms STL. “But I will say this, everything they’ve tried so far has ended up failing at this landfill.”

The company has another 30 days to come up with a new plan.

This is all making people who live in the area very nervous. Who can blame them? An underground fire is creeping beneath their homes, schools and businesses, and it’s aimed straight at a burial ground for radioactive waste.

Chapman can’t believe the Missouri DNR is giving Republic another chance. What comes after Plan B? Plan C?

“We should have plan B, C, and D ready to go, ready to implement,” she said.

But, could it be that Chapman and her fellow STL Moms are getting all bent out of shape over nothing? Republic Services released a statement denying there is a problem and disagreeing with the Missouri DNR’s conclusion.

“There are no changed conditions or problems in the North Quarry. The overwhelming evidence indicates that the reaction’s movement is in the opposite direction. We believe some of these requests are inspired by the timing of the State’s ongoing litigation. Our response will be in writing. We expect to agree to the things that make sense, and plan to communicate with them about the ones that do not.”

This is hardly a new problem for people who live near the landfill that is the source of the underground smoldering. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster first filed suit in 2013 against Republic because of fire and odor problems.

It had already been burning for two years when Koster filed suit.

“Our goal is no longer to find the most cost-effective solution,” Koster said, “My goal in coming in with this lawsuit is to find the solution no matter the cost.”

It wasn’t only the smoldering, which is estimated to be moving at a rate of approximately 25 feet per month, that bothered Koster.

“It basically smells like burnt hair or burnt plastic,” he said.

And it still does.

Two years of legal action and $100 million of Republic Services investment have failed to stop the smoldering, which is still moving toward the nuclear waste. If the DNR report is correct, it is moving even faster than it was when Koster filed suit in 2013.

The stench of burning hair and plastic could be the least of the problems facing people who can almost feel the ground burning under their feet. Who knows what could happen if the fire hits the nuclear waste?

Firefighter Matt LaVanchy told a local radio station, KTRS, the fire could be less than 1,000 feet away from the radioactive waste. If the two come together, he is afraid it could be a disaster.

“There’s a possibility, the potential, of radioactive material being carried away by the result of the smoldering or the combustion event,” he said.

Maybe that isn’t even the worst-case scenario. What if there is a flood or a tornado or an earthquake?

A spokesman for the EPA’s Region 7, Chris Whitley, is urging everyone to say calm. As he explained it, underground smoldering associated with a landfill is not uncommon. It happens.

He also said the EPA is on it.

“We absolutely understand their frustrations,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But it boils down to this: good science takes time, and it cannot be rushed.”

Dawn Chapman understands the EPA is on it. That is part of the problem. The EPA has been studying this troublesome landfill and the radioactive waste that was dumped illegally in the suburbs of St. Louis for 25 years.

How much time does good science take? She wants President Obama to direct the Army Corps of Engineers to take over.

“We are witness to a train wreck in slow motion that could have far-reaching negative consequences for the entire region,” Chapman wrote in a column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

She believes it is the commander in chief’s responsibility to deal with this nuclear waste mess, which after all was left by the DoD. Should not they clean it up?

“The Department of Energy, EPA, and the Department of Defense are all under the White House…the site must be dealt with in a holistic manner,” she wrote.

Attorney General Koster is also upset with the EPA’s slow pace of work. He, too, wants the Army Corps of Engineers to take over the project.

“The whole problem is we’re getting trapped in a federal bureaucratic Rube Goldberg machine and we’re not seeing the kind of progress we want to be seeing, so I don’t want to throw us in another federal contraption,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Mike Petersen, a spokesman for the Army Corps, appreciates the trust and faith of Koster, Chapman and everyone else in suburban St. Louis.

However, Peterson pointed out, “We are not funded for a project of that scope.”