Burning Hot in Bridgeton

Chances are if you live in or around St. Louis, you’ve heard of the West Lake Landfill. It’s the landfill that’s only a stone’s throw from the airport, lying adjacent to the Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill. The latter has become notorious for its ominous proximity to West Lake, its persistent noxious smell, and its smoldering underground fires which occasionally break to the surface as one did last Sunday, February 18. Chances are if you don’t live in North County or the Bridgeton area, you have little to no idea as to why there’s such a big fuss over a smell (Why can’t they just get rid of this?)…or the fires (Can’t they just remove parts of the landfill to get to the source of the fire and put it out?).

Be Concerned…Very Concerned

You should know. You should be concerned… very concerned because this 21-acre hellhole potentially threatens the health and well being not only of the residents living nearby, but you, your family and some 300,000 other people whose drinking water comes from an intake valve in the Missouri River located just eight miles from the landfill.

A Nuclear Legacy

To understand what the West Lake Landfill is and why it should be of paramount importance to every St. Louis citizen, I need to give some historical context, a story whose origins date back to the early days  of World War II.

In April 1942, the U.S. government sought to secure a company capable of purifying uranium for the production of an atomic bomb. The government had already approached three companies, all of which had declined, deeming the project too risky. Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis proved to be different. The company, then known for its production of chemicals used primarily in pharmaceuticals, signaled that it was eager to take on the challenge, but first wanted assurance from the government that it would be held harmless if/when employees got sick since the dangers of radiation were roughly known at the time. The federal government gave Mallinckrodt its solemn promise.

The work of processing uranium commenced immediately. Less than eight months later, Enrico Fermi used the uranium to trigger the first self-sustained nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago, proving the possibility of an atomic bomb. Thus began the legacy of the nuclear age in St. Louis and beyond. Although workers at Mallinckrodt were unaware of the greater implications of their work, they were to learn of its significance on August 7, 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The workers were heralded as local heroes and received medals from War Secretary Henry Stinson, a token of the government’s appreciation for their role in ending the war. Proud of their accomplishments, the workers shared a sense of elation approaching family pride.

Decades later, these workers would be bound together again, this time by a more insidious set of circumstances: high rates of cancer, birth defects, unexplained illnesses and premature death, the result of having been exposed to high levels of radiation while working at Mallinckrodt.

Enough Radioactive Material to Fill the Cardinals Stadium

After the war wound down, Mallinckrodt was faced with the dilemma of what to do with all the radioactive waste it had generated in purifying massive amounts of uranium. The company turned to the U.S. government for help. Citing security concerns, the U.S. government ordered the material to be quietly moved to various sites around St. Louis, eventually to include West Lake which sits high on the wet floodplains of the Missouri River, near Lambert Airport. There, it was dumped without any sort of protection, uncovered and in barrels that would eventually corrode, allowing a poisonous, smoldering stew of uranium, thorium, and radium to seep out and begin slowly streaming towards the Missouri River. “It’s wet, high groundwater table, people nearby. It’s really stupid. It’s a stupid place for it,” said Dr. Robert E. Criss, a geochemist at Washington University. He added, “There is no geological site I can think of that is more absurd to place such waste.”

Just how much radioactive waste did the U.S. government dump? One estimate puts the estimate  at 2.3 million cubic yards—a space big enough to fill the City’s 47,000-seat baseball stadium.

By 1990, the U.S. government confirmed that unsafe levels of radioactive waste had been found in Coldwater Creek, adjacent to West Lake. In December 2010, a subterranean fire was detected smoldering in the Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill, right next to West Lake. The fire began catching the attention of nearby residents with its obnoxious, putrid smell that could be detected as far away as three miles. Testing performed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recorded rising temperatures due to the underground fire only 1,200 feet away from the radioactive wastes. Soon after, prodding by local media moved the DNR to begin air testing at the site and in the community. Results showed increased levels of benzene, a known carcinogen and hydrogen sulfide, a neurotoxin.

Impossible, Heart-Wrenching Odds

The concerns didn’t stop there. People who had grown up in the vicinity of the West Lake Landfill and Coldwater Creek began exchanging their personal health histories through Facebook. Data compiled in 2013 revealed staggering rates of cancer, autoimmune disorders and birth defects, including three sets of conjoined twins, rates that  that one data expert says are statistically impossible.

62 brain cancer cases
27 leukemia cases
26 lung cancer cases
24 multiple sclerosis cases
15 lymphoma cases
10 pancreatic cancer cases
3 conjoined twins

The survey also found a preponderance of auto immune disorders, including a high incidence of MS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, as well as 38 cases of appendix cancer, one of the rarest forms of cancer. Fewer than a thousand people in the U.S. are diagnosed with appendix cancer each year, and a cluster of 38 within a small area is unheard of.

So, Do Something!

So, all of this begs the obvious question: “Why don’t officials simply remove the waste?” That’s easier said than done. Radioactive waste becomes more potent as it decays, disintegrating into highly radioactive sub-particles with half-lives measured in millions and billions of years. Any action taken to remove the waste would have to be done extremely carefully to ensure that invisible radioactive waste was not spread in the process.

Currently, the Environment Protection Agency is tasked with the responsibility of what to do with this horrific mess. After a fire broke out at the Bridgeton Landfill on February 18th, 2014, area residents announced that they are taking matters into their own hands and raising money for their own radiation monitors. They are also demanding renewed government attention be given to the landfill.  Many would like to see the responsibility for the removal of waste to be transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has cleaned up several smaller radiologically contaminated sites in the metro area.

In response, Karl Brooks, Regional Administrator for the EPA’s Region 7 in Lenexa, Kansas, says the EPA cannot simply “hand off” West Lake to the Corps. That, he says, would require congressional action.  In a letter to the  St. Louis Post Dispatch on February 20, 2014, Brooks said that while the EPA cannot promise swift action, this fact remains true:

Scientific evidence shows no one living or working around West Lake is experiencing harmful exposures to its hazardous contaminants, including the radiologically contaminated materials, because the EPA has securely contained them.

Somehow, his assurances fell flat, sounding awfully cruel in light of growing evidence to the contrary.

Consult with a Top Trial Lawyer

The legacy of nuclear manufacturing and waste disposal in St. Louis and elsewhere in this country illustrates the tragic consequences wrought by decades of careless nuclear waste management, negligible governmental oversight of dumping sites, reckless containment practices and slipshod  transportation practices. In the wake of this uncontained trail of contaminants lie despoiled ecosystems and sickened people, unmoved by official denials that  the poisonous mess lying in their backyard has been secured and no one has been harmed.

If you or a loved one has been sickened or died due to exposure to harmful waste, please give our legal team a call to discuss your legal options. You will find our personal injury attorneys to be compassionate, knowledgeable about this subject, and aggressive in our commitment to get you the long overdue justice that you and your loved one deserve. Call us at 314-409-7060 or 855-40-CRASH (toll free).

Christopher Dixon

Personal Injury Attorney at The Dixon Injury Firm
Christopher R. Dixon is the managing attorney and founder of The Dixon Injury Firm. The Dixon Injury Firm has helped injury victims recover over $35,000,000 through verdicts, settlements and judgments. Chris is recognized as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers Association, and among their Top 40 Under 40 Trial Attorneys. Recognized as a Lifetime Member of Million Dollar Advocates Forum, Chris aggressively fights for those injured through the careless, negligent and intentional conduct of others. Call today for a FREE consultation by calling 314-409-7060 or toll-free 855-402-7274.

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