Underground fire creeps towards nuclear waste site

Original story from news.com.au Oct 12 2015

BENEATH the surface of a US landfill lurk two things that should never meet: a slow-burning fire and a cache of Cold War-era nuclear waste, separated by no more than 365 metres.

Government officials in Missouri have quietly adopted an emergency plan in case the smouldering embers ever reach the waste, a potentially “catastrophic event” that could send up a plume of radioactive smoke over a densely populated area near the city’s main airport.

Although the fire at Bridgeton Landfill, near St. Louis has been burning since at least 2010, the plan for a worst-case scenario was developed only a year ago and never publicised until last week, when St. Louis radio station KMOX first obtained a copy.

County Executive Steve Stenger cautioned that the plan “is not an indication of any imminent danger.”

“It is county government’s responsibility to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of all St. Louis County residents,” he said in a statement.

Landfill operator Republic Services downplayed any risk.

Interceptor wells — underground structures that capture below-surface gasses — and other safeguards are in place to keep the fire and the nuclear waste separate.

“County officials and emergency managers have an obligation to plan for various scenarios, even very remote ones,” landfill spokesman Russ Knocke said in a statement. The landfill “is safe and intensively monitored.”

The cause of the fire is unknown. For years, the most immediate concern has been an odour created by the smouldering. Republic Services is spending millions of dollars to ease or eliminate the smell by removing concrete pipes that allowed the odour to escape and installing plastic caps over parts of the landfill.

Directly next to Bridgeton Landfill is West Lake Landfill, also owned by Republic Services. The West Lake facility was contaminated with radioactive waste from uranium processing by a St. Louis company known as Mallinckrodt Chemical. The waste was illegally dumped in 1973 and includes material that dates back to the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bomb in the 1940s.

The Environmental Protection Agency is still deciding how to clean up the waste. The landfill was designated a Superfund site in 1990.

The proximity of the two environmental hazards is what worries residents and environmentalists. At the closest point, they are 1,000 to 1,200 feet apart.

If the underground fire reaches the waste, “there is a potential for radioactive fallout to be released in the smoke plume and spread throughout the region,” according to the disaster plan.

The plan calls for evacuations and development of emergency shelters, both in St. Louis County and neighbouring St. Charles County. Private and volunteer groups, and perhaps the federal government, would be called upon to help, depending on the severity of the emergency.

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