Publication / Inside EPA
December 20, 2013
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Groundwater Study At Key Nuclear Site Raises Questions About EPAPlan

New groundwater monitoring data from a high-profile Superfund site with radioactive contamination appears to show migration of the contamination, potentially giving weight to environmentalists’ calls for a more comprehensive cleanup plan although EPA Region VII continues to emphasize the buried waste poses no current threat to public health and safety.

Region VII officials Dec. 16 discussed the results from the third round of groundwater testing at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, MO, with members of the site’s Community Advisory Group, and shared preliminary results from gamma cone penetrometer testing (GCPT), which is used to determine if buried radioactive material in the landfill is causing readings above background levels. Relevant documents are available on InsideEPA.com. (Doc ID: 2456366)

EPA requested that the potentially responsible parties (PRPs) at the site conduct additional groundwater testing as part of the agency’s reconsideration of a controversial 2008 cleanup plan to cap in place the Manhattan Project-era waste contaminated with radium-226. The additional studies were recommended by the agency’s National Remedy Review Board, an internal peer review group that aims to ensure consistent EPA cleanup decisions nationwide and which has urged EPA to explore removing the highest level radioactive material while leaving lower level waste in place and under a cap (Superfund Report, Oct. 29, 2012). The PRPs are Cotter Corp., Laidlaw Waste Systems, Rock Road Industries and the Department of Energy (DOE).

Environmentalists have long called for all the radioactive waste to be removed from the site, arguing that leaving the waste in place would set a bad precedent for nuclear waste disposal standards. And they are pointing to the new report’s findings indicating migration of radium-contaminated groundwater in their ongoing push for additional cleanup. The two earlier PRP reports found no evidence of increased groundwater movement or public health risks.

The December 2013 groundwater report includes data showing the levels of radium-226 and radium-228 in tested wells have changed from earlier sampling, signifying movement of the groundwater. More than 20 of the tested wells have radium levels above the maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 5 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), with some levels up to six times the MCL.

EPA officials at the Dec. 16 meeting acknowledged the data suggest movement of the contaminated groundwater and said they are seeking advice from the U.S. Geological Survey on how to interpret the results, an environmentalist present at the meeting says.

“Water seems to be moving is what these tests say to me,” the environmentalist says. “For the last round of tests [EPA] said that things seem to be in place. This time around they expressly said they noticed the same things we noticed and they have questions regarding the movements taking place in the groundwater.”

State officials have also raised concerns about the GCPT data, with Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster calling onEPA in a Nov. 27 letter to conduct a comprehensive survey of the site to determine with certainty the boundary lines for encompassing the radioactive material. Koster says the preliminary data “suggest the presence of higher-than-background-level radioactivity at depths outside the area where previous maps represented the radioactive material was located.”

Knowing the precise boundary locations is necessary for the correct installation of engineering controls, including an isolation barrier to separate the radioactive material in the now-closed West Lake Landfill and a “smoldering event” at the active Bridgeton Landfill across the street, Koster says.

Region VII Administrator Karl Brooks responded in a Nov. 29 letter that the agency has ordered the PRPs to conduct a more comprehensive engineering survey but emphasized the preliminary data do not change EPA’s “assessment that the buried waste does not currently pose a threat to public health and safety” because the material is many feet below the surface, is in a secured portion of the site and workers follow proper safety procedures.

Meanwhile, environmentalists have released their own report, prepared by Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies, that says site data suggest EPA “erred” in its 2008 decision to keep the waste in place instead of moving it to an off-site location.

Conducted at the behest of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, the Nov. 21 report calls West Lake a “defacto nuclear waste disposal site” and focuses on the harmful presence of thorium-230, which the National Academy of Sciences has said is 20 times more carcinogenic than x-rays.

More thorium exists at the site “than any other U.S. Nuclear weapons storage or disposal site,” the report says. It adds that the waste has the potential for mobility due to groundwater fluctuation and calls on EPA to remove the material.

Elected officials have also expressed their concerns about the toxicity and safety hazards posed by the West Lake Landfill site. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO) separately wrote letters in the summer to Brooks and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, respectively.

McCaskill’s concerns surrounded the “lengthy delay” in carrying out a final plan of remediation at the site and asked EPAto establish a firm time line. EPA responded to McCaskill in an Aug. 23 letter saying it could not provide a precise time line at this point.

Clay’s letter to McCarthy voiced his concerns about the current state of West Lake — which he said is not capped, is unlined and topped with soil that “routinely blows away with wind.” — and included a petition to EPA asking the agency to transfer control of the West Lake remediation process to the Army Corps of Engineers under the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP), pending approval from DOE.

Environmentalists have pushed for the Army Corps of Engineers to take over the cleanup, arguing that the agency is better able to handle the site because it has cleaned up several nuclear waste sites in the St. Louis area. Democratic lawmakers in the state House and Senate proposed resolutions urging the Corps to assume responsibility for the cleanup, but neither effort made it out of committee before the legislative session ended in May.

Informed sources say the only way for the West Lake cleanup to be transferred to Army Corps is by congressional directive or at the request of DOE, both of which they say is highly unlikely.