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I don’t know strontium this from thorium that from polonium the other. But people who do, tell me that the nuclear waste that Mallinckrodt Chemical Works illegally dumped at the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton in 1973 is the kind you don’t want to put on a floodplain. Eight miles upstream from the water treatment plant for all of North St. Louis County. With no liner or cap. And a levee that’s no higher than the one that the flood of ’93 breached in Chesterfield.

A group of us stood on that five foot high levee last week as Robert Criss (pictured at right), a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University, explained that most floods don’t come from overtopping but from the water finding a weak spot and pushing a passage through the lower part of the levee. He said also that “100 year floods” and “500 year floods” are practically meaningless terms, when you consider that we don’t have records going back much more than 100 years and that, anyway, we’ve built so many levees and wing dikes on the Missouri that in most spots it is half as wide as Lewis and Clark measured it–and a whole lot faster and more powerful. So a levee supposedly strong enough for a “500 year flood” is not good enough when you’re trying to keep the waters from sweeping uranium 235 into the water supply for a couple of hundred thousand people.

The other Mallinckrodt waste dump sites in St. Louis have been cleaned up or are in the process of being cleaned up, with the waste trucked out of here. But by far the worst site, the one everyone assumed would have to be dealt with first, sits there: almost 150,000 cubic yards of potential death and suffering.

The waste comes from the most powerful uranium on the planet, ore mined in the Belgian Congo, so it produces some of the most radiotoxic material there is. And Criss pointed out that it will continue to get hotter. Uranium 235 and its daughters will get ten times hotter than they started out before they begin to weaken. Criss said further that today, no one would even be allowed to dump his garbage in that landfill unless it was in a plastic bag (got to keep contaminants away from the ground water that sometimes rises high enough to touch the landfill and that finds its way to the Missouri River, don’t you know).

So why, if the powers that be wouldn’t allow unbagged trash in that landfill are they shrugging off the catastrophic potential of the hottest radioactive waste in the St. Louis area in the most precarious possible location? The answer is like something out of Catch-22. In that book, Doc Daneeka was listed on the passenger manifest of a plane that crashed. But he wasn’t actually on the plane. Rather than face a lot of inconvenient paperwork, the powers that be simply pretended that he was dead–told him he was dead, in fact, when he protested. And that’s sort of what happened to West Lake. It didn’t officially exist when it needed to.

Remember that Mallinckrodt dumped that waste illegally. The site was unlicensed. So now, all the licensed sites have been cleaned up or are in the process. They were part of a package that was transferred from the Department of Energy, which was doing a crappy job of cleanup, to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is–I kid you not–doing a better job. If West Lake is going to be cleaned up–and it MUST be–it will have to be transferred from the EPA to the Corps.

Because the EPA is doing nothing.

With a finger in each ear and its eyes tight shut, it shouts la la la la la when anybody complains about the site. And Senator McCaskill trusts what the EPA tells her. Her form letter on the issue says:

As you know, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided to build a multi-layered cover over the radioactive waste in the West Lake landfill rather than remove it. This was not an easy decision, but it was considered to be the safest option at this time. The EPA has assured me that the Department will use the best available technology to ensure area water sources are protected. Additionally, the EPA will place monitors in and around the contained area so that any changes in the site can be quickly identified.

Mmmm. And the waste will be rushed off to Utah if a 500 year flood gives us five years worth of warning that it’s coming? Not good enough, thinks Robert Lowery, mayor of Florissant, the largest municipality in the County. (Lowery is pictured at left with activist Kay Drey and Councilman Keith English.) His city is downstream from West Lake, and the highest priority of his administration is to get authority over West Lake transferred from the EPA to the Army Corps of Engineers. He stresses that there is no evidence that the landfill is adversely affecting the water supply, but he sweats bullets over the possibility of a flood breaching that levee. Smart man.

With that concern always before him, he has already been in touch with both our senators and all of the St. Louis area Representatives in Congress. He plans to travel to D.C. to lobby for transferring authority over West Lake from the EPA to the Corps of Engineers.

Wish him luck. Better yet, call McCaskill and Bond. Bond might well listen to reason on this one. And then, if you live in St. Louis, call your representative.