BRIDGETON (AP) - Several people who live near a suburban St. Louis landfill pushed Monday for the immediate removal of nuclear waste that's about 1,200 feet away from where an underground fire is burning.
The West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton actually includes two landfills, and underground smoldering at the Bridgeton Landfill has for several months created a foul odor so strong that Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed suit in March.
Residents spoke out at a rally and news conference Monday at a small subdivision park near the landfill, with several children and a few adults wearing protective masks to deaden the smell.
They believe the biggest danger is the smoldering trash, which sits the length of four football fields away from a second landfill that includes atomic waste from Cold War-era work done in St. Louis.
Bob Nowlin, 70, has lived in the subdivision for over half his life and raised three children there.
"We want to go back to normal living," Nowlin said. "That nuclear waste can be removed safely, and if you remove it you don't have to worry about the fire getting over to it."
Dawn Chapman of Maryland Heights, located on the other side of the landfill, called uncertainty about the future of the nuclear waste "emotional abuse."
"It's not fair to leave year after year with this fear," Chapman said. "There's a way to stop it. We want it gone."
Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Chris Whitley said the nuclear waste, dating back to the 1940s, is not endangered by the underground fire, and if the fire does move toward it, plans are in place to keep the nuclear waste from igniting.
The EPA is still weighing how best to remediate the site. An original cleanup plan called for covering the waste with rocks, clay, fill dirt and vegetation and then installing monitoring wells for groundwater.
After an outcry from residents and politicians, the agency agreed to reconsider. A new plan isn't likely until 2014 at the earliest.
Last month, state Rep. Bill Otto, a Democrat from neighboring St. Charles, called for removal of the nuclear waste, saying the public would be endangered if the atomic material caught fire because contamination could become airborne.
Experts have said if the nuclear waste caught on fire, it probably wouldn't cause an explosion, but it could create dangerous air pollution.
Organizers of the rally said they are flooding lawmakers with requests for action that would either force EPA to remove the waste or turn the matter over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
As for the lingering smell, landfill owner Republic Services last month completed work to remove concrete pipes that were allowing the smell into the air. A plastic cap to further cut down on the smell is expected to be in place by Labor Day.
The smell from the landfill has been so strong at times that residents have been hesitant to leave their homes.
"No one's playing here anymore," Lynn Leake, 52, said of the subdivision park. "Nobody will come to my house."
Air testing by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in February showed a potential short-term risk from high levels of hydrogen sulfide, and previous testing showed benzene levels near the landfill's property line that would be unhealthy with long-term exposure.