Landfill reaction physically impossible, owner says

Republic Services says it understands why people feel a responsibility to prepare, but they say the feared event is a physical impossibility.

BRIDGETON, Mo. -- It has hundreds of families living in fear and school districts preparing for nuclear emergencies.

But on Tuesday, the owner of two controversial landfills in north St. Louis County said there is no reason to be alarmed.

"The one thing we are certain of is Bridgeton Landfill is in a managed state. It is safe," said Russ Knocke, the vice president for communications and public affairs at Republic Services.

The Arizona-based company acquired the landfill and its neighboring property, West Lake Landfill, in 2008.

Neither of them were accepting commercial or residential waste at the time. And according to Knocke, the site hasn't generated any income for the company since.

"We've never once generated a dollar on this site," he said.

But in December 2010, a chemical reaction began smoldering underneath the Bridgeton facility. To this day, its exact cause is a mystery.

"Reactions are relatively new to the industry," said Knocke. "They've been occurring in a few locations over the last decade or so. Today no one could state with certainty how it started or why it started."



What is known is that it has continued to smolder and spread at a rate of six inches a day in a counterclockwise direction.

Knocke said at its closest point in 2013, the reaction came within 1,200 feet of radioactive waste at West Lake Landfill.

Tuesday, he saidd the smoldering event is 60 to 150 feet below the surface and approximately 2,500 feet away from the waste.

"It is simply not true the notion that the reaction is 1,000 or 1,200 feet away in distance from known radiological material," he said.

Many activists and neighbors have continued to claim the reaction is much closer and could be weeks away from reacting with the waste.

Such claims were initially laid out by Missouri's attorney general in reports produced for litigation against Republic. The same reports also alleged radioactive material was found outside West Lake's perimeter.

But Knocke said state experts have since reserved their findings under oath.

"This site is intensely scrutinized and monitored and everyone has concluded that it is safe. There is no risk to public health," he said.

Knocke said Republic Services has invested more than $150 million over the last two years to track and isolate the smoldering. Currently, it is located in the south quarry of Bridgeton.

"No one could have predicted the reaction that occurred in December 2010, but we are proud of what we are doing here despite the criticism and shots we might take publicly," Knocke said.

Among the preventative measures include 13 temperature reading stations, multiple cooling units and dozens of gas extraction pumps.

At any given time, the smoldering reads about 150 degrees. Knocke said the gas being omitted out of the ground is not harmful.


Given these preventative measures, Knocke said it would be physically impossible for the reaction to reach the closest known radioactive waste location at West Lake.

"To this day, no one can point to a single thing we've been wrong about since we've had ownership of this site," he said.

Evens still, Republic admits it could still be a few more years before the smoldering is out.

"As we speak today, no, we could not predict when the reaction will self-extinguish," Knocke said.

It's an uncertain outlook that's cause for concern for some people in the area.

"They don't know when this fire will go out, but they're confident it won't hit the waste? This is one big educated guess at this site? There is nobody out there who has all the answers," said Dawn Chapman of Maryland Heights.

Chapman heads up a local mothers' organization that's been extremely vocal in the landfill controversy.

She finds Republic Services very hard to trust.

"This community wants peace. We want a safe and permanent solution and we want that decided by someone other than the person who's paying for it," Chapman said.

But Knocke said Republic has the region's best interest and safety at heart.

"We are doing this because it's the right thing to do. We believe in St. Louis. We're proud to serve St. Louis. We've been here for decades," he said.

Knocke said he understands people, schools and government agencies have a duty to prepare for the unexpected, but cautions against those who are contributing to what he calls "hysteria."

"Regrettably, some people have chosen to cherry pick data and some people have not understood data. And those people have made irrational statements," he said.


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