Minimizing Risk: Why Capping The West Lake Landfill Makes Sense
An Institute for Liberty Analytical Brief
Introduction: The West Lake Landfill is a 200-acre landfill located in Bridgeton in St. Louis County, MO. It is just northwest of St. Louis-Lambert International Airport, roughly 25 miles from the St. Louis “Gateway” Arch. In the early 1970s, waste material from the Manhattan Project was illegally disposed of at the site, and in 1977, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported on that illegal dumping. The site was proposed to be listed as a “Superfund” site under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, Liability and Recovery Act in 1989 and was placed on CERCLA’s “National Priorities List” in 1990.
Over the last quarter-century, jurisdiction for the project has remained under the Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) who, acting under CERCLA, sought “potentially responsible parties” who would be liable for site-remediation costs and developed a plan to reduce risks associated with the site by “capping” the hazardous waste materials found there.
Though remediation efforts are, at long last, slated to commence. A group of citizens is concerned about associated risks from leaving this waste on-site and wants to abandon this course of action, shifting responsibility for clean-up from USEPA to the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) under USACE’s “Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program” (FUSRAP). USACE has several sites being remediated under FUSRAP in the St. Louis area, and given the length of time it took USACE to commence site remediation activities on these sites, shifting responsibility from USEPA to USACE will delay remediation for the West Lake Landfill for some time to come.
Risk Versus Risk
Whenever one deals with policymaking having to do with public health, safety, or the environment, one has to make choices regarding the risks associated with a variety of policy options. When engaging in such an analysis, comparing these risk assessments is essential. Here, we are talking about the comparative risks associated with leaving these waste materials in place (sealed in such a way as to fundamentally reduce the risk of exposure), or to have the materials excavated and transported to another facility. This is a choice that decisionmakers have faced when dealing with other public health issues—in asbestos mitigation there is a serious debate over whether it is safer to leave asbestiform materials in situ when discovered, or whether exposure risk is exacerbated when airborne particles are created by asbestos removal. Likewise, state officials have faced this issue when policymakers were debating whether to leave polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) buried under the silt of America’s rivers, or risk exposure by dredging them.
We believe that excavating the materials poses a far-greater risk to public health, for the following reasons:
In contrast, keeping the waste capped and in leak-proof storage at the site eliminates all of these risks while keeping the risk to exposure to those near the West Lake Landfill to a minimum—lower, in fact, than those risks have been for some time and certainly lower than the risks that are faced should this matter be transferred out of the jurisdiction of the US EPA and placed under the auspices of the US Army Corps of Engineers—where the “clock” would start again as the Corps began formulating and evaluating options once again.
For these reasons, given our conversations with environmental science professionals, the Institute for Liberty continues to recommend that remediation of the West Lake Landfill should remain under the jurisdiction of the EPA, that sealing and capping this site is the right option, and that work on this remediation should commence immediately. Delaying this work and transferring it out of the jurisdiction of the EPA would create needless risks.