St. Louis Is Burning


Rolling Stone
A bulldozer pushes trash in a landfill.
Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
May 10, 2013 10:00 AM ET

There’s a fire burning in Bridgeton, Missouri. It’s invisible to area residents, buried deep beneath the ground in a North St. Louis County landfill. But the smoldering waste is an unavoidable presence in town, giving off a putrid odor that clouds the air miles away – an overwhelming stench described by one area woman as “rotten eggs mixed with skunk and fertilizer.” Residents report smelling it at K-12 school buses, a TGI Fridays and even the operating room of a local hospital. “It smells like dead bodies,” observes another local.

On a Saturday morning in March, one mile south of the landfill, several Bridgeton residents have gathered at a small home in a blue-collar subdivision called Spanish Village. Concerned citizens Karen Nickel and Dawn Chapman are here to answer questions posed by four of their neighbors. “How will I ever sell my house?” “Am I going to end up with cancer 20 years down the road?” “Is there even a solution?”

In February, the landfill’s owner, Republic Services, sent glossy fliers to residents within stink radius claiming the noxious odor posed no safety risk. But official reports say otherwise. Temperature probes reveal the fire has already surpassed normal heat levels. Reports from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) indicate dangerously high levels of benzene and hydrogen sulfide in the air. In March, Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) – which has jurisdiction over Bridgeton Landfill – quietly posted an Internet notice cautioning citizens with chronic respiratory diseases to limit time outdoors. A month after Republic distributed its potentially misleading flier, the state attorney general sued the company on eight counts of environmental violations, including pollution and public nuisance. And this week, as part of a settlement set to be announced Tuesday, Republic sent another round of fliers offering to move local families to hotels during a period of increased odor related to remediation efforts.

Nickel and Chapman are stay-at-home moms; Chapman has three special-needs kids. Neither of them wants to spend her time worrying about a damn landfill fire. But until someone higher up the power chain intervenes, they have sworn to call municipal offices, file Sunshine requests and post notices to the community’s Facebook group, no matter how unsettling the facts they uncover. Scariest of all: The Bridgeton landfill fire is burning close to at least 8,700 tons of nuclear weapons wastes. 

“To have somebody call you at 11 P.M., and they’re in tears, concerned for their family, that’s heartbreaking,” Chapman tells Rolling Stone. “We’re doing this because we don’t have a choice. If we don’t come together as a community and fight, no one’s going to do it for us.”

America’s Nuclear Nightmare

West Lake Landfill is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site that’s home to some of the oldest radioactive wastes in the world. A six-foot chain-link fence surrounds the perimeter, plastered with bright yellow hazard signs that warn of the dangers within. On one corner stands a rusty gas pump. About 1,200 feet south of the radioactive EPA site, the fire at Bridgeton Landfill spreads out like hot barbeque coals. No one knows for sure what happens when an underground inferno meets a pool of atomic waste, but residents aren’t eager to find out.

At a March 15th press conference, Peter Anderson – an economist who has studied landfills for over 20 years – raised the worst-case scenario of a “dirty bomb,” meaning a non-detonated, mass release of floating radioactive particles in metro St. Louis. “Now, to be clear, a dirty bomb is not nuclear fission, it’s not an atomic bomb, it’s not a weapon of mass destruction,” Anderson assured meeting attendants in Bridgeton’s Machinists Union Hall. “But the dispersal of that radioactive material in air that could reach – depending upon weather conditions – as far as 10 miles from the site could make it impossible to have economic activity continue.”


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Judge Ponders Plan to Put Out Bridgeton Landfill Fire

May 13, 2013 5:55 PM
Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill, where underground fire has been smoldering since December 2010

Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill, where underground fire has been smoldering since December 2010

ST. LOUIS–(KMOX)–A judge says he’ll decide by morning whether a plan to put out the fire and end the smell at the Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill is workable.

The plan — crafted by the Missouri Attorney General and the landfill owner, Republic Services Inc. — has not yet been made public. It’s now in the hands of Circuit Court Judge Michael Jamison, who met in his chambers with lawyers from both sides on a day he was scheduled to hold a hearing on the Attorney General’s lawsuit against the landfill.

“It’s not exactly a settlement,” Jamison told Bridgeton residents, reporters and environmentalists waiting in his courtroom, “But it’s something that would address the smoldering issue and what the sate may be able to do.”

The lawsuit filed by the state calls for an aggressive plan to put out the fire, which has been smoldering since December 2010 — and for fines upwards of tens-of-thousand a dollars a day for alleged violations of Missouri environmental laws. Koster’s suit claims the burning landfill is billowing benzene and other hazardous chemicals into the air, and leaking a black ooze into ground water.

Koster’s office declined to comment. The Attorney General has scheduled a news conference for 10:30 Tuesday morning in downtown St. Louis to reveal details of the proposed next step.

Already, complaints are rising that the apparent deal was made without input from the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, from area businesses or from Bridgeton residents.

“The community needs to be at the table,” said the coalition’s Kat Logan Smith, “The property owners, the families and businesses here need to be at the table, because they need to decide what the bottom line is.”


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