Water and Fire and Nuclear Waste

Hi, I’m Hayley! I’m a senior at Northwestern University, and I’m doing research this summer in preparation for my senior thesis in American Studies. I have been interested in the environment for a long time, and I am excited to study how my own home community has responded to environmental problems and fears. At Northwestern I have been the sustainability chair for my dorm and participated in Fossil Free NU protests and events. I also serve as director of finance for Northwestern Model United Nations and an anti-human trafficking group called Fight For Freedom. I’m an avid Cardinals fan living in a Cubs world. Hayley is being funded by a Summer Undergraduate Research Grant from Northwestern's Office of Undergraduate Research.

The Story of the Bridgeton and West Lake Landfills in St. Louis County, MO

This summer I am researching an environmental crisis at a landfill in Bridgeton, Missouri, which is a small suburb of St. Louis not too far from its airport. In 1973, a company illegally dumped between 40,000 and 100,000 tons of nuclear waste at the West Lake Landfill. This was in the time before regulated landfills, so the landfill has no clay liner and no leachate collection system. It also sits within the floodplain of the Missouri River. In 1990, the landfill was added to the EPA’s Superfund program to be cleaned up. The site has not yet been remediated, as the EPA’s 2008 plan faced public opposition and it has been in the process of coming up with a new plan.

To make matters worse, a landfill adjacent to West Lake, the Bridgeton Sanitary Landfill, is experiencing what landfill operators call a subsurface smoldering event. In layman’s terms, a landfill fire. The fire is underground, and likely has never or only rarely exceeded the temperature of a warm oven. Nevertheless, the low heat sends particulates from the landfill into the air along with an awful stench. The EPA is at the drawing board for a fire barrier between the fire and the nuclear waste, but the fire has been burning for six years and is a health hazard on its own. Fear and uncertainty plague the residents of Bridgeton. Much of the rest of the area has no idea what is going on.

In the course of this project, I will piece together a history of what happened at the landfill. How did the nuclear waste come to be dumped in this place, and what has happened since? How do demographic factors such as race and income play a role? How has the community reacted? How has their activism worked or not worked? What have members of the government done to address the problem, from experts in the EPA to elected public officials? I hope to answer each of these questions in my future posts.