In Bridgeton, Missouri, a suburb 20 miles (32 km) northeast of St. Louis, a deep underground landfill fire has been burning for five years. Bridgeton residents have smelled it, and complained about it, and worried that it’s giving them cancer, for about as long. “It smells like dead bodies,” someone told Rolling Stone in 2013.
That would be bad enough, but this summer the US Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) confirmed what many in the greater St. Louis area have long suspected: Radioactive waste left over from the Manhattan Project—the World War II project that developed the first nuclear bomb, using uranium processed in downtown St. Louis—has contaminated local creeks and landfills.
That includes nuclear waste at the West Lake Landfill, which is adjacent to Bridgeton’s. And to the thousands of people who live above the sites (including the 18,000 members of the “West Lake Landfill” Facebook group), this sounds bad: They fear that if the Bridgeton fire spreads to West Lake, it could set radioactive waste on fire and produce radioactive fallout.
West Lake landfill’s radioactive waste has also spread beyond the landfill’s boundaries, and the Bridgeton Landfill fire is slowly making its way toward the radioactive areas, according to reports from the Missouri attorney general last month. The landfill owners have disputed both aspects of the reports. And some state government officials are accusing state attorney general Chris Koster of provoking “hysteria” to gather support before he runs for governor.
This month, St. Louis County officials—in a move that was intended to be reassuring but instead stoked panic—have released an emergency contingency plan (PDF) for what to do if and when the West Lake landfill begins to burn. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Bridgeton fire is only a quarter of a mile away. The county’s emergency plan was apparently developed a year ago, but made public for the first time this month.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has promised to contain the Bridgeton fire before the end of 2016.