STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's a story about that moment when somebody says, don't panic. When you hear that phrase, on some level, your inevitable response is panic. This is roughly what happened to parents outside St. Louis. They received letters from their children's schools that said, don't worry, no problem. The schools were ready to evacuate or take shelter if an underground fire at a nearby landfill should ever reach radioactive waste on the same property. Reassuring, isn't it? Here's St. Louis Public Radio's Veronique Lacapra.
VERONIQUE LACAPRA, BYLINE: I'm standing just outside the landfill complex. It's in a mostly commercial and industrial area out past the airport. But drive just a couple miles, and you're in residential suburbs. That's where the schools are that sent out those letters. I'm looking through a chain-link fence right at the landfill that's on fire, but I don't see any smoke or flames. That's because the fire is really a high-temperature chemical reaction smoldering deep inside the landfill. Landfill fires are pretty common, but this one is different. It's only about 1,000 feet away from tons of nuclear waste. And there's no barrier in between.
COLE KELLEY: I feel like so many people in St. Louis are not even aware that this is going on.
LACAPRA: That's Cole Kelley, who, with hundreds of others, packed a recent community meeting about the landfills. Many of them didn't know the landfills were even there, although the fire started five years ago and the radioactive waste was dumped back in the early 1970s. Carmen Burrus and Shannon Walker came to this meeting with lots of questions.
CARMEN BURRUS: How are we going to get kids home safe from school?
SHANNON WALKER: Why are we not talking about mass evacuations right now and getting these people to safe distances, away from this landfill?
LACAPRA: But when it comes of these landfills, it seems like whoever you ask has a different answer, including the authorities in charge. The U.S. EPA, which oversees the radioactive material in what's known as the West Lake Landfill, insists it does not pose a risk to the public. Acting EPA Regional Administrator Mark Hague calls the underground fire an SSE - that stands for subsurface smoldering event - and the radioactive waste, radiologically impacted material, or RIM.
MARK HAGUE: There is no imminent threat of that SSE reaching the RIM at the West Lake site.
LACAPRA: But Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster says the EPA isn't doing its job.
CHRIS KOSTER: They have tried to avoid dealing with this in a deliberate way.
LACAPRA: The state's consultants say the underground fire in what's known as the Bridgeton Landfill is spreading and, worst-case scenario, could reach the radioactive waste in the adjacent West Lake Landfill in just a few months. Russ Knocke works for the landfill's owner, Republic Services, the same company that Attorney General Koster has sued. Knocke says the reaction is actually moving away from the radioactive waste, not closer.
RUSS KNOCKE: The Bridgeton Landfill is in a managed state. It is safe. It is intensely monitored.
LACAPRA: But what if the fire did reach the radioactive waste? What then? According to the EPA's Mark Hague, there's nothing to worry about.
HAGUE: There might be some increased releases of radon into the atmosphere that would dissipate out.
LACAPRA: But a report released last year by EPA scientists said if the waste got hot enough, it could release both radon and radioactive dust into the air. And since no one knows exactly what's mixed in with the radioactive material, those other substances could be prone to explosion. So to recap, we've got the state of Missouri saying the fire could be spreading fast toward the radioactive waste, the landfill's owner saying it's moving away and the federal EPA saying even if the fire did get there, it would be OK, maybe. Resident Dawn Chapman has been tracking this fight for more than two years. She wants the radioactive waste gone and compares the fire to a freight train whose brakes have gone out.
DAWN CHAPMAN: At this point, you either have to stop that train or you have to clear the tracks. And for us, clearing the tracks is getting that radioactive waste out of the way and removing the people that live right around it.
LACAPRA: So far, there's no buyout offer for residents near the landfill and no feasible way to put out the underground fire. The EPA says it will announce plans to build a firebreak before the end of the year and decide whether to dig up the radioactive waste some time in 2017. For NPR News, I'm Veronique Lacapra in St. Louis.
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