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Report: Missouri landfill emissions once posed health risks

September 21, 2018

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Emissions near a troubled St. Louis County landfill once posed health concerns for workers and nearby residents, but the risks have largely disappeared thanks to cleanup efforts, according to a state report released Friday.

The report from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is based on air quality data collected near Bridgeton Landfill , which has come under intense scrutiny because a smoldering underground fire burns only a few hundred yards from Cold War-era nuclear waste. The landfill operators have spent millions to keep the two separate and eliminate odor and gas emissions, and the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce a plan soon to clean up the radioactive material.

The smoldering fire that has burned for nearly a decade has at times created gas emissions and an odor so intense that nearby residents have complained about health issues. The state report indicates their concern was well-founded.

The report cited air sampling from 2013 through 2016 compiled by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the EPA. Levels of sulfur-based compounds and sulfur dioxide were high enough to aggravate respiratory diseases such as asthma or chronic cardiopulmonary diseases, the study showed. Children and elderly adults were especially susceptible to symptoms such as chest tightness or difficulty breathing.

Breathing the odor of sulfur-based compounds may also have caused headaches, nausea, fatigue, stress, impaired mood and higher risk of respiratory infection, the report said.

Dawn Chapman, a Bridgeton resident and activist, said the report offers heartbreaking confirmation of what residents already believed.

“We’ve really suffered here,” said Chapman, whose 10-year-old daughter has asthma. “They’re confirming our worst fears — our kids have an increased risk for all of these things. It’s horrifying.”

Landfill owner Republic Services has invested more than $200 million to control odor and to make sure the fire doesn’t reach the nuclear waste that was illegally buried at the site in the 1970s. The report suggests those efforts are paying off: Gas emissions today are down 80 percent and are no longer likely to pose a chronic health risk, the health department said.

Jonathan Garoutte, administrator of the state health department’s section for environmental public health, called the trend “encouraging.”

The study also found that the cancer risk for those living nearby was “similar to those in other urban environments in the United States.”

Republic Services spokesman Richard Callow said the new report was surprising because the health department’s previous reporting found no impact to human health, and St. Louis County’s health investigation found no significant risk of asthma and other respiratory conditions.

“We can agree that air emissions are normal today, and odor has been under control since 2013,” Callow said in a statement.

The underground fire began in December 2010. The cause isn’t known, but complaints from neighboring residents prompted a lawsuit by then-Attorney General Chris Koster in 2013. The lawsuit was settled in June when Republic Services and former owners of the landfill agreed to pay $16 million.

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