A fire is smoldering beneath a landfill in a densely populated suburb of St. Louis — and it has been there for five years.
Underground landfill fires, or "smoldering events" as some officials call them, aren't rare. What makes the fire at the landfill in Bridgeton, Mo., so unusual is that it's less than a quarter of a mile from a large deposit of nuclear waste — with no barrier in its way.
The radioactive legacy of St. Louis' role in the World War II atomic weapons program has unleashed Cold War-style nuclear paranoia in the area, as some residents debate what kind of gas masks to buy or whether to move away.
Corporate, federal and state officials don't agree on what kind of threat West Lake Landfill poses to residents, or even if it poses a threat at all. Various scientists and officials have presented clashing stories to the public about whether the underground fire is moving and what might happen if it reaches the nuclear waste.
There might be a dangerous radioactive plume that forces residents to take shelter indoors or evacuate, St. Louis County emergency officials say.
Environmental Protection Agency officials counter that there might be a bit of radon gas, which may not even escape the landfill's perimeter.
The Missouri attorney general's office, which is suing the landfill's owner, contends the fire is creeping closer to the radioactive materials.
The EPA, however, says the fire is staying put.
"We just do not agree with the finding that the subsurface smoldering event is approaching the radiologically impacted material," said Mary Peterson, director of the Superfund division for EPA Region 7.
Residents have been baffled to learn that radioactive waste exists at the dump, and even more puzzled that regulators have yet to finalize a plan to contain or remove the nuclear material — four decades after a company illegally dumped it. The EPA is still evaluating whether to place a cap on the site, or excavate the radioactive material, or both.
"Somebody owes you an apology if you're just now finding out about this," Dawn Chapman, a resident and an activist, told hundreds of concerned people who jammed into a church for a meeting about the landfill last week.
The story begins with the race to develop the world's first nuclear weapon. In 1942, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works secretly agreed to purify uranium in St. Louis for the federal government's Manhattan Project.
In the decades after World War II, responsibility for Mallinckrodt's uranium-processing waste changed hands several times. Cotter Corp. quietly buried 8,700 tons of what government investigators later identified as leached barium sulfate residue at the West Lake Landfill in 1973.
In 1990, the West Lake Landfill was deemed a Superfund site to be managed by the EPA. In 2008, waste conglomerate Republic Services acquired the companies responsible for the West Lake site and for a neighboring lot, the Bridgeton Landfill, where the fire is smoldering.
"It was such a shock to me," Chapman said. "I've always been a resident of St. Louis, and I didn't even understand our role in the Manhattan Project."
She did not learn about West Lake Landfill's history until 2013, when she called state officials to complain about the smell from the dump, Chapman said. "How did I not know about this?"
Since then, she has been trying to educate residents about the landfill. Her efforts gained a jolt last week when school districts mailed letters to parents describing how students might shelter in place if the fire reached the nuclear materials.
"There is a potential for radioactive fallout to be released in the smoke plume and spread throughout the region," St. Louis County officials warned in an emergency response plan, which was drawn up in October 2014 to "save lives in the event of a catastrophic event at the West Lake Landfill."
"Where should we buy our masks and what type do they recommend?" a St. Charles resident asked on Chapman's Facebook group last week after the county's emergency plan circulated in the media.
"What is my 11-month-old supposed to wear?" another resident asked. "He won't keep a mask on."
The EPA is probing the landfill to figure out exactly where all the radioactive material is and considering how to place a barrier between the fire and the nuclear waste. It downplays concerns about a Chernobyl-like disaster.
Peterson said the EPA doesn't know "for certain" what might happen if the underground fire hits the radioactive material. "But a somewhat plausible scenario would be there would be some very localized radon gas emissions to come off, but we don't expect particulate matter or anything like that," she said.
A report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, released Friday, warned that disturbing the surface of the landfill could release radium-226, radon-222 and radium-228 into the air and put landfill workers, in particular, at risk.
Radon is a leading cause of lung cancer, and radium can increase the risk of bone, liver and breast cancer, according to the health agency.
In the past, releases of radon at the landfill have sometimes exceeded regulatory limits for safety "by as much as 10 to 25 times at individual surface test locations," the agency said in its report.
But current radon levels at the landfill are below levels thought to be dangerous to human health, the report said, adding, "There is no evidence that radon produced in the landfill will migrate to residential areas."
Even if the underground fire eventually burns out without any problems, the radioactive dump could cause trouble, according to Ed Smith, the safe-energy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
"Either the government puts together a plan for the removal of the radioactive material in a way that is done as safely as possible," Smith said, "or at some point in the future, I can say with some confidence that a flood, fire, earthquake, tornado, what have you, is going to move this radioactive material and other contaminants at the landfill in a way we cannot control."