ST. LOUIS , MO – A very serious and complicated debate has been taking place in St. Louis regarding its area landfills. On one side you have the Missouri Department of Natural Resources claiming that a fire below the surface of the Bridgeton Landfills is expanding in the direction of the West Lake Landfill, which contains radioactive materials that were illegally dumped in the 1970’s. Conflicting reports state that the changing temperatures and emissions have allowed the landfill fire to stop growing or at least has reached a controlled, non-problematic state.

Now this is obviously a problem that needs an effective course of action in place, deciding which plan has led to most of the controversy. Due to the landfills close proximity to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, any actions must be approved by the airport and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Republic Services, that operates the landfills, announced their plan last year to create a barrier between the landfills. However that opened up a great deal of more opposition and the EPA will not allow it until after 18 months of testing.

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Although the barrier is the primary plan and set for 2016, both sides have their issues with it. Republic Services do not believe that this is even a problem and it is self contained. Even if the smoldering materials got through the neck towards the radioactive waste, it would have to elevate over 150 feet to get over solid rock wall. Republic has even stated the barrier is more a “piece of mind” project for the public.

On the flip side, the barrier may be effective, but constructing it poses serious risks. When they begin to dig, just like a normal fire, if exposed to more air it is likely to get out of control. However the main concern are the birds.

During construction of the barrier, waste from decades ago will be uncovered and heavily attract birds. Back in 2005, the Bridgeton Landfill closed primarily because of the flight risks associated with birds and an open landfill. The agreement to close the landfill, also granted the City of St. Louis and the Airport veto power for any barrier construction in the future.

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With almost 20,000 arrivals and departures on the nearest runway to the landfill in the last 12 months, the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport has no intentions of shutting down any runways, while construction of the barrier takes place. However data supports that the airport has experienced about the same amount of bird issues from when the landfill was open compared to when it has been closed. Many believe the potential bird problem is overblown.

One aspect of the problem that does not seem to be debatable is the building of a trench, to help guarantee that expansion of the underground fire stops. If the subsurface fire reaches the radioactive materials or the surface of the landfill, the problem will be way out of hand. This will also be easy to accomplish without attracting too many birds.

Republic seems to favor construction of solely the barrier and they have successfully dealt with birds in the past. By working at night, using traps and noises devices, the risk of birds colliding with planes is significantly less. They have also proposed using an inflatable cover over the work area, but that could pose problems with the Airport.

With the complexity of the situation, there is no clear solution to this problem. The barrier is still 18 months out and with the waste still ablaze the decision is desperately needed. Hopefully a compromise can be reached, that will not compromise the environment.