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. FULL REPORT