Oncologist downplays fears over radioactive waste at West Lake L - KMOV.com

Oncologist downplays fears over radioactive waste at West Lake Landfill

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An oncologist at the Siteman Cancer Center said an explosion could not occur if an underground fire at the Bridgeton Landfill reaches radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill.

Dr. Jeff Michalski says radiation levels in the air in the area near the landfills is only slightly higher than other parts of the St. Louis area. Residents of St. Louis are exposed to an average of 200 millirems of radiation every year while people living or working near the West Lake Landfill are exposed to a few more millirems a year, Michalski said.

Michalski told News 4 such levels of exposure are far less than residents of Denver, who are exposed to an estimated 300 milirems a year.

An environmental activist said the worst case scenario would involve underground burning trash eventually causing cracks on the surface allowing gases or smoke to be released that eventually falls like nuclear fallout.

“The state of Missouri and EPA both agree that the smoldering fire is still within this neck of landfill,” said Ed Smith with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “This is an unprecedented situation. The science is very thin on what would happen if the smoldering fire reaches the radioactive material.”

The EPA has consistently said nothing terrible will happen of the smoldering trash and radioactive material meet, but many nearby residents are skeptical about the EPA’s conclusion. Michalski, however, says science supports what the EPA has said.

“What many people fear, if you put fire next to radioactive material then you’re going to have this cataclysmic event. That explosion physically cannot happen,” he said.

Michalski adds that radioactive elements are not flammable or explosive, saying it would require temperatures far higher than the 300 degrees that has been recorded at the site to change some of the burning trash to liquid or gas.

There is not smoke or soot rising from the Bridgeton Landfill and Michalski said that would not change if the burning trash reached the contaminated soil. The radioactive waste at the site is like a powder or crushed rock.

Radioactive elements are heavy metals that don’t easily lift into the air, Michalski said.

“I really think the likelihood of this fire spewing radioactive fallout into the air is exceedingly rare,” he said.

Michalski said the likelihood of someone breathing in a speck of soot with Thorium-230 or other radioactive particles is very small, but he adds that the level of radioactivity around West Lake will likely go up, but slowly.

“What will likely happen is over time you will start to detect radioactivity in the environment and give people fair warning, fair advanced warning that radioactive levels are increasing in the vicinity,” said Michalski.

Even with the increase, Michalski says residents of Denver would still be exposed to a higher level of radiation than residents of Bridgeton.

The EPA has drilled to pull some contaminated soil from West Lake, which they plan to burn in a lab to see what the burning trash would do to radioactively contaminated soil. Those tests have not been completed yet.

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