JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – As the EPA enters its 10th year of inaction on the West Lake Landfill question, Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal has taken her crusade for a $12.5 million dollar taxpayer buyout of homes in her district all the way to the House Budget Committee.
SB 22, better known as the Missouri Contaminated Home Acquisition Program, would allow the owners of homes determined to have unhealthy levels of radioactive contamination near places with high levels of dissolved radium to sell their homes to the Department of Natural Resources.
Chappelle-Nadal presented the bill to the House Budget Committee Wednesday morning, explaining some of the major issues she has heard from constituents regarding the West Lake Landfill. While mayors and municipal officials in her district have raised fiscal concerns about the situation, Chappelle-Nadal attacked those with concerns as selfishly worrying about losing population and economic growth.
“Do you care about finances or your child having a brain tumor?” She asked the committee. “Do you care about finances or a 15-year-old dying of leukemia?”
Her testimony to the Budget Committee came the same day the Senate will likely end deliberation on the House appropriation bills during a year in which an estimated $300 million in cuts to the state budget are necessary to keep it fiscally solvent. Still, the Senate approved a $3 million appropriation of those funds Tuesday evening by voice vote after a previous motion to provide over $10 million was voted down.
However, House Budget Chair Scott Fitzpatrick noted the Senate’s decision to side with the House on fully funding the foundation formula – a $45 million difference between the two chambers – meant the Senate would need to be creative with how to find that $3 million appropriation.
“The Senate is going to have to look at their priorities,” Fitzpatrick said. “In order to get the budget balanced again after what happened yesterday, we really don’t have a lot of options but to cut a lot of the things the Senate put in over there… The Senate financed a lot of what they did with that cut from the House position. Now that that’s not conference-able, I don’t know how else we’re going to balance the budget other than the Senate having to give up a lot of things.”
Fitzpatrick said it was not an ideal situation.
Chappelle-Nadal has become one of the foremost practitioners of the filibuster in the Senate, often dovetailing into speaking passionately on the nuclear waste issues in her district. The subject has been a storyline in North St. Louis County politics for years.
The senator has repeatedly claimed increased cancer rates in the area could be tied to radiation seeping into the air and groundwater because of radioactive materials disposed of in the landfill in the 1970s. However, scientific reports from environmental agencies are conflicting and several corporations have studies that reflect opposing view points.
The radioactive materials were byproducts of uranium enrichment done by Mallinckrodt Chemical works for early atomic weapons. In addition, a smoldering landfill fire at the neighboring Bridgeton Landfill has complicated the situation as some residents fear the fire could contribute to the release of further contaminants and harmful radioactive elements.
The Environmental Protection Agency officially has jurisdiction over the Superfund site, but after proposing to “cap” the landfill in 2008, citizens and environmental groups demanded a different solution.
Several representatives asked Chappelle-Nadal about the specifics of her legislation, but Rep. Justin Hill, whose wife contracted cancer two months ago, had a more personal connection to her concerns. His wife and her family had lived near Coldwater Creek, another contaminated site in North County, for years. He added that many, if not most, of the members of his wife’s family had contracted various forms of cancer at multiple times in their lives.
“Just so there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind in this committee, there is bad stuff in North County,” Hill said. “It’s really important for us to remember there are people involved, some that don’t even know it yet.”
No smoking gun at West Lake?
However, a geologist-contractor testified on behalf of Republic Services, the owner of the West Lake and Bridgeton Landfills, and the U.S. Department of Energy, among other stakeholders, to report that after thousands of samples and measurements of air and ground water found no significant radiation levels. He attributed many of the radiation woes in the area to Coldwater Creek, which is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is actively being cleaned up.
“West Lake Landfill and Coldwater Creek are two totally different sites,” Paul Rosasco told the committee. “They’re seven miles apart. The issues are somewhat different when you deal with them. The material came from the same place, but West Lake Landfill is not the cause for contamination in Coldwater Creek.”
Kimberly Visintine, a founding member of a group that fought for the rehabilitation of Coldwater Creek, also wrote a letter to representatives on the committee urging them not to include the Coldwater Creek area in the buyout plans. The certified operating room nurse helped author a study on ongoing health problems and cancer clusters in the area, and she argues the cancer cluster Chappelle-Nadal points to comes from contaminants at Coldwater Creek, even saying citizens getting sick near West Lake Landfill were previous residents of Coldwater Creek.
Visintine fears the passage of the bill and subsequent buyout could negate “the need for continued testing and remediation of contamination” in the Coldwater Creek area.
“In the case that homes are not resold, it will cause unnecessary blight and economically devastate our beloved hometown,” she wrote. “A buyout of homes could potentially nullify the opportunity for support from RECA, even though the peak of exposure occurred decades ago. SB22 puts additional, unnecessary financial burden on the Missouri taxpayers, rather than the responsible parties.”
The Missouri Times also reported in January when Chappelle-Nadal’s bill was first heard in committee that numerous agencies – including the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, EPA District VII (which oversees Missouri), and the Centers for Disease Control – had denied the landfill could cause health problems to nearby residents.
“Gamma radiation rates continue to be indistinguishable from natural background levels and were below levels of public health concern,” the DHSS reported in Oct. 2015.
The bill will be taken up for further discussion Wednesday after the House recesses.