The process has been delayed by political wrangling once already, and now that it's finally nearing a conclusion is threatened again by knee-jerk congressional action. Taxpayers and local residents would be best served if politicians stood aside and let the process play out.
West Lake was added as a Superfund site in 1990, which placed control of the remediation effort under the EPA. It extensively studied the site and weighed available options. In 2008 it announced a plan to "cap" the landfill with a layer of rock, clay, and soil, and to put in place systems for long-term monitoring of ground water. Then a local backlash prompted the agency to reconsider and ensured the process would be dragged out even longer with additional studies and more debate.
The issue has been complicated by the subsequent discovery of underground smoldering at another nearby landfill. It's a more complicated chemical reaction than a simple fire, which makes resolving the issue difficult. The alarm it has raised is being used by interest groups and politicians to push legislation to shift management of the West Lake cleanup effort to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
On Dec. 31, 2015, the EPA announced a plan to construct an isolation barrier to wall off the waste and protect it from the potential spread of the underground smoldering, for which separate containment plans are also underway. But residents just want the radioactive waste gone. They are understandably concerned about what may happen if the reaction reaches the radioactive material, but panic is as likely to make the situation worse as better.
The site might already be protected had the last public outcry not slowed and extended the process. Now, popular passions threaten to politicize the issue and prolong it even further.
The promise of looking strong and decisive in the face of public panic has motivated members of the Missouri congressional delegation to pursue legislation, H.R. 4100, that would upend all the work to date and hand off management to the Army Corps. Of particular concern is the effort to push the bill through without giving it proper consideration. The Senate version, S. 2306, already passed by unanimous consent, and efforts are underway to similarly push it through the House without hearings or debate, an indication of a politicized rather than scientifically deliberative process.
Changing management of the site from the EPA to the Army Corps at this stage would require redoing much of the study and preparation that has led to this point and would likely delay the timeline by at least five years, if not considerably longer. And while removing the radioactive waste is popular, doing so still risks exposure during the excavation process and would cost considerably more for taxpayers.
A major backer of the bill is the Teamsters Union, which cited the lack of a union as a cause for concern with current management of the sites. While no doubt concerning to an organization that exists purely to promote unionism, it's unclear how that translates into a safety issue for area residents.
The EPA's Superfund system has many faults and perhaps even ought to be reconsidered as a matter of policy, but haphazardly shifting particular sites out of the program based on arbitrary political preferences and public passions offers no improvement. There's been more than enough study and talk to date surrounding the West Lake landfill. Bringing in another agency to take over at this stage will only exacerbate that problem. It's time instead for the EPA to get started on implementing its solution.
Andrew F. Quinlan is the co-founder and president of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity (freedomandproperity.org and @cfandp).
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