ENVIRONMENT
10/20/2015 05:50 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2015

As Underground Fire Smolders Near Radioactive Waste, EPA Dismisses Concerns

But the state attorney general isn't having it: "The people of Missouri can’t afford to wait any longer."

A St. Louis-area community is on edge as a 5-year-old fire burning underneath a landfill threatens to interact with nearby nuclear waste, with potentially deadly consequences.

Residents in Bridgeton, Missouri, met in a packed church Thursday to discuss a solution to the growing problem that has county and school officials talking emergency evacuation plans, according to Fox 2 Now. 

The underground Bridgeton Landfill fire -- which in itself is not an unusual occurrence -- is just a quarter-mile away from 8,700 tons of buried barium sulfate at West Lake Landfill, the Los Angeles Times reported. The waste came from the government's Manhattan Project, which created the nuclear weapons that helped end WWII.

Despite the Environmental Protection Agency's assurance that there is no health threat, Missouri's Attorney General Chris Koster isn't buying it. In September, Koster released damning reports of radiological contamination seeping out of the earth. The attorney general's office is now prosecuting Republic Services Inc., which manages the landfill.

“These reports underscore what has been clear from the beginning -- Republic Services does not have this site under control,” Koster said in a statement. “Not only does the landfill emit a foul odor, it appears that it has poisoned its neighbors’ groundwater and vegetation. The people of Missouri can’t afford to wait any longer -- Republic needs to get this site cleaned up.”

In its response to Koster's investigation, the EPA said that "people living near and working outside the boundary of the West Lake Landfill are not currently being exposed to contaminants ... that are above a level of concern."

If the fire reaches the waste, there is "potential for radioactive fallout to be released in the smoke plume and spread throughout the region," county officials warned in October 2014. There are no barriers between the ever-present fire and the nearby nuclear waste. Ed Smith, with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, told the LA Times that even if the fire burns out, the radioactive waste may still cause problems. 

Heather Lankford was one of 400 others at Thursday's church meeting voicing concerns about the waste.

“It’s very scary, I can’t imagine forfeiting [my children's] future,” Lankford told Fox 2 News.

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