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Underground Fire in Mo. Nears Nuclear Waste Dump

Residents are worried about radioactivity from a nearby Superfund site.

In the St. Louis area, a slow-burning underground fire is close to a vast store of nuclear waste buried in a federal Superfund site.

The fire reportedly has been smoldering beneath a nearby landfill since at least 2010. The Washington Post reports that residents are afraid of what may happen if the fire - which is by some accounts as little as 1,500 feet away –reaches the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Mo., a Superfund site filled with decades-old waste from the federal government's nuclear weapons program. Angry locals also think the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which manages the site, hasn't done enough to stop the fire.

In December, the EPA announced that it would install a physical barrier in an effort to isolate the nuclear waste. The agency also said that it would put cooling loops and other engineering controls to prevent environmental impacts if the "subsurface smoldering event," as it's called, were to reach the waste. An EPA administrator told the Post that the barrier would take a year to build.

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But residents aren't comforted by that timetable, and think the government, despite years of warning, has done too little to stave off a possible environmental disaster. A 2014 St. Louis County Emergency Operations Plan, obtained by a local TV station, reveals that local officials feared a "catastrophic event" with "a potential for radioactive fallout to be released in the smoke plume and spread throughout the region."

EPA says that the buried waste doesn't pose a health risk. Its air-monitoring tests, done in February 2015, showed that levels of radiation and volatile organic compounds in the area were similar to those usually found in industrial cities such as St. Louis. A 2014 analysis by an EPA contractor concluded that the heat from the underground fire was too low to ignite chemicals in the nuclear dump to trigger an explosion, or to cause other conditions that would carry radioactive particles off the site.

But those assurances have provided little peace of mind to local residents, who fear that they may already be suffering harm from radiation releases.

NEWS: Nuclear Waste Burial Sites May Become Leaky

"Every day, I live with anxiety," one local woman told the Post. Her young son suffers from a mysterious autoimmune disorder that has caused his hair to fall out - one of numerous health problems that local residents say they're already experiencing, according to the newspaper.

About 8.700 tons of nuclear waste, mixed with 39,000 tons of contaminated soil was moved to the Superfund site from another dump between July and October 1973, according to a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission report. It was covered by a three-foot-deep layer of uncontaminated soil.

EPA may be running out of time to fix the problem. In early February, the U.S. Senate passed a bill introduced by Sens. Claire McCaskill, (D-Mo.), and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), that would take control over the building remediation measures away from EPA and give it to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The House hasn't yet taken action on the legislation.

But Congress may bear some responsibility for the agency's slowness. According to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report , legislators cut EPA's funding for cleanup of Superfund sites by nearly half since the late 1990s.

Contractors clear vegetation and survey gamma radiation at the West Lake Landfill, a Superfund site in Missouri, in 2013.

This week came

welcome news

that animal populations in Ukraine's Chernobyl Exclusion Zone had rebounded tremendously, despite living in an area that nearly 30 years ago was the site of a horrific nuclear power accident. The 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl created an evacuation area of some 1,000 square miles, removing humans from the equation and leaving animals to their own devices. Animals ranging from feral cats to horses to fish seem to be getting by, after the fallibility of man left them a contaminated place to call their own. Here we take a look at some of the wildlife currently making a living in the "zone."

Chernobyl Wildlife Thriving Decades After Nuclear Accident

Wild horses still dot the landscape. Tours exist, for those who want to glimpse them and to explore Chernobyl and neighboring towns such as Pripyat. But visitors first have to get day passes from the Ukraine government, usually through one of several tour companies that guide people through the desolate cities.

The Last Wild Horses On Earth: Photos

Tour groups stick to areas of lower radiation levels, as determined by Ukraine's health officials. A day's worth of radiation exposure along such routes is equivalent to a one-hour jet flight, according to Chernobyl tour group

Tour2Chernobyl

. These bunnies don't need any help from guides -- they've got their own plans.

Supersized Animals Make You Feel Small: Photos

This young bird offers proof that avian life is still on the scene. A

study

released in April 2014 found that birds have adapted to, and may even benefit from, life in the irradiated exclusion zone.

Birds' Nests In Bizarre Urban Places: Photos

Huge catfish swim near what was once the Chernobyl plant reactor.

Biofluorescent Fish Light Up The Deep: Photos

Feral cats are common in Chernobyl. Here a few of them snooze in the shade created by ductwork, looking for all the world like ordinary domestic cats.

High Hopes For Smithsonian Sand Cats Thor And Lulu: Photos

A lone horse surveys its surroundings.

Horses, Humans Share Facial Expressions: Photos

Wild boar roam in a former village near the failed power plant.

'Hogzilla' Returns: 500 Lb. Monster Boar Killed

Butterflies, too, call the exclusion zone home.

Strange And Beautiful Butterflies: Photos

Roe deer numbers around Chernobyl are up significantly, it was recently

reported

.

Small Pond In Big Calif. Drought Is Wildlife Magnet: Photos