Monthly Archives: March 2014

Gas Leak at Cortland Landfill


Nearly three weeks after a gas leak from a landfill near Cortland, Ill., resulted in 71 people being hospitalized from the Cortland Elementary School, Illinois’ attorney general has filed suit against Waste Management.

The leak occurred after contractors digging in the site hit a gas pocket. A foul odor drifted into the school’s ventilation system a mile away. Several dozen exposed were treated for low-level exposure to carbon monoxide.

Lisa Disbrow, a spokeswoman for Waste Management, said, “Waste Management has been a part of this community since 1991 and, outside of this incident, has an excellent environmental record. … We remain committed to ensuring safe practices at all times at all of our sites.”

Landfill gas is roughly 50% carbon dioxide and 50% methane.  It is the methane that poses the greatest danger.  Air pollution from landfill travels further than is often recognized, and since those gasses can often not be smelled or are visible, detection is harder to come by.  Landfills are designed to keep methane form being released, but leaks happen all the time, and without proper control, can seep into pipes and buildings as it did in this case.

Waste Management officials have offered to reimburse families for medical costs incurred as a result of the incident and have agreed to take additional precautions to prevent future leaks.

The initial agreement prohibits Waste Management workers from digging into solid waste at the Cortland area landfill if the wind is from a southerly direction in excess of 10 mph, or if other conditions would cause digging to impact air quality at Cortland Elementary School.”

Waste Management will also be taking the following precautions in order to keep the landfill in operation; 1) all workers and contractors wear monitors recording any levels of combustible gas, oxygen, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide, 2) collect two samples from the gas collection system at the landfill, 3) notify the state’s environmental protection officials at least 24 hours before digging in waste again, 4) install a weather station that can monitor and record temperature, wind speed and direction and barometric pressure.

Concerned parents asked the school’s board what they should do if they don’t feel comfortable sending their children to school while the EPA does additional testing?  The board offered no answers.

Turning Food Waste Into Fuel Takes Trillions Of Bacteria


A Brooklyn waste treatment plant has become an unlikely lab for an ambitious effort to turn millions of tons of food scraps from New York City’s apartments and restaurants into renewable energy.

Every year, Americans send millions of tons of food to the landfill.  What if you could use all of those pizza crusts and rotten vegetables to heat your home?  That’s already happening in one unlikely laboratory:  the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn.

The plants longtime superintendent, Jimmy Pynn, shows off the plant’s crown jewels:  eight huge, shiny, oval-shaped steel tanks knows as digester eggs.  Each one contains millions of gallons of black sludge that’s roughly the consistency of pea soup.  Pynn calls it ‘black gold.”

“The digesters like to be fed like us:  three times a day.” He says.  “They like to be kept warm, 98 degrees.  And whether we want to admit it or not, we all make gas.  And that’s what we have these guys for:  to make gas.”

In this case, the gas is methane, which can be used to heat homes or make electricity.  Right now, what these bacteria re digesting is mostly sewage sludge.  But they’re being introduced to a new diet:  food scraps.  The hope is that this plant will soon take in hundreds of tons of organic waste from houses and apartments.

“Rather than paying millions of dollars to send it to landfill, we could be taking all of Brooklyn’s organics to the Newtown facility and converting it into clean renewable energy,” says Ron Gonen, New York’s Deputy Commissioner for recycling.

The Newtown facility is an example of anaerobic digestion, which is not a brand new idea.  What is new is the idea of adding food waste in to the mix.

Past-prime produce, rotten tomatoes, fats, oils, greases from fryers, past-prime dairy products and loaves of moldy bread are all great food-stuffs for anaerobic digestion.

The problem lies in the complexity of implementing a food waste system in New York City because of its huge quantities of waste.  One challenge is the amount of extra work it would be to separate the organic material from the rest of the trash in a city as dense as New York.  Another challenge is that the Newtown Creek facility can only handle a small fraction of what is coming in.  The costliest part will be finding enough locations to build more facilities to handle the volume.

Still, this is a great first step.