Today CLF filed a citizen suit against the owners and operators of the Central Landfill in Johnston, Rhode Island, for releasing polluted landfill gas into Rhode Island’s air in violation of the Clean Air Act. Landfill gas poses risks to human health, causes foul odors, and contributes to climate change. Read on for a summary of CLF’s lawsuit.
What’s wrong at the Landfill? As waste breaks down in the Landfill, it produces landfill gas. Landfill gas contains methane (a powerful greenhouse gas), hydrogen sulfide (a toxic air pollutant that also smells like rotten eggs), and volatile organic compounds (a family of gases that includes toxic and hazardous pollutants). The owners and operators of the Landfill are required by law to collect and control this landfill gas. That isn’t happening here. CLF’s lawsuit lays out several specific failures at the Landfill:
1. The owners and operators are not collecting enough landfill gas. The air at the surface of the Landfill contains too much methane, meaning that landfill gas is escaping through the ground without being collected. We also know the gas collection system isn’t working because many of the collection wells are flooded, and because the tops of many of these wells contain oxygen-rich air instead of methane-rich landfill gas. Gas that’s not being collected by the collection system is escaping into the air as so-called “fugitive emissions” in violation of the Clean Air Act.
2. The owners and operators of the Landfill illegally burned untreated landfill gas. Burning landfill gas that contains hydrogen sulfide causes a chemical reaction resulting in emissions of sulfur dioxide (which causes respiratory-system damage). For this reason, the Landfill’s owners and operators are generally required to treat the gas for hydrogen sulfide before they burn it. But earlier this year, they burned untreated gas for well over a month, resulting in a spike in sulfur dioxide emissions. By burning untreated gas, the owners and operators failed to use the “best available control technology” for landfill gas as the Clean Air Act requires, and they evaded permitting requirements as well.
3. The owners and operators have operated three landfill-gas flares inadequately, resulting in excess emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). A flare’s ability to destroy VOCs in landfill gas depends on the temperature at which the gas is burned and the amount of time the gas spends being burned. When temperatures are too low and gas is moving too fast, a flare can’t adequately destroy VOCs. And that’s what’s happening at the Landfill: three flares are receiving too much landfill gas and burning it at too-low temperatures, so harmful VOCs are entering our air instead of being destroyed.
4. These failures are all the result of a larger permitting failure at the Landfill. Since 1997, the Clean Air Act has required the Landfill to have an operating permit. Sixteen years later, it still does not have one. A thoughtful, comprehensive operating permit could clarify the responsibilities of the various owners and operators of the Landfill and help ensure that landfill gas gets collected and destroyed as the Clean Air Act requires.
CLF’s Rhode Island state director Tricia Jedele and I have spent well over a year working to figure out what’s wrong at the Landfill, our interest piqued by the severe odor problems there in 2011. Even we didn’t expect to find as many problems as we did. But now that we’ve found them, it’s time to fix them. The Landfill can stop filling our air with polluted gas that poses risks to human health, causes foul odors, and contributes to climate change – and by filing this lawsuit, we’re looking to make that happen.