Explaining The Central Landfill: Why it Matters

Taylor Hay

As an intern for CLF this summer, I am reviewing reports that reveal the severity of the Clean Air Act violations at the Central Landfill in Johnston, RI. CLF filed suit against the owners and operators of the Central Landfill in December 2013. Today, CLF is continuing work to stop the violations at the Central Landfill in order to remedy the risks to public health and the environment. In this blog series, you’ll learn about the issues at RI’s Central Landfill, and why they’re a problem for all people, not just those in Johnston and neighboring communities.

As a native of the coal fields in rural Appalachia, I’m no stranger to health and environmental risks from local activities. I understand firsthand that the direct and harmful impact of regulatory violations may seem far removed from everyday life. In Appalachia, many people know that coal mining is bad for our health and the environment, but few Appalachian natives pay much thought to the mines – even when people get sick – because these mines are such an ingrained part of our lives. When you’re caught up in the busy-ness of day-to-day living, it can become easy to forget that clean, healthy air should be the norm, not the exception.

At the same time, the regulations designed to safeguard people and the environment from the harmful impacts of activities such as mining coal or operating a landfill can seem of little consequence in our daily lives, but their positive effects are real.

I think it’s fair to say that’s been the case with the Central Landfill, which has been allowed to pollute our local air for so long that it’s simply become the norm for too many of the people living in its shadow. The gases the landfill emits are not only bad for the physical health of its immediate neighbors, however. On a broad scale, fugitive emissions like the kind generated by the landfill contribute to global warming, which means they have real and lasting effects for people everywhere. Those gases can be used beneficially, but the consequences of irresponsibly handling them – as the Central Landfill has been doing for years – are too significant to be ignored.

Landfill gas is between 45% to 60% methane. Methane’s climate change impact is 25 times greater than carbon-dioxide. When the Central Landfill’s gas collection system fails, it allows methane to contaminate the atmosphere.

The remaining components of landfill gas are carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, benzene, and ammonia. Back in 2011, hydrogen sulfide escaping from Central Landfill caused a potent rotten egg smell. (See PDF from Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation.) Although the rancid odor was perhaps the most immediately noticeable problem, that was just the canary in the coalmine. The odor has recurred since then and other issues are ongoing.

In the coming weeks, you’ll learn about four issues at the Central Landfill: how the Central Landfill’s owners and operators have failed to collect gas, failed to destroy volatile organic compounds, emitted sulfur dioxide into the air, and failed to obtain a single permit to protect people against these systemic and recurring issues. These multiple failures have had profound impacts on the health of local residents – not to mention the health of our overheating climate.

By stopping the violations at Central Landfill, CLF is working to improve environmental and public health. Coming from coal country, where the health impacts of the mines have too often been ignored, it’s refreshing to see people here in Rhode Island stand up and push for change.

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