Work on putting out an ongoing fire in a Chester County landfill is on hold because of recent storms.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been working for months to extinguish an underground fire burning in the Bennett Landfill for nearly a year. Efforts to suppress the fire from the surface were scheduled to be completed this month, but work is on hold until at least next week as crews wait for the skies to clear.
“We’ve had two rain storms here that produced several inches of rainfall, and that damaged some of the exposed soil,” said Matthew Huyser, the EPA’s on-site coordinator at the landfill near the Union County town of Lockhart since suppression work began last June.
A dozen contract workers with CMC Inc. of Nicholasville, Ky., are attempting to put out a fire burning in an underground cavern inside the landfill by compacting soil over an acre of the cleared site. But heavy rainfall is affecting the soil, leaving crews with little they can do to stop it.
“Because we’re doing this all at once, we’re trying to cover an enormous area,” Huyser said. The staging area, including space for equipment and supplies, covers 16 acres of the 40-acre landfill.
If work were limited to a smaller area, the federal agency might be able to put up some protection against the rain, but Huyser that isn’t feasible over such a large site.
“At other sites, it would be ideal to operate with a smaller footprint,” he said.
But since the crews keep all their equipment on-site, they have been able to respond quickly to any water damage, completing repair work in a matter of days that may otherwise take weeks, Huyser said.
The fire in the Bennett Landfill has been burning since at least November, when multiple fire departments battled an outbreak for more than a week. Those crews contained the flames that burst through to the surface, but were unable to extinguish a fire burning through buried debris deep underground.
Instead, the fire smouldered for months, regularly releasing plumes of smoke over the nearby town of Lockhart and raising health concerns among its residents. In April, the EPA announced that air monitoring stations around the dump had detected enough hazardous chemicals in the air to release more than $1 million in federal funds to suppress the smoke.
Crews have worked for the past four months to close fissures in the soil that allow the hazardous smoke to escape, apparently with much success in eliminating the smoke over Lockhart. But now the final capping measures at the site – along with plans to put down some grass over the compaction area and improve stormwater runoff – are on hold until the weather improves.
The rainfall may also be helping the suppression effort. Huyser said the EPA’s monitoring of the underground blaze has shown improvements in the amount of particulates recorded over the rainy period.
But he adds, “I think that has more to do with the level of soil compaction we’ve done ... It’s basically finished.”
Compaction work is now expected to be completed in October.