Residents near the Chester/Union county line have grown used to seeing smoke emanating from the Bennett Landfill.
For seven months, a heavy blanket of noxious smoke has accumulated over the Union County town of Lockhart, escaping from the burning cavern beneath the landfill on the other side of the Broad River.
But the plumes rising from the site recently are just as likely to be steam produced by the crews from the federal Environmental Protection Agency who have started working to seal up the blaze once and for all.
“It’s early on in the process, but we’re already seeing improvements,” said Matthew Huyser, the EPA’s on-site coordinator. He is overseeing a dozen contract workers who are enclosing and compacting the area that’s burning.
Lockhart has been exposed to heavy smoke for seven months, with particularly visible smoke hanging over the town in the mornings and evenings. Huyser attributes this to a “temperature inversion” that keeps the heavier air lower in the atmosphere at times with little or no wind. The region’s low-lying topography compounds the problem for residents.
“Lockhart is kind of sandwiched between two hills, which allows for that smoke to accumulate,” he said.
Crews have established an operations area over 16 acres of the landfill site since work began last week, although the EPA estimates the area where smoke is escaping covers only about a half-acre. Compactors are covering an area twice that size just to be safe.
Overall, the landfill covers about 40 acres.
The project is being worked by about a dozen contract workers with CMC Inc. of Nicholasville, Ky., along with EPA officials. CMC is a regular contractor for this type of environmental work for the EPA’s Southeastern office in Atlanta.
How do you put it out?
Contractors are trying to close fissures in the soil through which the smoke – and potentially hazardous chemicals – are escaping. But the months-long process of encapsulation may not actually put the fire out, according to Gary Broberg, a fire suppression expert with High Heat Fire Specialists.
“It’s not going to solve anything as long as the fire’s got fuel,” he said. Oxygen can reach the fire’s underground cavern through even small cracks in the earth.
“You can seal it up all day; if there are still fissures there at all, it will still fuel the fire,” he said.
Broberg says his crews extinguished a similar landfill fire in Warren, Ohio, in 2002. An underground fire had burned for three years when High Heat used an infrared measuring system to find the blaze’s location. Using a backhoe and specialized wetting agents, High Heat penetrated the cavern and put out the fire for good. Broberg estimates the total operation took about eight hours.
“It’s not enough just to have wahoos go throw water on it, because it will evaporate,” Broberg said. “There are three components to a fire – oxygen, heat and fuel. You take out one, you stop the fire.”
Broberg offered to do a similar job at the Bennett Landfill, but Huyser said the EPA and others have had success with the compaction method in similar situations.
“In the run-up to the mobilization and emergency response in November, we had various vendors try to sell their services to us,” Huyser said. “We talked with our third-party contractors, and this remedy is proven and has been used before.”
Huyser is skeptical of claims the fire can be extinguished underground quickly and easily when multiple fire departments battled the blaze for days last November without extinguishing the fire. Establishing where the fire is located from the surface is an inexact science, he said, and compression provides more certainty of long-term results.
“This is a longer-term solution,” he said. “We don’t want to start down one route, then decide to back off later and try a different route when that one turns out to be ineffective, and end up doing a cap anyway.”
How does compaction work? And who pays for it?
Far from requiring any special treatment or compost, the EPA intends to use only “native soils” to cover the fire. If possible, workers will only use soil from the Bennett Landfill site itself.
“We can calculate from the available material if we can do a stable slope,” from the acre-sized compacted area, Huyser said. “We’re not going to spend taxpayer money (to truck in soil) if we don’t have to.”
The compaction method is already showing results just in the two weeks since crews began their work, Huyser said.
“We’ve seen a measurable decrease in smoke and particulates. We’ve heard that anecdotally and we’ve measured better air quality,” he said, but added “by no means are we done.”
DHEC air monitoring, from monitors at the Lockhart Town Hall, the local school, and properties surrounding the landfill, are continuing to collect air samples around the site.
Readings from those monitors triggered the release of federal funds in April, when monitors uncovered high levels of benzine and formaldehyde in the air around Lockhart, creating enough of a public health hazard that more than $1 million in taxpayer money will ultimately be spent to cap the site.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has charged landfill owner Ronald Ray Olsen with “not having adequate financial assurance” to clean up the site as required by law. DHEC has said other dumping sites around the state are also failing to keep up with their financial obligations to prepare for just such a disaster.
What are the dangers?
While benzine and formaldehyde were found in large enough quantities off-site to warrant federal intervention, inside the landfill, the agency is monitoring for other chemicals that could also pose a hazard to their workers on-site.
“We measure for carbon monoxide as an indicator,” Huyser said. “We also test for airborne asbestos and fiberglass.”
While testing has yet to indicate the presence of either substance in the air at the landfill, monitors know that both are present on-site, as well as chemicals the agency has not been able to account for that may be burning underground.
“When you look at aerial photographs of the site, all the bright white spots are fiberglass,” Huyser said.
Equipment and operators on site get “inundated” with smoke and dust. The cabs of work vehicles are enclosed with filtered air on the inside, and workers operating on foot wear respirators, which Huyser says “look similar” to gas masks. Water trucks are kept on-scene to battle any plumes of smoke that may arise, and spotters on the surrounding hills keep an eye out for any fire danger.
Media were not permitted on the site because of safety concerns.
With such uncertainties remaining about what exactly crews are dealing with at the landfill, can the EPA be sure the newly compacted soil won’t open up again before the fire burns itself out?
“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Huyser said. “In the event something does go wrong in an isolated incident, we will partner with the state for any additional work that needs to be done.”
But, he says, “we’re going to make sure that’s not necessary.”
Bristow Marchant • 803-329-4062