June 16, 2024


Any climate action plan that wants to quickly stem the tide of global warming must take action methane, which traps orders of magnitude more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide in the first years after it is released. For this reason, the Environmental Protection Agency recently required oil and gas drillers to monitor for leaks of the powerful greenhouse gas — and fix them immediately if they are found. The new regulations also empower community groups and environmental advocates to report fossil fuel companies if they can provide evidence of leaks themselves.

However, none of these requirements apply to one of the largest sources of anthropogenic methane emissions in the US: landfills. As food waste and other organic matter decompose, they generate methane and other harmful gases. As a result, landfills account for nearly a fifth of the nation’s methane emissions, but nearly half of U.S. landfills do not have gas capture systems installed, nor do they need to. In fact, emissions from many smaller landfills are not regulated by the EPA at all. For those subject to regulation — because of their size and estimated toxic emissions — landfill operators must walk their facility’s perimeter and take methane measurements every 100 feet four times a year.

There are more than 2,600 landfills across the country, and they leak the equivalent of 287 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air a year—a volume comparable to that which would result from operating 74 coal plants. A recent study by Carbon Mappera nonprofit that operates methane tracking satellites found that methane emissions from landfills are 40 percent higher than previously estimated by the EPA.

“Landfills have actually been found to be worse than oil and gas in the sense that when methane plumes occur, they are more persistent,” said Katherine Blauvelt, a campaign director at Industrious Labs, an environmental organization that works to decarbonize heavy industry. “If there was a canary in the coal mine, it would be dead.”

Despite this, new federal regulations do not appear to be on the horizon. The EPA last revised regulations to reduce methane emissions from landfills in 2016. And while the agency is approaching an August 2024 statutory deadline to revise existing standards, it has not yet begun a new rulemaking process. (EPA representatives did not respond to Grist’s request for comment Monday.)

Last year, Industrious Labs Obtain EPA inspection reports for four landfills in Oregon and Washington. The group found that inspectors reported dozens of cases when methane levels exceeded the EPA’s limit of 500 parts per million. In a follow-up report published last week, Industrious Labs broadened its analysis and examined inspection reports for landfills in an additional six states. The findings were alarming. The group found that nearly half of the inspections showed methane levels above the EPA’s threshold — even though, in many cases, landfill operators themselves had recently assured the agency of their compliance.

“That’s where you immediately say to yourself: ‘Something is wrong with the system,'” said Blauvelt. “The landfill operators are being set up to fail if they miss these large methane leaks.”

Blauvelt added that operators should opt for aerial monitoring technology such as drones and satellites, which can provide more accurate coverage, rather than the quarterly ground-level measurements that are the current standard.

Meanwhile, residents living near landfills are struggling with nasty smells and explosions. In Southern California, a underground fire at Chiquita Canyon Landfill has produced noxious fumes and contaminated runoff for the past two years. In Berkeley, explosive levels of methane was located at a dump under a park.

Joel Geier became very familiar with the foul odors associated with these sites in 2005, when he moved into his home less than half a mile from Coffin Butte Landfill near Corvallis, Oregon. Most days the wind blows away from his house, but on the days the wind blows south, he is hit with a “toxic chemical smell,” he told Grist, along with an “acidic decomposition-type smell. “

Geier is a hydrogeologist, and he has been closely monitoring the flow of runoff from the landfill. In recent years, high levels of arsenic have been found in monitoring wells around Coffin Butte. When it rains, water seeps through the landfill and reacts with the various chemicals it encounters on its way. The resulting brew is called leachate, and it can end up in groundwater and contaminate water wells that residents like Geier rely on. (Coffin Butte Landfill representatives did not respond to Grist’s request for comment Monday.)

Leachate also interferes with methane collection systems. Buried in landfills are perforated pipes that capture and treat gases before they can escape and pollute the atmosphere. Coffin Butte collects approximately 30 million gallons of leachate per year. When EPA inspectors visited the landfill in recent years, they noted that methane levels exceeded the agency’s 500-parts-per-million regulatory threshold at the leachate cleanup sites. Gas buildup was sometimes so high that inspectors noted that some tarred areas of the landfill were visibly inflated.

Blauvelt is hopeful that when the EPA issues new landfill rules, it will borrow from its strategy for the oil and gas industry. By tackling methane, the Biden administration can reduce planet-warming emissions and improve living conditions for communities across the country, she said: “This is an issue that has a lot of wins attached to it, if they choose to act. “






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