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Landfill fire in paradise

By: Rosemary Stephen PMed, (cert) EOH, IPM, Elements: Environmental Health Intelligence

ResearchBlogging.org

A landfill on the Bahamian island of New Providence was set on fire in three different areas by an arsonist on 12 Feb 2010 [1]. The smoke rising from the fire became a nuisance for the local population and as well as for the residents of the capital city Nassau. The fire was finally brought under control after three weeks of constant burning.

The landfill occupies an area of about 132 acres. It is a state of the art landfill, specifically designed and constructed to meet new waste management and environmental requirements. This new landfill does not store hazardous materials or receive recyclables [2]. Hazardous wastes are kept at the land fill only until they can be hauled away and yard waste is shredded to become a low cost, high quality feed for animal agriculture [3]. The landfill is set back 1,500ft (457m) from institutions and habitation [4] and a visual vegetation barrier 200 ft (61 m) wide is maintained on the south side of the land fill. Regular sampling is carried out to monitor gases being released from the pile and to detect the presence of leachate in well water [5]. New Providence, as well as all other Bahamians islands, have high water tables which prevents waste burial [6].

To maintain anaerobic condition, the waste is compacted by piling 54 ft3 (1.5 m3) wire baskets filled with coralline rocks. This allows for the release of the gases that form naturally during the decomposition of organic matter [7]. Five waste cells, each lined with 60 mil (1.5 mm or 0.059 in.thick), high-density polyethylene geomembrane, were integrated in the design giving this landfill a total capacity of 20 years [8]. There is a gravity fed leachate collection system on the east side of the landfill and a 100 ft (30.48 m) buffer zone to accommodate access, drainage, and to stockpile cover material for the cells. No information was available to indicate that a methane recovery system has been installed [9].

The landfill fire represented quite a challenge for the New Providence Fire Department. Originally, the arsonist started the fires on the surface, but soon a subsurface fire developed. Surface fires in landfills are shallow and burn at a depth of 1 foot (30cm) to 4 feet (120 cm) and the temperature is usually low because the waste has been buried recently and has not been compacted. [10]. The smoke contains products from incomplete combustion [11]. Underground or subsurface fires, on the other hand, occur deep below the surface on older waste materials deposited months or even years before.

Subsurface fires are generally caused by an increase in oxygen levels which allows bacteria to reproduce more quickly hence increasing the temperature inside the pile. The rise in temperature is enough to ignite combustible materials. If methane gas is present, the fire can burn for months or even years [12]. Subsurface fires are not always easy to detect; signs like settlement of the pile over a short period of time, the appearance of smoke or smoldering odor emanating from the gas extraction system or landfill, CO level above 1,000 ppm, pile temperature above 170 °F (77°C), gas temperature above 140 °F (60 °C) and burned residue in extraction wells or headers are an indication of subsurface fire. Subsurface fires are dangerous because they require special techniques and equipment to extinguish the smoldering material [13].

Firefighters must be vigilant when fighting subsurface fires. These fires present serious hazards including burns, explosions, the cave-in of waste materials from walking over the area or from the weight of earthmoving equipment as well as exposure to toxic gases. Gases such as carbon monoxide (CO), at levels above 1,000 ppm over the surface of the waste pile, are of concern and appropriate specialized personal protective equipment is necessary [14]. Landfill fires can also spread to nearby areas when smoldering material become airborne and lands on structures such as roofs, gas tanks or combustible materials [15].

In the next article in this series, I will at look what impact landfill fires have on public health and environmental health…

Rosemary Stephen PMed, (cert) EOH, IPM (2010). Landfill fire in paradise Elements: Environmental Health Intelligence
References:

[1] Reynold, M. Toxic fume fire to ‘burn for months’ (2010) Tribune newspaper. (On-line) Available: http://www.tribune242.com/sports/02202010_dumpfire_news_pg1. Cited 22 Feb 2010.

[2] Drosdoff, D. Landfill with a conscience (2010) Magazine of the Inter-American Development Bank.(On-line) Available: http://www.iadb.org/idbamerica/index.cfm?thisid=3657. Cited 2010 Feb 26.

[3] Solid Waste Management program (1998) Government of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. (On-line)Available: http://idbdocs.iadb.org/wsdocs/getdocument.aspx?docnum=433509. Cited 2010 Feb 26.

[4] Ibid. Cited 2010 Feb 26.

[5] Ibid.Cited 2010 Feb 26.

[6] Ibid. Cited 2010 Feb 26.

[7] Drosdoff, D. Landfill with a conscience (2010) Magazine of the Inter-American Development Bank.(On-line) Available: http://www.iadb.org/idbamerica/index.cfm?thisid=3657. Cited 2010 Feb 26.

[8] Solid Waste Management program (1998) Government of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. (On-line)Available: http://idbdocs.iadb.org/wsdocs/getdocument.aspx?docnum=433509. Cited 2010 Feb 26.

[9] Ibid. Cited 2010 Feb 26.

[10] Land Fires (2002) Federal Emergency Management Agency, United States Fire Administration and the National Fire Data Center. (On-line) Available: http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/fa-225.pdf. Cited 2010 Feb 25.

[11] Ibid. Cited 2010 Feb 25.

[12] Landfill Fires: Their Magnitude, Characteristics and Mitigation (2002) Federal Emergency Management Agency, United States Fire Administration and the National Fire Data Center. (On-line) Available: http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/statistics/reports/fa-225.shtm. Cited 2010 Mar 02.

[13] Ibid. Cited 2010 Mar 02.

[14] Land Fires (2002) Federal Emergency Management Agency, United States Fire Administration and the National Fire Data Center. (On-line) Available: http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/fa-225.pdf. Cited 2010 Feb 25.

[15] Landfill Fires: Their Magnitude, Characteristics and Mitigation (2002) Federal Emergency Management Agency, United States Fire Administration and the National Fire Data Center. (On-line) Available: http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/statistics/reports/fa-225.shtm. Cited 2010 Mar 02.

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