Smellier landfill the fault of summer flooding


Imagine the worst smelling rotten egg. Now multiply that by 10 — and that’s the aroma at the Iowa City landfill lately.

The repugnant scent — not usually found at the facility — is due in large part to residual waste from summer flooding, said Dave Elias, the Iowa City landfill superintendent.

“Normally, waste that is placed in the landfill begins to decompose and release methane around five years after placement,” Elias said.

But the flood waste is decomposing much quicker — having sat in water for an extended period of time.

And debris from flood cleanup is also creating a unique problem.

“Gypsum board that was taken out of homes [after the flood] creates hydrogen sulfides,” he said. “Those sulfides are the bad smelling gases.”

That threw a bit of a twist into the operation, which has been open since 1973.

“The flood waste created a number of new conditions,” Elias said. “We had a lot of decomposing gypsum board, and we weren’t quite prepared as far as having an advanced gas collection system.”

The area of the landfill where employees were placing the flood trash was not yet equipped with a gas collection system.

A normal decomposition period is about five years, after which methane begins to be released. The landfill is required to have placed a gas collection system in each area within five years of it first being used.

The landfill operates in sections, which are filled with waste to a certain height above sea level. Each day workers place a layer of a papier-mâché-like substance on top of the waste, helping reduce volume within the cell.

To leech dangerous gases — such as methane, hydrogen sulfide, and hazardous liquids — each cell has a drainage system, which takes the liquid to be treated at the water plant.

In order to “prevent the material from leeching into ground water each cell is lined with shredded tires,” said Kevin Schmidt, a landfill operator.

This also prevents unwanted pieces of garbage from entering the drainage system.

Elias said the facility developed a plan to reduce the stench emanating from the landfill. Engineering consultants have been hired to help further the landfill’s gas collection system.

“We can’t really do anything in the winter when everything is frozen solid,” Elias said. “We hope to have a plan approved by the Natural Resources and get construction going in May, and before the real warm weather shows up.”

The city’s recycling and compost programs housed at the landfill were not directly affected by the flood. The Environmental Protection Agency was handling appliances and hazardous household waste.

Jennifer Jordan, recycling coordinator at the landfill, said the main issue isn’t the temporary odor, but the additional volume of trash the landfill will receive due to the flood.

Jordan said there was some discussion over reusing the oldest areas of the landfill, which were first used when methods were more primitive. No definite decision has yet been made about what will be done to address the issue.

“Our site is continual,” Jordan said. “We could be here virtually forever, dealing with waste in perpetuity.”

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