Landfill continues to recover from 2012 fire


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A blaze consumed a large part of a newly constructed cell in the Iowa City Landfill a little more than a year ago, leaving a hot mess of toxic oil and spewing forth a plume of chemicals for Iowa City residents, public workers, and University of Iowa scientists to contend with.

For the first two months that followed, city workers were able to defeat the fire and turn their efforts toward the hazardous oil the burned tires left behind.

But construction of a new, smaller cell is underway, despite quarrels with the landfill’s insurance provider, Traveler’s Insurance.

“[The oil deposits] had to be sucked up and put into tanker trucks and taken to hazardous-waste-incineration plants all over North America,  Iowa City project engineer Daniel Scott.

The cost tied to the first few months of recovery, he said, stood at roughly $650,000. He estimates the total recovery cost will be roughly $3 million.

Construction of the new cell is underway. It is smaller then the one that burned, and workers are filling it with “select garbage” as it is being built and covering it with soil to prevent fire.

Melissa Miller, the city revenue and risk manager, said Traveler’s Insurance has only paid $170,000 of the approximately $1.5 million that has been spent.

City officials are working with the insurance company to resolve the differences.

“Our position is that damages incurred from the landfill fire should be a covered expense,” Miller said.

Andy Johnson, the executive liaison for the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, said the county didn’t incur any expense from the fire because the landfill is run by Iowa City.

Doug Beardsley, the director of Johnson County Public Health, said during the fire, his office advised people in the plume to avoid strenuous activity and to go indoors if they felt any irritation.

“We didn’t see levels high enough that we needed to cancel schools or have people evacuate the area, and that’s really what we were screening for,” he said.

County officials also asked local physicians, hospitals, and schools to take note of and report any unusual health problems, Beardsley said.

UI scientist Elizabeth Stone worked with other scientists at the university, the State Hygienic Lab, and the Johnson County Department of Public Health at the time to measure the emissions from the inferno.

Looking back on the fire, Stone said, the plume’s emissions were short-lived.

“Particulates have a lifetime of maybe 10 days to two weeks in the air,” she said.

The UI research team had performed air-quality studies for about a year before the fire started, Stone said.

The study observed a spike in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which was consistent with their prior understanding, Stone said, but the study did not observe an increase in trace metal concentrations.

“… There were some prior studies that suggested that tire fires might release large amounts of zinc, lead, and iron … that was actually a really positive finding that those weren’t getting emitted into the atmosphere,” she said.

A local elementary-school principal kept in touch with the Johnson County officials and followed their guidelines when the recess bell rang.

“When [the plume] went over us, we kept the kids in for recess,” said Chris Gibson, the Weber Elementary principal. “But when it went south, we went outside.”

Cooping up the students presented a challenge to learning because kids need to run around and release energy, she said, so school officials went outside and sniffed around before making the final call at the beginning of each recess period.

“We didn’t have any health challenges we were aware of during the day,” she said, and the school did consult with parents and kept a few children with severe asthma inside.

Ultimately, Stone said, the real-world study of tire-fire emissions was complementary and sometimes contradictory to previous laboratory studies.

“Although it was certainly an environmental disaster, it was something we were able to learn a lot from,” she said.

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