Landfill Gas Rules
The solid waste industry wants to ride the coattails of the push to subsidize renewable energy. Tax breaks it already enjoys for doing what the law requires anyway--control toxics in landfill gas emissions--are threatened by newly proposed federal legislation. So says SWANA, the industry's lobbying arm. But environmentalists point out that subsidies for landfill gas-to-energy plants (one way to comply with the control requirements and generate extra revenue) have an adverse effect on recycling because they encourage landfilling.
But it's the toxics in landfill gas that are behind the requirement that large landfills control the gas they generate, by collecting as much of the gas as possible, and by combusting the collected gas at such high temperatures that the toxics they contain are chemically destroyed. Here's what the rules require:
In 1996 the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules governing landfill gas. These rules, discussed in more detail below, require large solid waste landfills to install costly gas collection and control systems to control emissions of non-methane organic compounds (NMOC). In some cases, older landfills lacking modern liner systems must install them in order to ensure the capture and control system does not force toxic gases into the ground and out the sides of the landfill.
For major sources of air pollution, the regulations specify engineering standards for a "well-designed and well-operated" gas control system, a system that will achieve "the maximum degree of reduction in emissions of HAP that is achievable," at least as much reduction in pollutants as the best-performing 12 percent of landfill gas control systems. Among other things, this requires impermeable soil cover over active disposal areas on a daily basis. If fully compliant, the EPA estimates such a system will destroy by combustion 98 percent of the toxics in landfill gas. But then the gas flare or other combustion device may become a major source of carbon monoxide or nitrogen oxides, both regulated pollutants.
The EPA landfill gas rule was adopted in New York in 1998 under Part 360-2.21. In 2002 NYSDEC transferred these rules to a new Part 208, available from the DEC:
EPA Identifies Municipal Solid Waste Landfills as a Significant Source of Hazardous Air Pollutants
Research identifying landfills as one of the top 26 most significant sources of hazardous air pollutants influenced the EPA to launch its "National Air Toxics Program: The Integrated Urban Strategy." (64 FR 38706, July 19, 1999). The program is required under the federal Clean Air Act, and is regularly updated. For EPA's July, 2000 report to Congress on progress under the National Air Toxics Program, go to:
EPA's Landfill Gas Outreach Program
EPA's Landfill Methane Outreach Program is a voluntary program designed to encourage the development of environmentally and economically sound landfill gas-to-energy projects. A sponsored energy project does not excuse a landfill operator from the requirement that it collect and combust landfill gas. Combustion at high enough temperatures destroys NMOCs. Under the regulations, landfill owner/operators can either flare landfill gas or capture and use the gas as a renewable energy resource. Gas-to-energy projects at landfills that exceed the landfill gas rule's 50 megagram per year emissions limit for NMOCs must still destroy 98 percent of their NMOC emissions. See:
--and, under EPA's "MSW Topics":
The Landfill Gas Rule Explained
Since March 12, 1996, EPA regulations require installation of gas collection and control systems for new and modified landfills designed to hold 2.5 million megagrams (2.755 million tons) and 2.5 million cubic meters (3.27 million cubic yards) or more of waste over their lifetime and that could emit greater than or equal to 50 megagrams per year of NMOC (including about 30 air toxics). Equivalent state regulations apply to existing landfills that have not modified, if they are as large. Either the federal or the state regulations can be enforced by citizens under the federal Clean Air Act.
When any landfill reaches the size and volume thresholds, it must install a gas collection and control system that covers all portions of the landfill within 30 months. A regional landfill can be expected to emit landfill gas at rates requiring controls to be operated for over a century.
Landfills subject to the rule are expected to collect at least 75 percent of the gas produced by the landfill. The collected landfill gas must be combusted at a high enough temperature to destroy 98 percent of the toxics.
The success of a landfill in destroying air toxics is determined by testing for methane concentrations within 10 centimeters of the surface of the landfill, every 30 meters around the perimeter of the landfill and along a zig-zag transverse across the surface of the landfill and around the perimeter. A three-step test is then required:
If the methane concentration at any location exceeds 500 parts per million (ppm), the landfill must take action to reduce emissions at that location, such as adding cover or increasing the draw of nearby gas lines installed beneath the landfill surface. The landfill must then re-test for methane ten days later. If the methane concentration exceeds 500 ppm again, it must take further action to reduce the concentration and re-test again ten days later. If the test result is below 500 ppm, re-testing must be done one month later.
If the 500 ppm limit is exceeded a third time, the landfill must install an addition gas well in that location within 120 days.
Failure to install a new well upon the third exceedence, or failure to undertake the three-step compliance test is a violation of the Clean Air Act and exposes the landfill to an enforcement action under the Act.
Other requirements under the landfill gas rule include maintaining a negative pressure (vacuum) within a certain distance from all gas wells and at all wellheads, preventing infiltration of outside air into any gas lines, and maintaining a constant flame at all flares or combustion devices. Failure to comply with any of these provisions is a violation of the Clean Air Act. EPA, the state environmental agency or concerned citizens may sue to enforce the law.
RCRA, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and most federal environmental laws provide for citizen enforcement when the local permitting agency, which monitors and administers most federal environmental laws, fails to enforce violations. In New York, daily monitoring reports, quarterly and annual compliance reports are available from the DEC by making a request in writing "pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL)." These reports often list observations of violations which, if they are ongoing and not addressed immediately, subjects a facility to an enforcement action. Citizens have most of the same powers of enforcement as the DEC. To exercise those powers, they must bring a citizen suit in federal district court, based on evidence obtained from FOIL requests or elsewhere.
A successful citizen suit results in an award of attorney fees and other costs of suit. Success generally means the suit results in a finding of violation of important environmental laws and an order to come into compliance according to a reasonable schedule. Fines of up to $31,500 per day for each ongoing violation may also be imposed (payable to the U.S. Treasury). The cost savings to the landfill of noncompliance should be added to the amount of monetary penalties, which could be millions.
EPA software for calculating landfill emissions, EPA's Guidance, Fact Sheets, Federal Register notices for the 1996 Landfill Gas Rule and all subsequent updates are available at:
The federal Solid Waste Disposal Act (also called RCRA, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) has long required control of methane at landfills, but to prevent explosions rather than to control toxics. RCRA requires landfills to prevent methane concentrations in excess to 2,500 ppm at the landfill perimenter and in buildings on the landfill site. By contrast, EPA has determined that methane concentrations in excess of 500 ppm contain air toxics at levels that exceed acceptable health risks to those exposed away from the landfill site.
""They told me methane gas is not going to harm you, but I'm sick to my stomach and having headaches.
"It has woken me up in the middle of the night. I'm so sick to my stomach I can't get back to sleep. I just sit in my stinking house."
--Westville, NY resident living next to the Franklin County Landfill ("Landfill odor testing neighbor's limits," Plattsburgh Press-Republican,
March 7, 2002)
A copy of the DEC's FOIL form and instructions on how to use it can be found on our home page
Despite EPA's determination that the costs of compliance with the landfill gas rules are reasonable, the solid waste industry pleads for leniency when dealing with violations: "And these violations will occur. With a landfill gas system, that's the nature of the beast. They will go down at some poiint in time; there are too many variables our there--being exposed to weather, changing conditions at the landfill, settlement that causes system components to break." Solid Waste
Digest 14:3-4 (2003)