May 14 - More Financial Assurances Needed for Landfills


An underground fire at the Bridgeton Landfill near St. Louis, Missouri has been burning for about two years, creating temperatures of over 200 degrees inside the landfill and emitting fumes that are a source of concern for neighbors. A post on St. Louis Public Radio’s news site quotes an engineer who’s been working on landfill fires for about 15 years. He cautions that the fire could lead to an even more serious problem.

Sperling says as long as a fire is smoldering deep underground where there’s little or no air, it should spread pretty slowly. But as it burns, it consumes material in its path, creating an empty space, or void. If the void gets big enough, it can cause a collapse.

The situation in Missouri sheds light on the fact that more needs to be done to require landfill operators to provide financial assurances for landfills, which pose a risk for catastrophic incidents even years after they are closed. Not asking operators to set aside this funding artificially lowers the cost of landfilling. This in turn creates disincentives for recycling and composting and leaves state and local governments on the hook for dealing with the aftereffects of a fire or other problem that occurs after a landfill has closed.

AB 2296, which was signed into law in 2006, was only the first step in addressing the shortcomings in state law. It requires operators to provide assurances for replacement and repair of environmental control systems. It also requires the CalRecycle Board to study the potential long term threats landfills pose to the environment.

The next step should be to require adequate financial assurances to deal with problems such as the one at Bridgeton Landfill should something similar happen in California.