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Methane leaks from Michigan landfills pose environmental threat

DETROIT – Methane gas is leaking from Michigan landfills, posing an environmental threat that extends far beyond our state.

But there is also good news: technologies already exist that could help solve the problem – they are just not being used.

Methane is a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. A new study has found significant methane leaks at landfills across the country, “including several in Michigan,” said Katherine Blauvelt, campaign director at Industrious Labs, the nonprofit environmental group that conducted the study. Blauvelt told Local 4 that her organization's in-depth study of methane leaks at landfills found significant discrepancies between what landfill operators themselves reported and the EPA's findings.

There are about 60 landfills in Michigan, and under the federal Clean Air Act, these landfills self-report methane leaks. The EPA is not required to inspect landfills, but occasionally conducts landfill inspections. Industrious Labs reviewed numerous EPA landfill inspection reports – including for several landfills in Michigan. The group found that the EPA detected more methane leaks than the landfills reported to the agency.

For example, at the Brent Run Landfill in Montrose Township, the EPA found excessive methane leaks and potentially carcinogenic air pollutants. And at the Pine Tree Acres Landfill in Macomb County, the EPA found deficiencies in the landfill's gas collection system and 19 excessive methane leaks during an unannounced inspection.

The problem, says Industrious Labs, is that federal regulations for reporting methane leaks are severely outdated. Landfills are only required to self-report the invisible methane leaks four times a year using a portable device.

Blauvelt drew a technical comparison: “I would say the EPA standards are something like a Windows 2000 operating system.”

Carbon Mapper conducts aerial and satellite observations of methane leaks. The group documents the size and location of methane plumes using special photographs. Carbon Mapper's documentation is publicly available and the group makes it available to decision-makers free of charge.

“We can use known technologies to reduce these emissions, so why wouldn’t we want to do that,” Scarpelli said.

Landfills are the third largest source of methane leaks in the U.S. Of all the environmental problems we face, the problem of methane leaks from landfills is “very solvable,” according to Katherine Blauvelt. “It just takes action from our federal agencies to solve the problem,” she said. Local 4 emailed the EPA asking if the federal agency has any plans to change its actions to detect methane leaks from landfills. In response, the EPA said:

“Municipal solid waste landfills are a major focus of the National Enforcement and Compliance Initiative to mitigate climate change. By inspecting landfills, identifying excess emissions, and taking action against noncompliant landfills, the agency is reducing emissions in this sector. If EPA inspectors find exceedances of the surface methane limit during inspections, facilities are required to correct and re-monitor those exceedances in accordance with the timelines of the New Source Performance Standards for landfills.”

For more information on EPA’s NECI plans, click here.

Scientists who spoke to Local 4 said food waste is the leading cause of methane in landfills because it decomposes quickly, releasing methane. Food waste makes up about 25 percent of all waste that ends up in Michigan landfills.

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