Fields close as air monitors show landfill gas near Roxbury schools

By Louis C. Hochman/
on April 25, 2014 at 4:51 PM

ROXBURY — The air quality monitoring system put in place to pick up gases from the troubled Fenimore landfill site registered alerts several times Thursday and Friday, showing elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide near Roxbury schools.

Hydrogen sulfide is the gas that in late 2012 began spreading for miles from the landfill, carrying with it rotten egg-like smells. Many residents say the gas has made them or their children sick, citing respiratory problems, headaches and even nosebleeds.

The monitor known as ROX 11, near Jefferson School, picked up levels of the gas above 10 parts per billion at several points Thursday and Friday. Some particularly sensitive people can smell H2S at as little as 1 ppb.

The Roxbury Baseball Association sent its members a notice saying the school’s fields would be closed until further notice, because of poor air quality readings. Practices were moved to the Eisenhower Middle School Field.

Under a protocol established by the township’s health department, a reading of at least 10 ppb is enough to create a “yellow advisory” for the schools.

That level is intended to “initiate a request to prepare for an onsite response to monitor designated school properties (outside of school buildings) with a handheld H2S monitor.. The protocol also says handheld monitoring details are to be determined.

In a series of email exchanges with Roxbury resident Linda Keane, whose child attends school in the township, Superintendent Patrick Tierney said environmental, health and safety consulting firm Emilcott sent a representative to the schools Thursday for the first time since the protocols were established.

Both she and Roxbury Environmental Action Coalition technical adviser Bill Morrocco expressed concern in the emails that the district wasn’t following the protocol — having not called in Emilcott each time results hit 10 ppb. But Tierney said the protocol only calls for the district to “prepare for an onsite response to monitor” gas levels — not for the response to actually take place. Emilcott has established 15 ppb as the threshold for onsite monitoring, he said.

The protocol also calls for outside activities to be canceled if levels reach at least 20 ppb.

The alerts for the school system are far more conservative than those used for the general township population. At 100 ppb the township’s senior center is opened as a respite center. A series of higher benchmark levels set off other automated warnings and responses.

“So they cannot play baseball on this field but people can live across the street and the town has no legal obligation to inform them,” Keane said in one email. “My child’s school in right in front of that field too … and this is all perfectly legal.”

Keane — who copied media and several officials on her emails, as she has with correspondence with other officials about Fenimore — said her child weights 58 pounds and has asthma, and can be particularly sensitive to the Fenimore gases.

Fenimore began emitting high amounts of hydrogen sulfide in late 2012, several months after developer SEP began trucking in construction debris as part of a state-approved plan to properly cap the long-abandoned landfill and install a solar facility.

The state Department of Environmental Protection contends SEP mismanaged the project and didn’t control odors from the construction debris, which produces hydrogen sulfide as it breaks down. SEP says its work to cap the landfill with soil was helping to mitigate odors and would have eliminated them entirely. It also says the problem was heightened because construction debris came in wet from superstorm Sandy, accelerating the breakdown — a theory the DEP has never backed.

The DEP took over the site last summer. While gas releases spiked several times after the takeover, after the agency installed and began operating an oxidizer and scrubber system, gas levels began to drop off substantially. Hydrogen sulfide production can also be stifled by cold weather, and many residents have said they’re concerned about the impact warmer spring and summer weather may have.

The DEP has also factored the shift in weather into its own controversial long-term plan for the site — to first supplement the oxidizer and scrubber system with more wells that dig into Fenimore and direct the gases to the system, and then to cap the site with a geomembrane liner and soil. REACT opposes that plan, saying the state should truck out the construction debris, but the state has rejected removal as costly and dangerous. It says doing so would disturb the site further, releasing more gases than Roxbury has ever experienced, and spreading the odors to surrounding towns.

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