MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WTVF) — As the City of Murfreesboro and Middle Point Landfill continue their legal battle, NewsChannel5 Investigates discovered years of reports that document the amount of methane escaping the landfill was well beyond state and federal limits.
For the last several years, Middle Point Landfill was required to provide the state with tests of their systems which carry gases from the landfill to nearby flares. These flares later burn off the gases.
Surveyors hired by Middle Point walked the landfill and flagged spots wherever methane escaped the landfill at a rate of beyond 500 parts per million.
Since 2018, these emissions reports showed methane exceeding levels as high as 45,000, 60,000, and even 83,000 parts per million. We counted more than 300 cases where these leaks registered above the 500 parts per million threshold.
Scott Banbury is a member of the Sierra Club Tennessee — one of the nation’s oldest environmental groups. He’s also very familiar with the landfill, or at least he thought he was before seeing these figures for himself.
“What was going through your mind when you saw these results?” we asked Banbury.
“Woah, are these numbers right?” Banbury said.
“In 2018 to 2019, they had so many hits above that 500 parts per million thresholds that it should have triggered mandatory expansion of the landfill’s gas collection system,” Banbury said.
Any time Middle Point exceeds the threshold, it is supposed to conduct additional tests after 10 days, 20 days, and 30 days to see if it's still a problem.
“It’s almost like they’re giving them a do-over on the field goals. Even though they’ve missed the field goal,” Banbury said.
So, what was Middle Point doing to bring these numbers down?
Look closely at each emissions report and you’ll see year after year, the first solution was almost always “compacted soil and clay.” In other words, cover it with dirt and hope for the best.
“So, it looks like they’re just putting band-aids on it and the band-aids are doing nothing to heal the wound,” Banbury said.
Sometimes these methane levels dropped, so nothing else was done. When these levels stayed high, Middle Point made more technical repairs like replacing gas wells.
If the problem lingered after 30 days, Middle Point was required to expand its gas collection system within the next four months.
Middle Point operators say that’s exactly what they did. They tell us they’ve spent $7.5 million to expand gas collection around the facility and that includes about 4,000 feet of gas lines. Still, some say it’s not enough.
Don Wilson has lived near the landfill for the last 17 years but says the smell is hard to get used to.
“Especially when it gets in your house, you don’t get used to that smell. On the times when the wind is coming this way, it’s bad and I’m not the only one who complains about it,” Wilson said.
There have been 2,000 odor complaints and counting on the City of Murfreesboro complaint portal since last year.
Mike Classen has been the General Manager at Middle Point Landfill for the last two years and says he agrees that “landfills are a hard neighbor to have.”
Classen sat down with NewsChannel 5 Investigates to talk about the reports and why dirt was almost always the first solution.
“Someone might look at that and think, that’s the bare minimum. What do you say to that?” we asked Classen.
Classen replied, “While it might seem like that’s the bare minimum, there’s a reason it’s listed first and that reason is soil is a fantastic barrier system.”
We asked landfill engineers around the country if using soil is common practice. Some said yes, but it was almost always followed by some sort of cover to lock in the gas. If you go by Middle Point’s emissions reports, we don’t see any mention of covers used when soil wasn’t enough.
“Some people might think, if they’re just using soil and clay, well no wonder we’re seeing issues with emissions or odor. What do you say to that?” we asked Classen.
“Don’t take my word for it that we’re doing things the right way here and certainly don’t take the city’s word that we’re doing things the wrong way. I think people should trust the state and federal regulatory agencies who have oversight,” Classen said.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation sent us a statement saying in part:
“If methane concentrations are detected at or above 500 parts per million (ppm) during the quarterly surface testing, Republic Services must remediate the area. Remediation may include adding more soil covering or adjusting the vacuum of the nearby wells. Subsequently, the remediated area must be retested within 10 calendar days. If the sampling points have methane concentrations that are still at or above 500 ppm, Republic Services must again remediate the area. Following, Republic Services would sample the area a third time, and if the methane concentrations drop below 500 ppm, Republic Services is not required to conduct additional surface monitoring until the next quarter. However, if any location has a third exceedance within a quarter, Republic Services must install a new well or other collection devices within 120 calendar days of the initial exceedance. Other alternative remedies to the exceedance can be upgrading the blower, header pipes, or control device.
Republic Services is required to provide the results of the quarterly surface emission testing monitoring to TDEC with an updated topographical map within their semiannual reports as well as making them available for review during site inspections. Additionally, Republic Services identifies all new extraction wells/collectors, re-drilled extraction wells, and abandoned extraction wells and collectors in their semiannual reports. The federal rule indicates elevated methane concentration(s) are not a violation if Republic Services follows the remediation requirements outlined in the rule and incorporated in their permit (see 40 CFR 60.753(g)).”
By those standards, Classen says there have been no air quality violations from TDEC over the past few years.
To their credit, reports show Middle Point now has fewer methane exceedances than they’ve had in the past. Classen says their systems have improved so much, they plan to build a facility on-site to turn landfill gas into renewable energy by the end of 2023.
A press release from Middle Point says the project will “create clean energy resources that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide meaningful environmental benefits.”
Murfreesboro city officials offered this statement in response:
“The City continues to be concerned that Republic paints an inaccurate picture when the reality is complete different and far from acceptable. A proposed project years away does not solve the problems the community is dealing with today.”
“I’m certainly not saying we’ll never have another area of concern or another violation ever again in the future. Chances are we probably will, but the important thing is how do we respond to that,” Classen said.
The City of Murfreesboro amended its lawsuit this past October. They're now accusing the landfill of a few EPA violations after allegedly finding another source of landfill leachate making its way to the East Fork Stones River.
Middle Point operators filed motions to dismiss this lawsuit as well, saying that if it were true, the EPA would have filed a complaint.