After Fighting Back a Landfill Expansion, Houston Residents Await EPA Consideration of Stricter Methane Regulations

When the Hawthorne Park Landfill opened in 1977, it transformed everyday life for residents of Carverdale, a historically Black neighborhood in northwest Houston. Myra Jefferson has seen pests and roaches from the dump multiply over the decades and remembers yellow dust from the rot sticking to everything. 

“The odors were deplorable. Oh my god, you’d learn how to take small breaths,” said Jefferson, 70, who worked for years as a court reporter and government employee in the community.

The landfill stifled the neighborhood’s potential, she said, and discouraged businesses from moving into Carverdale. In 1995, Jefferson created the nonprofit Revitalize America Partnership to spur economic opportunities in Carverdale and neighborhoods across Houston. 

The landfill, which opened as a 10-acre lot, was acquired by Waste Management Inc. in 1996 and now stretches across 171 acres. In 2021, through its subsidiary USA Waste of Texas Landfills, the company sought to add another 38 acres and increase the height of its trash piles. 

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Jefferson and other Carverdale residents, along with the nonprofit Lone Star Legal Aid and the Harris County Attorney’s office, contested the expansion before regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. In addition to immediate harm to air, water and quality of life in Carverdale, they warned about a greenhouse gas—methane—rising from the spoiled landscape. Over a 20-year period, methane is 81 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

Today, Hawthorne Park accepts only construction, industrial and yard waste, but years before the landfill officially opened in 1977, the site was used as a dumping ground with no record of exactly what was left. As recently as December, Waste Management, a Houston-based company, reported that its methane monitors detected concentration above the legal limit there. The company, as required by law, notified the fire department, environmental agencies and residents, according to Harris County Pollution Control records. 

“Landfills are emitting methane for decades after they stopped taking their last banana peel,” said Katherine Blauvelt, the circular economy director at Industrious Labs, a company that campaigns to clean up industrial sources of climate pollution. “Whether you live near a landfill or not, trash is impacting you.”

As organic waste including food scraps, wood and grass degrades, it releases methane, a major contributor to global warming. Landfills are the third-largest contributor to methane emissions in the United States, behind oil and gas operations and animal agriculture, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program

In 2023, ahead of the COP28 talks in December, 60 environmental organizations sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging the EPA to adopt strict emission rules for municipal solid waste landfills. The group said landfills alone are estimated to warm the climate as much in a year as 79 coal-fired power plants.

“There’s low-hanging fruit. The fruit is falling off the tree,” Blauvelt said, noting there are easy ways to reduce landfill emissions, such as high-tech monitoring of methane, more frequent landfill cover and expanding the number of landfills required to install gas collection systems.

Blauvelt said the EPA this year has the chance to make meaningful emissions reductions by modernizing rules for methane monitoring and gas capture. Under the federal Clean Air Act, the EPA is required by August to review landfill methane rules. The rules were last updated in 2016.

In an email to Inside Climate News, an EPA spokesperson said the agency is “considering new monitoring technology, incentivization of organics waste diversion, and emissions controls at landfills not covered by current regulations.” 

Gaps in EPA Landfill Regulations

Current regulations only apply to landfills that store more than 2.5 million metric tons of waste. Of the 10 landfills in the U.S. emitting the most methane, two of them are not large enough to trigger methane control, according to a 2023 report by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. “Trashing the Climate” found that landfills in Texas, the second-most populous state with 29.5 million people, emitted the most methane in the country at about 390,000 metric tons. California, the most populated state with about 40 million people, emitted 260,000 metric tons. 

California is among a handful of states that have adopted emission rules that go further than the EPA requirements. Leah Kelly, a co-author of the report and senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project, said the EPA should “require control at smaller landfills and then require controls earlier in the process.” 

Gas collection systems suck methane from mountains of trash through a network of pipes, and the gases are then burned through flares or converted into fuel. When a landfill expands, companies have five years to add systems to new sections, but experts say a lot of methane is generated early on and escapes. “[Food waste] decays so quickly that these landfill gas capture systems are not capturing a lot of the gas,” Kelly said. 

The EPA requires newly dumped trash to be covered with a thin layer of soil that prevents methane from escaping. Once full, landfills will be covered again with soil. There is no federal requirement for extra soil coverage while the landfill is active. Experts have recommended more frequent coverage to reduce methane emissions.

Effective landfill cover also helps gas collection systems prevent more methane from escaping. Landfill operators are increasingly refining captured gas into fuel dubbed renewable natural, or RNG. Burning the RNG still emits carbon dioxide, but not methane. Texas has 24 landfills that generate the gas for fuel, according to the EPA.

Hawthorne Park is not part of Waste Management’s plan for RNG capability, but six of the company’s facilities nationwide currently produce RNG, and five more will begin this year with $1 billion pledged to the effort through 2026, a company spokesperson said. “Collected landfill gas is used to create renewable energy, which can power communities and be used to fuel our natural gas vehicle fleet,” spokesperson Walker Robinson said in an email.

“The most effective solution to prevent methane emissions is: Don’t put the organic waste in the landfill.”

Some environmentalists are skeptical about describing RNG as a renewable solution. RNG could be an “add on” to gas collection systems, Kelly said, but “there are better ways to dispose of trash.”

Whether or not they have gas collection, most large landfills monitor methane emissions. Rules for monitoring vary by state, which is one factor, experts say, that contributes to an undercounting of landfill methane. At Hawthorne Park, Waste Management uses stationary air monitors. Other landfills send workers with hand-held gas detectors to walk across the landfill in a grid pattern to gauge emissions. 

Blauvelt said more modern monitoring methods—including using drones, planes and satellites—are far more effective. Even with potential updates to federal rules, Blauvelt said, “the most effective solution to prevent methane emissions is: Don’t put the organic waste in the landfill.”

If food and organic waste is composted through community gardens, city programs and commercial-scale composting, methane emissions can be avoided. But the EPA in 2023 found 60 to 70 percent of household food waste goes to landfills. The agency aims to reduce food waste 50 percent by 2030.

Permit Withdrawn, but ‘Dirty Weapon’ Remains 

Waste Management said Hawthorne Park is exempt from the EPA requirement for a gas collection system because the landfill, classified as a “type IV” landfill under Texas law, only accepts construction and yard waste. While not as damaging as food waste allowed at “type I” landfills, brush, yard debris and wood from construction sites can decompose and release methane. 

Beyond the December 2023 reading that triggered official notices to the county, stationary monitors at the landfill have detected excessive levels of methane off and on since the 1990s, according to documents obtained by Harris County during a contested case hearing over the landfill expansion request.

In an email to Inside Climate News, Waste Management said it is assessing ways to better detect methane, and the company remains “in compliance with extensive federal, state and local environmental, health and safety requirements.” 

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The company’s expansion plan for Hawthorne Park prompted robust opposition, including from Houston Mayor John Whitmire. Waste Management, which reported $5 billion in revenue in 2023 and recently rebranded itself as WM, withdrew the permit request in January. Residents said they were excited by a victory, but that doesn’t change the reality of living near a landfill.

Jefferson’s son, Andre Ammiel, remembers the landfill’s dust would stick to his skin whenever he, as a child, would play or walk outside. The residue turned his skin from Black to orange. 

Ammiel, now 52, called the Hawthorne Park Landfill a “dirty weapon” against Carverdale. He is making a film about his neighborhood and how the landfill hurt its economic prospects. “It’s a reparations issue,” he said, “to get a dump put in the middle of your area.” 

Jefferson remembers in the 1980s and ‘90s that many neighbors started dying of cancer, including her mother. Now Jefferson wants scientists to conduct a cancer cluster study on Carverdale and assess the health impacts of the landfill. “You don’t know if the ground you’re walking on is contaminated or not,” she said. 

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