Friday, July 6, 2012

Fire Tornadoes, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Green Iowa Americorps

My ten month service term with Green Iowa AmeriCorps (GIA) has been the most diverse work experience I have had to date. Part of this is due to my relatively short employment history, another part seems to be the general flexibility needed by anyone working in nonprofit.  But the mission of Green Iowa has given me unique opportunities to learn about our daily lives as we teach and assist the Cedar Rapids community.

Take waste management, for example. And get your mind out of the gutter, I’m talking about landfill waste not sewage.

The Linn county Solid Waste Agency, fondly referred to as SWAG, has been a gracious mentor of the GIA team. SWAG's education program, headed by the energetic Jason Evans, gave Green Iowa the opportunity to learn more about the details of trash disposal and teach Cedar Rapids sixth graders about the proper disposal of our trash.

What did we learn and teach? For starters, recycle! Our team has gained insight about recycling that so much of the public is unaware of; in fact, we have learned so much that I hope to dedicate an entire article to recycling. But that will have to be an article for another time.

Back to waste management! The landfill, throwing stuff away right? If I may be so bold to assume what other people think, it goes like this: recycle what you can, check chemicals for hazardous symbols, and let the garbage truck deal with the rest. A fairly straight forward thought process that should avoid major catastrophe, right? Not exactly, trash disposal is far more complicated and perhaps that also deserves an article of its own, but for this article I want to explain the black cloud that hung over Iowa City for several weeks in June 2012.

For those of you not in Iowa City, or within 30 miles of Iowa City, let me tell you a story. On Saturday May 26 at 6:41 pm the Iowa City Fire department received a call from the landfill reporting a fire in one of their cells (trash holes). While landfill fires are not an uncommon occurrence in the U.S. they do present several causes for concern. Intuitively you can guess that a landfill contains a lot of very burnable trash that can potentially fuel a very large fire, you can also assume that not everyone disposes of their flammable, explosive, or poisonous chemicals properly. Which in turn can lead to an especially nasty fire with nasty fumes.  What most people do not know about landfill construction is exactly what caused this Iowa City fire to burn for several weeks.

Luckily, landfill construction is what Green Iowa learned about and taught to sixth graders in April. I will give you a quick lesson on how an average landfill is built.

Like most things in life a landfill is more complicated than what it appears to be, a great big hole in the ground. Because landfills are often close to cities, but just far "enough" away from cities, there is an inherent risk that the trash byproduct may contaminate local groundwater. Trash byproduct is liquid that filters through all the trash, and carries the undesirable characteristics of the trash with it, i.e. poisonous and harmful characteristics not mention just plain gross characteristics. 

The simple graphic of a landfill, not too complex.

This liquid is called leachate (pronounced leech-eh) and is carefully monitored and prevented from entering our groundwater by a horizontal draining system under the landfill, covered by 4 feet of compacted clay, covered by a non-porous geomembrane, which is covered by a porous substance that allows liquid through but keeps solids from sinking through the membrane and into the ground. All of that is what goes under the actual trash, it is quite the safety net. In the past, the Iowa City landfill used sand for this porous material but landfills are bowl shaped depressions and sand would often slide down the plastic surface of the geo-membrane. Shredded tires were used instead since they stayed in place, unlike sand and still allowed liquid through while keeping solids from sinking. The key difference between the two? Tires burn.

Leaping Landfills Batman! That’s a whole lot of design just to hold some trash.

Before I continue I want to make it clear that this is not a criticism of the Iowa City waste management. Tires work better than sand, their decision to line the containment cells with tires was the best decision for waste management, and the risk of improper disposal should not prevent the landfill from making the best management decision for their containment cells.

Unfortunately, the risk here is that rubber fires are hard to extinguish and the Iowa City Landfill fire is believed to have been started by improper disposal of a hot object such as cooking coals. Now throwing away hot coals is obviously destined to cause problems. So if you learn nothing else from this article, please please please do not throw away anything still on fire. Thank you.

The Iowa City fire department responded to the fire by setting up multiple fire breaks, working through the night to beat the spreading flames and operating heavy machinery amongst fire tornadoes. Fire tornadoes. You read that correctly. High wind speeds and large flames created these cyclones of destruction to assault the fire department and landfill employees in the night. Forgive the hyperbole, but this is right out of a movie script. Bruckheimer may have already bought the rights to this story.

Actual fire tornado from the actual Iowa City landfill fire

If you are wondering why the fire department did not simply try to put the fire out then you have discovered why I told you about the tire lining in the landfill cell. In addition to being flammable the tire lining creates a chemically fueled fire that requires more water and fire retardant foam than the fire department could muster. The fire department actually used a combination of 750 gallons of water and fire retardant foam on a relatively small area of the fire, the fire itself was suppressed but the ground temperature was well above 1000 degrees Fahrenheit and simply reignited.

Instead the city has been using a stir burn and cover method to suppress the fire. A fire needs three things fuel, flame, and oxygen, the stir, burn and cover method uses the dirt and trash itself to smother the burning material denying it the oxygen necessary to sustain a flame.

I quite like this method for suppressing the fire, it is clever and certainly saved thousands, if not millions, of gallons of water and foam from being sprayed into the containment cell. And clever solutions typifies the response to this fire overall. I heard plenty of complaints about how long the fire left smoke hanging over Iowa City and to be honest I joined in the complaints until I took some time to learn more about the response. The fire breaks that the Iowa City Fire Department created kept the flames from spreading and creating a larger cloud to hang over the city. Had the firefighters began combating the flames directly it is likely they could not have doused the flames before it spread across the cell. As it happened, the fire fighters contained the flames, protecting the rest of the containment cell from the flames and buying the city time to develop the best response.

Containing the fire is not the same as protecting the fire

I hope that this article has shed some light on the Iowa City landfill fire. After watching the Iowa City briefing on the landfill fire I felt there was a great story to tell and that some of the crucial details had been ignored by the news media. It was also a moment where I realized I had a greater interest in something as strange as a landfill fire because I had spent a good week teaching about the landfill. Regardless of how interested or disinterested you are in landfills themselves, I hope you learned something in this article.


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