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Workers released odor during routine drilling at landfill

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 10:48 p.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014 12:02 a.m. CST
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CORTLAND – Waste Management plans to resume construction work at its Cortland landfill when school is not in session or during favorable conditions, company spokesperson Lisa Disbrow said.

The company will work with DeKalb School District 428 and DeKalb County officials to prevent a repeat of Tuesday’s incident, which caused more than 60 students and staff from Cortland Elementary School to be treated for carbon monoxide exposure.

An outside contracting company was doing routine drillwork at the landfill Tuesday when crews hit a pocket in the garbage, causing a “strong odor” of old garbage to be released into the air. The wind then carried that odor to Cortland Elementary School, Disbrow said.

Disbrow said she did not know the name of the construction company responsible.

Prevailing winds pushed the odor to Cortland Elementary. The National Weather Service reported winds were blowing at 16 mph out of the southwest at 10:15 a.m. Tuesday from DeKalb’s Taylor Municipal Airport, which put the school downwind of the landfill.

“We always try to take in to consideration the winds,” Disbrow said. “Unfortunately, that did not occur [Tuesday] morning. Winds changed direction and picked up.”

Disbrow said the construction company has been working at the landfill since December and “was not paying attention to the prevailing winds” Tuesday. Part of the project, which it is hoped will be completed in two weeks, is upgrading the gas system that controls odors.

Disbrow said it was not possible that the current gas system was not working. She said she did not know what gases or chemicals were released with the old garbage odor. Neither the landfill’s nor the school’s hydrogen sulfide monitors went off, and Disbrow said methane was not released during the incident.

Waste Management officials were in contact with the DeKalb County Health Department and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday. Landfill officials said crews began filling in the area emitting the odor as soon as they discovered the problem, and an IEPA inspector will visit the site today, agency spokeswoman Kim Biggs said.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, methane can only be produced when oxygen is no longer in the landfill. Common landfill gases include methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and carbon monoxide.

“The odors are a result of natural degradiation of organic matter found in ordinary garbage,” Disbrow said.

None of the workers on scene at the landfill became ill, Disbrow said. She described it as an isolated incident.

“We’re committed to not allowing this type of act to occur during these unfavorable conditions,” she said.

• Daily Chronicle News Editor Jillian Duchnowski contributed to this story.

What happened

A Waste Management spokesperson says crews doing routine drilling work punctured a pocket in the landfill filled with old trash, releasing gas with a heavy, sour odor that the wind carried to Cortland Elementary School.

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