Hanover Park, IL – Along with pots and pans, a stove and a fridge, Karen Perez’s kitchen contains an extra piece of essential equipment.
It’s an alarm that will alert her family if methane gas is detected at dangerous levels.
The device is “a comfort, but it’s a constant reminder,” said Perez, who lives beside the Mallard Lake landfill near Hanover Park.
“Our lives are not our own. We live in fear and uncertainty.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started testing homes in Perez’s neighborhood in November for methane, which can cause explosions or fires if trapped in confined areas such as basements.
The gas is seeping from the landfill at Schick and County Farm roads and has been detected underground, although not in any homes.
The dump has a history of pollution problems. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency was aware in 1994 and 2000 that methane gas was found at unsafe levels near the perimeter.
And that’s why Perez and others are asking tough questions about the state’s accountability.
“Someone has to be held responsible,” Perez said.
IEPA administrators say they’ve worked to correct methane issues at the landfill.
“We have taken enforcement action,” IEPA Communications Manager Jill Watson said.
Meanwhile, the probe is expanding as investigators try to define the extent of the leak and figure out how to stop it.
“I know this problem can be solved. We have the technology to do it,” EPA on-scene coordinator Steve Faryan told residents at a community meeting last week.
Still, doubts persist.
“If they fix it now, what’s going to happen later?” Perez wondered.
Methane is a colorless, odorless gas that is produced in landfills when garbage decomposes. It’s also a main component of natural gas.
“It’s highly flammable,” Illinois Institute of Technology biophysicist Andrew Howard said. “If you have a pipe with 75 percent methane and someone happens to strike a match near it, you may have a nice little fire.”
At Mallard Lake, the gas is collected by a system of pipes and converted into electricity.
As of Friday, 135 houses, mostly west of the landfill, have been screened for methane with no positive readings.
But underground, the gas has appeared in 33 of 75 wells drilled in the neighborhood near the landfill.
The area of concern is roughly defined by Hawk Hollow Forest Preserve to the north, DeForest Lane to the south, Discovery Park to the east and Morton Road on the west.
“We call it chasing the plume,” EPA spokesman Mick Hans said. “Typically we follow the contamination until it appears to peter out.”
It takes at least 5 percent methane in the air for an explosion to be possible. Some wells have indicated readings of up to 80 percent. But the gas has been found mainly at depths between 40 and 60 feet underground.
Methane was found as close to the surface as 12 feet in Discovery Park, on the landfill’s southwest border. That occurred because the methane collection system shut down, likely because of a power failure, Faryan said.
Mallard Lake, owned by the DuPage County Forest Preserve District and operated by BFI Waste Systems, has a history of problems.
It opened in 1974 and closed in 1999. In 1979, the state’s attorney general took legal action to halt dumping of hazardous waste there.
The forest preserve also accused the landfill’s former operator, E & E Hauling, of failing to install clay liners to prevent leakage in original parts of the dump.
EPA experts said they believe the methane is escaping through a seam of sandy soil below the clay.
In 1994, E & E Hauling informed the IEPA that dangerous levels of methane were detected near the landfill boundary and promised to fix the problem.
In 2000, methane was again found near the dump’s perimeter by Discovery Park. A public meeting was held on the issue and monitoring wells were installed.
“Obviously, they’re not working well enough,” the EPA’s Faryan said.
The landfill is also at the center of another controversy involving vinyl chloride that showed up in people’s private water wells south of the landfill in 2005.
The source of the vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical associated with landfills, has not been officially determined, but a lawsuit alleges it came from Mallard Lake. BFI has denied that claim.
Residents at last week’s public meeting at a Hanover Park school quizzed officials about whether the IEPA had dropped the ball.
“To me, it sounds like the bare minimum was OK,” homeowner said Sam Fantauzzo, who just had a methane detector installed.
“In the meantime, hundreds of homes are affected because maybe someone took the short route.”
In response, IEPA officials said the agency had diligently monitored the landfill. Because the issue is complex and involves years of records, it would take a few days to respond fully to concerns, Watson said.
Forest preserve officials said they couldn’t comment on the methane issue because of an ongoing lawsuit.
“All we can say is the investigation is under way,” district spokesman Bill Weidner said.
BFI and the forest preserve have signed an administration order with the U.S. EPA agreeing to investigate the leak and control it.
BFI is paying for methane detectors and is “working diligently to identify and contain any gas migrating beyond the boundaries of the landfill,” a statement from the company read. So far, 116 detectors have been distributed.
Environmental attorney Shawn Collins, who is suing the district and BFI over the methane on behalf of 1,000 families, says the IEPA “has been worse than a failure. It has fallen down on the job horribly.”
EPA experts stress no gas has been found above the surface and were optimistic that would continue.
In the meantime, possible solutions to stem the flow of gas from Mallard Lake include constructing a wall underground or installing a series of wells that will essentially vacuum back escaping gas.
“It’s very solvable,” EPA environmental engineer Donna Twickler said.
But for residents such as Fantauzzo, questions remain.
“Why didn’t we have a barrier plan to begin with?” he asked.
Another twist in the methane saga is how to eliminate gas that has already migrated.
At Hawk Hollow Forest Preserve, the gas could be burned off. But removing it from the neighborhood is “going to be a big challenge,” Faryan said.
Meanwhile, public comments on the administrative order are being accepted until Feb. 1. And in March, a report on the investigation is due.
Some residents say they weren’t bothered by the situation as long as they’re kept informed. But Libby Ford said she’s worried about her biggest investment.
“I am concerned. I put a lot of money into my house,” she said.
Faryan said he believes a solution is in sight.
“My goal,” he told residents, “is to get it completed as quickly as possible so your lives go back to normal.”