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Landfill study shows flawed detection methods, higher methane emissions in Illinois, other states

Adriana Pérez, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

CHICAGO — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s method of detecting methane leaks at landfills is flawed, and emissions of this powerful heat-trapping gas are likely much higher than what is being reported, according to a new study analyzing landfills in Illinois and seven other states.

Released Thursday by the environmental nonprofit Industrious Labs, the study is the most recent of several reports that show landfill operators are likely understating their annual emissions to the federal government as major methane leaks go unnoticed. A Harvard study using satellite data released earlier this month found emissions at landfills across the country in 2019 were 51% higher than EPA estimates for that year. A study published in March in the journal Science used airborne surveys and found emissions between 2016 and 2022 to be even higher.

“The problem is worse than the numbers show or than what we thought,” said Katherine Blauvelt, circular economy director at Industrious Labs, which seeks to reinvent heavy industry in ways that reduce emissions and protect the climate. The nonprofit’s study relied on EPA and operator data.

Illinois ranked eighth in the country with the most methane emissions from landfills in 2022, the last reporting year available, according to the study.

Odorless and colorless, methane gas is released into the atmosphere when food waste breaks down in an airtight environment without oxygen, like landfills, which are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country behind fossil fuels and agriculture.

Methane has been likened to carbon dioxide “on steroids,” so reducing its emissions is critical to slowing short-term global warming. During its first 20 years in the atmosphere, methane has more than 80 times the warming power of CO2, effectively setting the pace for worldwide temperatures in the near future.

 

“No one is disputing that methane coming from landfills is impacting human beings, impacting the environment, our climate,” Blauvelt said. “I think there is a lot of consensus around: We need better tools and better ways to capture that methane, to find that methane. And the tools and standards that landfill operators are following today are not setting them up for success.”

The study found “disturbing” inconsistencies nationwide among 29 landfills, where operators documented few to no methane leaks, and federal inspectors later discovered several. During inspections at several Illinois landfills, the EPA found anywhere from 20 to 60 notable methane leaks at different facilities.

Methane leaks are considered a significant source of pollution when they exceed the EPA’s methane concentration limit of 500 parts per million.

There are 96 landfills in Illinois; 54 of them are required to report annual estimates to the federal government because of how much greenhouse gases they emit. According to documents obtained from the EPA and its state counterpart through Freedom of Information Act requests, these were some of the discrepancies found between 2021 and 2023:

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