By Joshua Mills
Explosive levels of methane were detected Friday, Oct. 27, in a manhole of the Spanish Fork Ranch residential neighborhood.
The area, built on top of a landfill, is under study for dangerous gas emissions.
Ron Tobler of the Utah County Health Department measured the levels of gases two feet under a manhole cover and identified a 20 percent methane level.
“Ten percent is combustible and 20 percent is explosive,” Tobler said.
Tobler said people could be harmed if a fire were lit in the manhole.
Tobler said the underground collection pipe is fulfilling its purpose to let gases escape.
“That pipe is carrying methane very efficiently the way it was intended to,” Tobler said.
However, the gas levels are so high that there could be an explosion, Tobler said.
“Most of the methane we’re seeing is from the landfill,” Tobler said.
This level of methane will increase during the springtime, Tobler said. The current level is probably lowest at this time of year.
Tobler said a gas-collection pipe from the lower levels of the landfill feed gases into the manhole. Some of the methane could be coming from the sewer water as it decomposes, but not much because hardly any water is in the sewer, Tobler said.
He said the health of residents is in danger from fear as much as from the gases themselves.
“They really have some serious health consequences. If you’re worried constantly for the next 20 years of your life, you will not live healthy and happy,” Tobler said.
Resident Kevin Winder said he is unhappy because he was not notified until after moving in that he was buying a home built on top of a landfill.
“We’re disappointed and disgusted. It’s been the worst experience of our lives,” Winder said.
Winder said he has virtually no chance to sell the home he originally bought for over $60,000.
Tobler said the city and county are trying to make the area a healthier place to live.
“That’s what we’re trying to resolve,” Tobler said.
To determine the levels of gases threatening people in their homes, the Utah County Health Department enlisted the help of a BYU environmental science team, including a professor and some students.
“We do know that there are long-term issues of well-being, and that’s the reason we have BYU involved,” Tobler said.
Richard Terry, professor of agronomy and horticulture, is leading environmental science students in an environmental case studies class to measure levels of gases in the soil.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to evaluate that and give the county health department some assistance,” Terry said.
Students took samples of 14 separate spots near residents’ homes Friday. Samples were also taken near the underground gas-collection pipe.
Accurate results from studies will take time and multiple samples, Terry said.
“Before we can really interpret these results we have to take more samples,” Terry said.
Terry said results will be delivered to the health department and then interpreted for significance.
Both Terry and Tobler said they believe gas is coming up through the bottoms of the homes because the under-home, protective, plastic layer is inadequate.
“It has been laid down pretty haphazardly. My fear is that it may be coming up through the ground under homes, everywhere, and that would not be good,” Tobler said.
The cause of the gases is water mixing with trash, said Matt Evans, a senior majoring in environmental science.
“Anytime you’re going to add a lot of moisture, the garbage is going to get wet, it’s going to ferment, and gases are going to come up,” Evans said.
Tobler said he is not sure whether the water getting in contact with trash is at the top or bottom of the landfill.
High levels of groundwater are dangerous for the residents because the mixture with trash creates more gases, Tobler said. He said groundwater levels would increase with more precipitation, creating higher levels of gas emissions.
Tobler said recommendations for reducing the amount of water that gets in contact with trash were delivered in a recent letter to residents.
“Beautify the area, plant grasses … but be careful not to overwater. Overwatering allows that water to pass the root zone, and then it ends up in the garbage again, making more gas,” Tobler said.
The students said the problems with the landfill are a result of poor landfill management prior to the 1990s.
Results from the study of whether the landfill was capped correctly will be delivered today to Spanish Fork officials by engineers at the firm RB&G.