06
Aug
08

On Fire

In late July, a huge compost pile caught fire at the Palo Alto dump. Gigantic billows of smoke drifted off to the neighboring communities, creating considerable alarm among the residents, most of whom (understandably) don’t like to be intimate with landfill and its various effluents. Fire engines and helicopters were dispatched to extinguish the smoldering ruin, after which a crew sifted through the entire pile in search of hot spots.

Compost Pile in 2006

Compost Pile in 2006

Barbara Cimino, a spokeswoman for the fire department, sought to calm the fears of residents in the path of the smoke, explaining it was all very harmless and quickly brought under control. The Huffington post fueled the flames by adding “toxic” to its headline, although that’s unlikely, considering it was the compost pile that was laid waste, so to speak. It won’t have been more unhealthy than smoke is, generally, I should think and to be avoided, but “toxic smoke” suggests something else to me.

Cimino noted that the fire department was investigating whether a truck had brought in combustible material. That’s what caught my ear, as definitely newspeak. Compost is by definition combustible. Moreover, the process of biodegradation generates heat and smoldering fires in landfills are common, as they used to be in haystacks, where moist hay can spur biodegradation and result in spontaneous combustion). Compost can’t be any different. So however it happened, in all likelihood, it was just in the nature of things.

A couple of years ago, I got a tour of the Palo Alto landfill from the manager, who showed me the active face, the recycling operations on top of the fill, the vast closed area which holds nothing but pipes and grass on top of the fill, and the area converted to park. He drove me around and explained what was what and how things worked, grudgingly at first and much more enthusiastically when he discovered I was nothing but ears.

He’d worked at the landfill since the early 1980s and told me stories about people stealthily trying to dump motor oil when the workers weren’t looking. About a lady bringing huge loads of new cabbage patch dolls just before Christmas, which the workers rescued and gave to a not-for-profit. About another lady dragging a worker under her car as he was helping her get unstuck from a muddy spot. About yachtsmen abandoning their craft as the marina silted up. leaving the landfill crew to deal with the remains.

Sunrise over the Palo Alto Dump

Sunrise over the Palo Alto Dump

And he explained that the landfill was smoldering under the surface pretty much all the time. Usually, the workers coould tell where the hot spots were when their PVC methane collection pipes melted. There wasn’t much they could do about it except lay more pipe for methane collection.

He told me he didn’t know what he would do when the landfill closed, not too far in the future now. He didn’t have much education, being an outdoors kind of guy, but operating the heavy machinery on the landfill all those years had caused a lot of damage to his body. It left him quite a few years away from retirement but not very many options.

It was an education, as I gradually realized that landfill workers get squeezed between government organizations that demand less trash, residents who want to dump whatever they want to get rid off, regardless of regulations, and the trash itself, which is wayward, nasty, and toxic.

Many people like the park that has been created out of the part of the landfill that was closed years ago, but the landfill manager, my tourguide, would just as soon hang himself as walk around there. “It’s filthy,” he said. “and there are nasty creatures all over it–black widows, rats, and all sorts of other vermin.” We’ll have to give it to him. he knew what he was talking about.

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