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Questions and answers on the Iowa City landfill fire

Iowa City assistant city manager addresses possible causes, cost, safety and more

Smoke billows from a landfill cell as Iowa City firefighters and landfill employees continue to work to contain a smolde
Smoke billows from a landfill cell as Iowa City firefighters and landfill employees continue to work to contain a smoldering fire of the liner system at the Iowa City Landfill on Tuesday, May 29, 2012, in Iowa City, Iowa. The fire started Saturday evening and is expected to burn for several days. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

On Tuesday, The Gazette toured the landfill alongside Iowa City Assistant Manager Geoff Fruin and discussed the future of the tire fire that has been burning for the last four days, casting thick black smoke over Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty. The fire has burned 7.5 acres, and officials said they expect damages to total between $4 million and $6 million. Iowa City Fire Chief Andrew Rocca also took questions.

Question: How much longer is the fire expected to burn?

Fruin: There's really no set amount of days. We're going to first finish up with what we need to do on containment, and then we're going to start to look at some extinguishing methods, but at this point it's likely that we may just let it self-extinguish. After it's contained we'll look at opportunities to move dirt onto the places that aren't burning.

Q: Why has the department decided to allow the fire to burn out on its own?

Rocca: All the research that we've done related to this landfill cell fire and the nature of it being shredded tires indicates the best option is to let it burn, and I know it probably sounds contrary to what people might think.

It truly does burn as much of the toxins up as it can and disperses it into the air. And to do anything with extinguishing agents — whether it be water or some type of foam   — while it would be labor intensive and very costly, there's also a runoff aspect and a concern to the environment, and so right now research suggests to let it burn and so that's our best option.

Q: There's been speculation the fire started as a result of someone dumping hot coals in the landfill. Is there any more information regarding how this fire started?

Rocca: That's our best guess. Clearly a hot load of something was dumped out here. We don't know exactly what it was and probably never will. There's no way to really monitor load by load or the contents of a load.

Q: The damage is now estimated to be between $4 million and $6 million. Who will take on those costs?

Fruin: It's a city-owned property, so that falls on us. We're working on insurance claims issues right now and we'll continue to work with the insurance company for a number of weeks and months to ensure the claims are filed appropriately.

Q: Do you have any concerns with methane gas being released into the air? What other kinds of environmental concerns exist?

Fruin: [The landfill has] a pretty sophisticated gas control system, so we're able to turn it off and on and control that, so we're pretty comfortable we're able to control that right now.

The one fortunate aspect is that [the fire] is taking place in a landfill cell, so there is a complex filtration system, so the runoff from the burning here did not penetrate much of the ground water. Our primary concern right now is the air quality and making sure that we continue to work with the Johnson County Health Department and the state DNR doing whatever we need to do to monitor the air quality.

Q: What role has the landfill played in containing the fire? Are any precautionary medical checkups being conducted?

Fruin: We're moving dirt to create some buffers. We needed to open up a couple of those old cells that still had capacity so we can continue to accept trash so they're removing dirt to open up the capacity for current use. Then we're utilizing that dirt and we're taking that to the back and the workers are using it to build buffers wherever the wind allows them to work.

We're certainly monitoring (the workers) very closely. We've got some masks that they're wearing and we're rotating the workers in and out throughout the day. (Worker safety is) certainly a big concern of ours and we'll continue to monitor it.

Q: After the fire has been put out and things have started to settle down, what is the plan for using the landfill again?Fruin: It's probably premature to say exactly, but there will be some remediation and some cleanup that we'll have to get into, and ultimately we'll look to rebuild the cell, but that's a decision to be made down the road.

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