Landfill fire cause suggested

Published 8:52 pm Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A May 15 fire at the Suffolk landfill is believed to have been caused by a combination of human error and random chance, as Suffolk board representative Dave Arnold commented during the Southeastern Public Service Authority’s board meeting Wednesday.

Steve Laliberty of BioGas Energy, the parent company of Suffolk Energy Partners, gave a presentation on the fire after board members raised concerns about it in the May meeting.

He said it’s believed a fault in a piping system that removes liquids from the landfill allowed oxygen into the well system that removes gas from the mound of trash. Landfill gas typically isn’t combustible, Laliberty said, but when diluted with oxygen it becomes combustible.

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A spark, possibly caused by static electricity, ignited the diluted gas and caused the fire. The blaze destroyed the gas well and burned about five acres of grass on top of the mound. Nearly a dozen units from Suffolk Fire and Rescue and area volunteer fire departments responded to fight the fire, which spread quickly due to high wind on that day.

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Laliberty told the board. “Fires do happen.”

But he added: “This incident, I feel, was probably avoidable.”

The fire may have been avoided if a technician monitoring gas levels had investigated when he noticed the higher levels of oxygen in the well, which began spiking as early as February, Laliberty said.

The technician was new, he said.

“We feel he just didn’t have a solid grip on the data he was looking at,” Laliberty said.

The program used to monitor gas systems now will flag unusual levels automatically, he added.

“This is our fuel supply,” Laliberty said. “We don’t take this lightly.”

The oxygen level in nearby wells now is being checked daily, he said. It was checked only once a month before.

Arnold, who questioned landfill officials about the fire at the May meeting, expressed appreciation for the report.

“I think you were very forthright,” he said.

Other board members made similar comments.

“That’s a sign of a learning organization,” said William Sorrentino Jr. of Virginia Beach. “When you’re a learning organization, you learn stuff so it doesn’t happen again.”