Thursday, January 10, 2013

Don’t Blame the Methane

There is a popular misconception that methane gas is stinky when, in fact, it is almost odorless. Methane (CH4) is the chief component of the natural gas delivered by your utility company. The company adds an obnoxious sulfur-containing chemical to the product as a warning agent for leaks. People who don’t know better conclude that the methane itself stinks.

The misconception is reinforced in local press reports about odor problems at garbage dumps and landfills. Methane and other gases are generated by bacterial activity as food scraps decompose. However, the rotten smell emerging from the trash heap is not due to the methane, but to other molecules that do stink. Depending on the type of waste and local conditions at the dump, the smell can get pretty intense.

In some landfills the volume of methane is large enough to create a threat of combustion. Then it must be collected via pipes and vented or burned. Sometimes it pays to use it to fuel a steam plant or electrical generator. These systems collect and burn foul-smelling non-methane gases as well, which may make the landfill somewhat less stinky. Then again, it may not.

Now consider yesterday’s headline in the Taunton [Massachusetts] Daily Gazette: “Company vows to eradicate foul odor at Taunton landfill.”

The story, by staff reporter Charles Winokoor, begins this way:
The smell that has elicited complaints from residents living near the city’s landfill should soon be a thing of the past, representatives of a methane gas conversion firm told city councilors Tuesday night. 
“It concerns us as well. We want to fix this,” said Anthony Falbo, senior vice president of operations for Fortistar Methane Group. 
Fortistar has a contract with Waste Management, which manages the city’s landfill. 
Falbo said he and his staff weren’t aware of a growing odor problem until recently, when City Council solid waste committee chairman Daniel Barbour publicly raised the issue.
Fortistar says it will soon add more methane gas extraction wells to those already on site. Yet reading the entire story, it isn’t clear whether Fortistar’s Mr. Falbo or Taunton councilman Barbour are clear on the concept: do they blame the odor on methane or do they just assume that collecting more gas of all types will eliminate the odor problem?

Should the new methane extractors not solve the problem, it’s a question that may come back to haunt the town and its vendors. Clarity now could head of a PR kerfuffle later.

Related: My Green and Stinky posts document the unwillingness of municipal composting operators to come clean about the inherent stinkiness of their facilities. Communities should be better informed and more skeptical about airy claims of odorlessness by all waste management vendors.

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