IEPA releases report on Cortland landfill incident

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DeKALB – The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has yet to determine what landfill gas caused students and staff from Cortland Elementary School to get sick last week, but has found Waste Management violated state law, according to a report the agency released Thursday.

The 18-page report does not detail the chemical makeup of the odor released Jan. 14, because samples were not taken at the site. But the report indicates that no toxic gases were detected by Cortland Elementary School, Waste Management or fire department detectors during the incident or by the environmental agency the day after.

“The agency will be seeking to obtain a representative sample of landfill gas from the underground gas collection well where the release occurred,” agency spokeswoman Kim Biggs said. “That will give us a complete analysis of the type of gas that impacted the school.”

Donna Shehane, a field inspector with the IEPA completed the report that details her inspection at Waste Management’s DeKalb County landfill and the follow-up she conducted with school officials.

Shehane concluded Waste Management had three violations. First, Waste Management violated the Illinois Environmental Protection Act by polluting the air. Waste Management also violated the stipulations of its permit with the agency by not filing a report in time to notify IEPA of the odor incident. The third violation was of the Illinois Administrative Code for not burning or treating the gas that caused the odor before it was released.

Waste Management spokeswoman Lisa Disbrow said the company is evaluating the report and did not have any comment.

According to Biggs, any sanctions imposed on Waste Management will come from the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

“The enforcement is ongoing through the AG’s office,” Biggs said. “Their action will be based on this information as well as any provided through any follow-up inspections.”

On Jan. 14, Midwest Drilled Foundations & Engineering, a Wisconsin-based third-party contractor digging a trench for a pipe at the landfill, hit an 80- to 100-foot area of old garbage. The smell from the old garbage travelled to Cortland Elementary where it entered the school’s ventilation system.

According to the report, Shehane was told Midwest Drilled Foundation and Waste Management workers were wearing monitoring equipment as they worked, which did not detect any toxic gases. The monitors did not log any data, however.

The deep trench the crew was digging was covered. Shehane also reported no unpermitted or suspect waste was taken to the landfill the day of the incident.

Once the odor was detected at the school, the fresh air intakes were closed to prevent air flow into the school, according to a report from the Cortland Fire Department included in Shehane’s report. The vents were then reopened slightly before Cortland fire officials arrived on the scene.

Fire officials told Shehane they recommended the school study its internal ventilation, heating and cooling system, her report shows.

The report from the Cortland Fire Department also shows children who went to the nurses office for feeling sick were sent back to their classrooms. The report shows that 49 people were transported to Kishwaukee Hospital from the school.

When Shehane visited Cortland Elementary, school officials told her they were concerned about how to “prove” the atmosphere at the school was safe, according to the report.