Elizabeth McGowan, Reporter

October 23, 2015

8 Min Read
Getting to the Bottom of EPA’s More Stringent Landfill Gas Rules

Those who want to weigh in on the EPA’s latest pair of proposals to rein in methane gas emissions from municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills have until Oct. 26 to do so.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave interested parties 60 days to voice their concerns after rolling out the dual proposals in late August. The agency’s aim is for new, existing and modified landfills to collect and control gas at emission levels roughly one-third lower that the current requirements.

That 60-day window prompted the Washington, D.C.-based National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA) and the Silver Spring, Md.-based Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) to pool their resources to respond to the EPA’s request jointly.

“We are furiously drafting comments to meet that deadline,” Anne Germain, NWRA’s director of waste and recycling technology, tells Waste360 in an interview. “We want to have our bite at the apple.”

One proposed rule, with the clunky name New Source Performance Standards for MSW Landfills, addresses the non-methane organic compound (NMOC) emission rate threshold at which an affected MSW landfill must install controls. The companion proposed rule has an equally bureaucratic name, Emission Guidelines and Compliance Times for MSW Landfills. In shorthand, the first is NSPS and the second is EG.

These proposals are based on additional data, analysis and public comments EPA officials received after announcing their intent to update landfill gas emissions requirements in 2014. In tandem, they strengthen a previously proposed rule for new landfills from 2014 and update 1996 emission guidelines for existing landfills.

Implementing these rules would cost $55 million, according to EPA estimates. However, climate benefits would add up to $750 million by 2025.  

Both rules, expected to slice methane emissions by about 487,000 tons annually starting in 2025, fall under the auspices of the Clean Air Act. They are part of President Obama’s broader Climate Action Plan.

In 2013, landfills continued to be the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions among stationary source categories in the nation, according to EPA figures. That amounts to 18 percent of total methane emissions in the country and 1.7 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

A couple weeks before comment were due to the EPA, Waste360 picked Germain’s brain about the two proposed rules, abbreviated as NSPS and EG.

Waste360: First off, let’s clear up some confusion. Methane is in the crosshairs but do these proposed rules specifically address it?

Anne Germain: Neither rule addresses methane specifically but methane is used as a surrogate. What that means is it’s easier for landfills to monitor for methane than the rest of the gases. So, if landfills have methane under control, by default they have other emissions such as HAPs (hazardous air pollutants) and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) under control.

Waste 360: Do these rules apply to all landfills accepting municipal solid waste?

Anne Germain: These rules apply to all MSW landfills above a certain size. The NSPS rule applies to landfills that are new or have undergone major modifications since July 17, 2014.

The EG rule applies to older landfills that were accepting waste after Nov. 8, 1987 and landfills that were constructed, reconstructed before July 17, 2014. It’s not designed to affect landfills constructed before 1987. If a landfill didn’t take any waste after 1987, how much gas could it be generating?

Waste360: How many landfills would be affected?

Anne Germain: An estimated 1,085 landfills would be subjected to the rules. That includes 645 operational sites and 440 future sites.

Waste 360: Currently, landfills with NMOC emission rates at or below 50 megagrams per year (mg/yr) don’t have to install gas collection equipment. The EPA proposed lowering that number to 40 mg/yr last year. The newest iteration pushes that threshold down to 34 mg/yr. How does NWRA weigh in on that?

Anne Germain: We want the NMOC threshold to remain at 50 mg/yr. At 34 mg/yr, a number of landfills might get pulled into installing systems. Some would be small landfills in rural areas that don’t have the resources to collect landfill gas.

Changing the 50 mg/yr to 34 mg/yr means landfills have to begin collecting the gas earlier. But it’s not possible to collect gas from the very, very beginning when a new landfill is ramping up. There has to be a certain amount of trash at a certain depth—and it has to be decomposing anaerobically—for the wells to be drilled, the vacuums to be added and the pipes to be installed so gas can be collected.

Waste360: Does the EPA give landfills any wiggle room?

Anne Germain: The models used to calculate emissions are not grounded in reality; they overestimate the amount of gas generated.

Our message to agency officials is that if you’re going to go this way, lowering the threshold to 34 mg/yr , you’re going to have to give us flexibility. The amount of gas generated depends on variables such as weather and geography. In theory, the models take those into account.

The EPA was sympathetic to our earlier concerns about this and is allowing landfills to use surface emission monitoring that produces site-specific data for actual landfills. A model is just theory while that type of monitoring is on-the-ground truth-telling. Still, it raises question about practical implementation. It costs a lot of money to install the equipment that collects gas. And even if you install it, can you achieve the required goals?

Waste360: You mentioned that rule compliance could put a disproportionate cost burden on some landfills due to an inverse economy of scale. Can you provide an example?

Anne Germain: Smaller landfills usually bear more of a financial burden. For instance, if you’re installing a gas collection system and you need 50 wells drilled, you’ll be charged a certain, consistent amount per vertical foot. But a separate charge is what’s known as a one-time mobilization cost. It’s a flat fee to move a drill rig to a landfill. That can be expensive if you’re a small landfill and you need only one well drilled.

Waste360: How do these rules affect operators managing landfills in multiple states?

Anne Germain: A federal implementation plan needs to be developed in tandem with the release of these new rules. States can use it as a model. That provides the regulated community with greater consistency and makes everything much easier from a compliance standpoint.

Waste360: Why is the EPA asking for comments again this year? Didn’t NWRA and SWANA submit comments on these proposals last year?

Anne Germain: On the same day in 2014, the EPA released a draft of the NSPS proposed rule along with an advanced notice for proposed rulemaking for EG. EG wasn’t in any sort of rule form so it was very open-ended, but the agency still wanted comments.

Waste360: What’s different this time around?

Anne Germain: This year, we thought NSPS would come out as a final rule. Instead, it’s a supplemental rule because the EPA opted to drop the threshold on when a landfill has to collect gas from 40 mg/yr to 34 mg/yr. As we expected, the EG came out as a proposed rule this time around.

Waste360: These two regulations seem very intertwined. Shouldn’t they be synced?

Anne Germain: Initially, they were on very different timelines. To put them on a similar timeline, the EPA had to slow down NSPS and let EG catch up. The agency wanted to harmonize them so they were essentially the same rule. Our expectation is that by the time they both get published as final rules, they will be identical.

Waste360: The newest proposal allows landfill operators to develop site-specific plans that address treatment of the gas, whether it’s being used to produce renewable fuel or as a raw material in a chemical manufacturing process. Is that helpful?

Anne Germain: Yes. The EPA did listen to our earlier comments because what I see now is a reflection of what we asked for. It defines treatment as filtration, de-watering and compression. It also allows operators to monitor those systems in a way that’s appropriate for their location, whether that’s the desert heat of Arizona or the freezing cold of Montana.

Waste360: From reading the current iteration of the rule, it seems as if the industry can declare victory on the landfill gas treatment front. It allows landfill operators to develop site-specific plans that address treatment of the gas, whether it’s being used to produce renewable fuel or as a raw material in a chemical manufacturing process. How did that happen?

Anne Germain: Establishing numerical standards for treatment can be limiting for a couple of reasons. First, temperatures fluctuate significantly across the country – whether it’s Arizona or Montana. Yet a specified numerical value for temperature could have been required to address de-watering requirements. This requirement would have been very expensive to comply with thus discouraging landfill gas utilization projects. In addition, the options for landfill gas utilization have expanded and the manufacturer requirements vary from one technology to another. And of course, these treatment processes do not result in any emissions. Therefore, it makes more sense to establish site specific operational standards that encompass the requirements to dewater, filter and compress. I think the industry made very reasonable arguments that the EPA took under consideration.

Waste360: With all your other job responsibilities, why is it important to submit comments to the EPA on these proposed rules?

Anne Germain: Between what we wrote last year and now, it does seem we’ve been working on these quite a lot. But this is our last chance. The EPA has drafted a rule that took into account the environmental community and the state regulators but they’ve also taken into account some of the comments made by industry. We see some potential hurdles and we want to make sure they are addressed in the final rule.

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth McGowan

Reporter, Waste360

Elizabeth H. McGowan, an award-winning energy and environment reporter based in Washington, D.C., writes a weekly Industry Buzz article for Waste360. She was the D.C. correspondent for Crain Communications' Waste & Recycling News, and has written for numerous other publications since beginning her career at daily newspapers in Wisconsin. In 2013, she won the Pulitzer Prize in the national reporting category for an investigative series published in InsideClimate News that revealed how the nation’s oil pipeline infrastructure isn’t measuring up to federal safety standards.

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