The old South Kent Landfill — formerly known as the Paris Township Dump — has been closed since 1976 but 40 years on, the community is still dealing with the consequences of waste disposition during an era with no environmental protection standards in place. The 72-acre landfill is one of 65 sites in 30 Michigan counties that are designated as Superfund sites — sites that were polluted decades ago and are now eligible for federal funding for cleanup.
The closed Kentwood Landfill is under regular monitoring by the Kent County Department of Public Works (DPW) with oversight by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (The City of Kentwood owns the property; Kent County manages it pursuant to a consent agreement between Kent County and the EPA.)
Recently, testing at the site at 4900 Walma SE in Kentwood — off Breton Road north of 52nd Street — found methane gas underground at several depths to the west of the landfill site; it has spread farther beyond the landfill boundary. Eleven monitoring wells detected methane in the ground at depths of 5 feet to 50 feet. Concentrations of the gas are high above flammability levels and could cause an explosion if not vented and flared.
It’s important to note that residents don’t face any higher risk than they have been in the past, according to Kristi Zakrzewski, the DEQ’s project manager for the landfill.
If you are one of the 150 households located within 1500 feet of the west edge of the old South Kent Landfill, you should receive — or have already received — a letter from Kent County about arranging testing for methane gas. You’ll be able to request quick, on-site testing for methane through the Kent County Department of Public Works at no cost to you.
“Safety is our priority as we move forward with this investigation,” said Dar Baas, Director of the Kent County Department of Public Works.
“We are hiring an engineering consultant and have already started investigating methods to resolve the gas migration. We also have been in contact with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA.”
Methane, caused by the natural breakdown of organic materials — such as paper, cardboard, branches and wood — normally forms in landfills. Escaping methane is flared (burned) at gas stand wells on the site to prevent the gas from reaching the atmosphere, where it is detrimental to the ozone layer. An alternative to burning it is to convert it to electricity, and Kent County is looking into the feasibility of doing so, but there is no way of knowing how much methane is trapped under the landfill and whether it would be economical to build an electrical facility there.
Although the migration of methane beyond the landfill boundary is concerning, the DPW did not detect methane inside any neighboring buildings. They are working with the Kent County Health Department; if methane is found at the outer edge of the landfill, they will expand the gas stand wells.
Methane gas likes to spread upward. When it can’t, it seeks alternative ways to travel — horizontally — which is why it may be found outside the perimeters of the dump site. Any leaks are most likely to occur in crawl spaces and cracks in a building’s foundation, any place where methane gas can get through.
We’ve come a long way since the 1800s when people simply opened their back doors and threw their trash out. The Pantlind Hotel once had a piggery where people dumped their organic matter to feed the pigs.
Baas said that the South Kent Landfill dates back to the late 1940s when dumps had no environmental standards for the waste that was deposited there.
“The Baby Boomers started these dumps after World War II,” Baas said. “There’s a little bit of everything here.”
In the early 1950s, the area was the town dump, then became a licensed solid waste facility in 1966. The City of Kentwood operated the landfill from 1968 to 1970; Kent County operated it from 1971 to 1975. It was closed in early 1976 and capped in 1995 with several layers of clay — 6-inch layers creating a 2-foot cap — after which it was covered with topsoil and seeded with grass seed to keep the methane gas trapped. The site is mowed regularly to keep plants and trees from taking root and contributing to the methane problem.
In addition to organic materials, the site contains industrial waste.
“We used to have to treat the leachate waste water after the dump closed in 1976,” said Baas. “Forty years later, we are still dealing with the ramifications of this landfill, but we no longer have to treat the leachate as it’s a lot cleaner.”
Cleanup, operation and maintenance activities and groundwater monitoring are ongoing.
“We will always have to watch over it,” Baas said. “Today, it looks like a meadow, but we have no way of knowing how long it will be before it can be used for other purposes.”
The public is invited to attend a Q&A session presented by the Kent County Department of Public Works on Wednesday, August 31 at 7 pm at Kentwood City Hall, 4900 Breton Ave. SE. Officials from the City of Kentwood will also be at the meeting to answer questions.
If you have questions, contact the Kent County Department of Public Works at 616.632.7920.