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Waste Management employee fired after West Plains landfill fire

UPDATED: Thu., May 16, 2019

A fire at the Graham Road Landfill near Fairchild Air Force Base sent heavy smoke into the air on May 5, 2019. (KHQ)
A fire at the Graham Road Landfill near Fairchild Air Force Base sent heavy smoke into the air on May 5, 2019. (KHQ)

At the end of a shift on a Friday afternoon, Waste Management employees failed to fill up a water truck and didn’t put enough soil over a layer of industrial waste at a landfill near Fairchild Air Force Base.

Less than 48 hours later, that section of the Graham Road Landfill caught fire, sending a pillar of a black smoke into the air.

Waste Management later informed the Spokane Regional Health District, which regulates the landfill, that the company had “made changes to key site personnel” as a result of its investigation into the May 5 blaze.

A Waste Management spokeswoman, Jackie Lang, said one man was fired in connection with the incident but could not give his name or a specific reason for his termination.

“Waste Management’s commitment is full compliance to meet or exceed all regulatory requirements,” Lang said, noting that landfills have degrees of oversight at the local, state and federal levels.

This was not the first fire at the Graham Road Landfill, a 94-acre facility that opened in 1991 just across the road from the air base.

The special-purpose landfill takes construction, demolition and other industrial materials – including asbestos, sheet rock, crushed concrete and old tires – which generally aren’t suitable for the incinerator at the Waste-to-Energy Plant in Spokane.

Lang said a fire a few years ago was blamed on slag (the byproduct left over after the smelting or refining process separates a desired metal from its raw ore) from a foundry that had been delivered to the landfill while still hot.

In July and August, three more fires burned in a segregated area near the landfill’s container tipper, prompting Waste Management to revise its fire prevention plan.

“The segregated area only received three waste types, none of which individually or by mixture have ability to cause a fire,” the company said in a November letter to the health district, which was obtained through a public records request. “As a result, we unfortunately were unable to identify any evidence to shed light on exactly what caused each fire.”

The cause of the most recent fire also is unclear. Lang said Waste Management has sent samples of waste from the Graham Road facility to a lab, and scientists will conduct a series of controlled experiments in an attempt to recreate the fire conditions.

“We believe the root cause may be a particular waste stream that’s coming to the site or a chemical reaction involving two or more types of waste,” Lang said.

At the end of each workday, landfill employees are required to cover any new waste with 6 inches of soil – an inert material that keeps oxygen from reaching flammable materials underneath. Lang said some soil was deposited on May 3, but it was less than the required amount.

Waste Management also found the landfill’s water truck – for use in emergencies – had not been filled up that day as required, though it wasn’t immediately clear if that inhibited the firefighting effort.

“We want to be 100% prepared, all the time,” Lang said. “In this situation, the firetruck was not left full as it should have been. We’ve addressed that, and it will be full next time.”

The company’s investigation also found that there was a “lack of communication” between the landfill’s lead operator and incident commanders from Spokane County Fire District 10. Waste Management said it’s setting up meetings with the department to review procedures for landfill fires.

The good news, Lang said, is that the fires burned only the top few feet of waste and didn’t go deep enough to damage the thick clay and plastic liners at the bottom.

“There’s no indication that the landfill’s containment systems or environmental monitoring systems were compromised in any way,” she said.

Mike LaScuola, an environmental technical adviser with the health district, said he has the authority to revoke or suspend the landfill’s permit if it doesn’t comply with regulations. The health district and the state Department of Ecology also can issue fines, he said.

LaScuola said Waste Management provides quarterly reports on leachate and other potential problems, and landfill operators call him when they have questions about various materials.

But when it comes to fires, LaScuola said he defers, in part, to Waste Management.

“Mostly we defer the fire protection plan to the experts, which would be the local response and fire department, as well as Waste Management’s experts on this matter,” he said.

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