Some facts about Plasma arc waste disposal
Plasma arc gasification is a waste treatment technology that uses electrical energy and the high temperatures created by an electrical arc gasifier. This arc breaks down waste primarily into elemental gas and solid waste (slag), in a device called a plasma converter. The process has been intended to be a net generator of electricity, depending upon the composition of input wastes, and to reduce the volumes of waste being sent to landfill sites.
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WHAT IS A LANDFILL?
A secure landfill is a carefully engineered depression in the ground (or built on top of the ground, resembling a football stadium) into which wastes are put. The aim is to avoid any hydraulic [water-related] connection between the wastes and the surrounding environment, particularly groundwater. Basically, a landfill is a bathtub in the ground; a double-lined landfill is one bathtub inside another. Bathtubs leak two ways: out the bottom or over the top.
WHAT IS THE COMPOSITION OF A LANDFILL?
There are four critical elements in a secure landfill: a bottom liner, a leachate collection system, a cover, and the natural hydrogeologic setting. The natural setting can be selected to minimize the possibility of wastes escaping to groundwater beneath a landfill. The three other elements must be engineered. Each of these elements is critical to success.
THE NATURAL HYDRO-GEOLOGIC SETTING:
You want the geology to do two contradictory things for you. To prevent the wastes from escaping, you want rocks as tight (waterproof) as possible. Yet if leakage occurs, you want the geology to be as simple as possible so you can easily predict where the wastes will go. Then you can put down wells and capture the escaped wastes by pumping. Fractured bedrock is highly undesirable beneath a landfill because the wastes cannot be located if they escape. Mines and quarries should be avoided because they frequently contact the groundwater.
WHAT IS A BOTTOM LINER?
It may be one or more layers of clay or a synthetic flexible membrane (or a combination of these). The liner effectively creates a bathtub in the ground. If the bottom liner fails, wastes will migrate directly into the environment. There are three types of liners: clay, plastic, and composite.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH A CLAY LINER?
Natural clay is often fractured and cracked. A mechanism called diffusion will move organic chemicals like benzene through a three-foot thick clay landfill liner in approximately five years. Some chemicals can degrade clay.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH A PLASTIC LINER?
The very best landfill liners today are made of a tough plastic film called high density polyethylene (HDPE). A number of household chemicals will degrade HDPE, permeating it (passing though it), making it lose its strength, softening it, or making it become brittle and crack. Not only will household chemicals, such as moth balls, degrade HDPE, but much more benign things can cause it to develop stress cracks, such as, margarine, vinegar, ethyl alcohol (booze), shoe polish, peppermint oil, to name a few.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH COMPOSITE LINERS?
A Composite liner is a single liner made of two parts, a plastic liner and compacted soil (usually clay soil). Reports show that all plastic liners (also called Flexible Membrane Liners, or FMLs) will have some leaks. It is important to realize that all materials used as liners are at least slightly permeable to liquids or gases and a certain amount of permeation through liners should be expected. Additional leakage results from defects such as cracks, holes, and faulty seams. Studies show that a 10-acre landfill will have a leak rate somewhere between 0.2 and 10 gallons per day.
WHAT IS A LEACHATE COLLECTION SYSTEM?
Leachate is water that gets badly contaminated by contacting wastes. It seeps to the bottom of a landfill and is collected by a system of pipes. The bottom of the landfill is sloped; pipes laid along the bottom capture contaminated water and other fluid (leachate) as they accumulate. The pumped leachate is treated at a wastewater treatment plant (and the solids removed from the leachate during this step are returned to the landfill, or are sent to some other landfill). If leachate collection pipes clog up and leachate remains in the landfill, fluids can build up in the bathtub. The resulting liquid pressure becomes the main force driving waste out the bottom of the landfill when the bottom liner fails.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PROBLEMS WITH LEACHATE COLLECTION SYSTEMS?
Leachate collection systems can clog up in less than a decade. They fail in several known ways:
they clog up from silt or mud;
they can clog up because of growth of microorganisms in the pipes;
they can clog up because of a chemical reaction leading to the precipitation of minerals in the pipes; or
the pipes become weakened by chemical attack (acids, solvents, oxidizing agents, or corrosion) and may then be crushed by the tons of garbage piled on them.
WHAT IS A COVER?
A cover or cap is an umbrella over the landfill to keep water out (to prevent leachate formation). It will generally consist of several sloped layers: clay or membrane liner (to prevent rain from intruding), overlain by a very permeable layer of sandy or gravelly soil (to promote rain runoff), overlain by topsoil in which vegetation can root (to stabilize the underlying layers of the cover). If the cover (cap) is not maintained, rain will enter the landfill resulting in buildup of leachate to the point where the bathtub overflows its sides and wastes enter the environment.
WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMS WITH COVERS?
Covers are vulnerable to attack from at least seven sources:
Erosion by natural weathering (rain, hail, snow, freeze-thaw cycles, and wind)
Vegetation, such as shrubs and trees that continually compete with grasses for available space, sending down roots that will relentlessly seek to penetrate the cover;
Burrowing or soil- dwelling mammals (woodchucks, mice, moles, voles), reptiles (snakes, tortoises), insects (ants, beetles), and worms will present constant threats to the integrity of the cover;
Sunlight (if any of these other natural agents should succeed in uncovering a portion of the umbrella) will dry out clay (permitting cracks to develop), or destroy membrane liners through the action of ultraviolet radiation;
Subsidence–an uneven cave-in of the cap caused by settling of wastes or organic decay of wastes, or by loss of liquids from landfilled drums–can result in cracks in clay or tears in membrane liners, or result in ponding on the surface, which can make a clay cap mushy or can subject the cap to freeze-thaw pressures;
Rubber tires, which “float” upward in a landfill; and
Human activities of many kinds.
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LEACHATE FROM MUNICIPAL DUMPS HAS SAME TOXICITY AS LEACHATE FROM HAZARDOUS WASTE DUMPS.
In a study, researchers at Texas A&M University have compared leachate from municipal landfills with leachate from hazardous waste landfills and they report, “…There is ample evidence that the municipal waste landfill leachates contain toxic chemicals in sufficient concentration to be potentially as harmful as leachate from industrial waste landfills.” Specifically, the Texas researchers compared leachate from several municipal landfills with leachate from the notorious Love Canal landfill (and other hazardous waste landfills, such as Kin-Buc in Edison, NJ) and they found the leachates similar in their cancer-causing potential.
Leachate is the liquid that is produced when rain falls on a landfill, sinks into the wastes, and picks up chemicals as it seeps downward. Industries creating “hazardous wastes” (as legally defined under federal law) may not send those wastes to municipal landfills, but must instead send them to special hazardous waste landfills.
When a new municipal landfill is proposed, advocates of the project always emphasize that “no hazardous wastes will enter this landfill.” The Texas study shows that even though municipal landfills may not legally receive “hazardous” wastes, the leachate they produce is as dangerous as the leachate from hazardous waste landfills.
Dr. Kirk Brown and Dr. K.C. Donnelly at Texas A&M, authors of the new study, examined data on the composition of leachate from 58 landfills. The data they reviewed showed 113 different toxic chemicals in leachate from municipal landfills and 72 toxic chemicals in leachate from hazardous waste landfills. The abundance of toxics in municipal landfills probably occurs because the entire spectrum of consumer products ends up in municipal landfills, whereas hazardous waste landfills serve a limited number of industries within a region.
The actual source of the toxic chemicals in municipal landfills is not known precisely. Under federal law (RCRA Subtitle C) each “small quantity generator” can send up to 2640 pounds per year of legally-hazardous chemicals to municipal landfills. In 1980, the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] estimated that 600,000 tons per year of legally-hazardous wastes were going to municipal dumps from 695,000 “small quantity generators.”
The findings of Brown and Donnelly will come as no surprise to many researchers who have known for years that municipal leachate is as toxic as the leachate from industrial landfills. For example, in an article entitled, “APPLICATION OF HYDROGEOLOGY TO THE SELECTION OF REFUSE DISPOSAL SITES,” Ronald A. Landon reported in 1969 in the JOURNAL OF GROUND WATER, Vol. 7 (Nov.-Dec., 1969), pgs. 9-13, that “Leachate at its source, that is within the landfill, has concentrations and characteristics of many industrial wastes; and in many instances would be better treated as such a waste.” (pg. 12)
What Brown and Donnelly have contributed is a quantitative analysis of the toxicity and the carcinogenic potential of leachates from the two types of landfills.
Brown and Donnelly conclude, “The risk calculations based on suspect carcinogens… indicate that the estimated carcinogenic potency for the leachate from some municipal landfills may be similar to the carcinogenic potency of the leachate from the Love Canal landfill.”
In industrial landfill leachate, 32 chemicals cause cancer; 10 cause birth defects, and 21 cause genetic damage; in municipal landfill leachate, 32 chemicals cause cancer, 13 cause birth defects, and 22 cause genetic damage.