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Underground fire, harmful fumes prompt cleanup plan for Yakima landfill

A woman in a gray jacket holds binoculars. She's looking at a landfill.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest News Network
While hiking in 2021, Nancy Lust, with Friends of Rocky Top, watches a truck dump waste into a landfill in Yakima County. Lust lives near the landfill and has fought to learn more about what's getting disposed of near her home.

For years, people have been dealing with foul smells, loud noises, and blowing debris from two landfills in Yakima County. Now, the Washington Department of Ecology is helping with a new cleanup plan for one of those facilities.

On a rainy day in January, Nancy Lust was watching a truck unload at the Anderson Landfill, right near her home in Yakima.

“So, I get out of my car, and the stench was just overpowering,” Lust said.

She needed to get away from that smell, she said, and it was pouring. So she ducked into a porta potty. “And I noticed the air quality inside the porta potty was better than the air quality outside the porta potty. That was a defining moment for me,” Lust said.

Lust and her neighbors near Yakima’s Rocky Creek Road have fought for years to learn more about what’s going into the Anderson Landfill, also known as the DTG Landfill.

It’s supposed to take construction materials. But neighbors say the facility accepts other trash, too – possibly causing fires and extra pollution.

Those concerns have drawn the attention of the Washington Department of Ecology.

“We’re concerned about the air quality. We’re concerned about the odors. And we’re concerned about groundwater,” said Valerie Bound, a manager for the department’s Toxics Cleanup Program in Central Washington, during an online public meeting last month.

Recent samples collected by the state have shown that the groundwater is not polluted. But officials are seeing evidence of airborne chemicals. Air samples from March found harmful gas emissions escaping from a crack in the landfill at unsafe levels.

Officials say those fumes are not reaching residential properties, but part of a nearby hiking trail has been closed.

“We're confident right now that there's not an immediate environmental threat for people living close by, so the biggest concern at this time is workers and anyone who happens to be passing close by on trails near the landfill,” said Emily Tasaka, a spokesperson for the Department of Ecology.

Tasaka said they’re trying to figure out the source of certain chemicals within the waste – including benzene, a carcinogen. Once that happens, DTG Recycle – the company that owns the site – will submit a cleanup plan.

Meanwhile, the Yakima Health District has confirmed an underground fire at the landfill.

“There is opportunities for the fire to spread if there are those channels of combustible material,” said Stephanie Badillo-Sanchez, a spokesperson for the health district, adding that they haven’t determined the exact cause.

The fire was still smoldering as of Thursday afternoon. Badillo-Sanchez said they’re trying to put it out quickly.

In a statement, DTG Recycle CEO Tom Vaughn said they’re working with state and local agencies on this.

"We are closely working with our consultants, the Yakima Health District, the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency, and the Washington Department of Ecology to ensure the safety and well-being of our employees, the community, and the environment as we address the situation," Vaughn said.

Recently, another dumping ground in Yakima County had the same problem – another underground fire at the Caton Landfill in Naches, about 20 miles away.

“The neighbors here, we all kind of talk and they're like, ‘I saw smoke.’ And we're like, ‘What?’ So then we all started sounding the alarm,” said Wendy Wickersham, who lives near the Caton facility. The smoke was putrid, “enough to take your breath away,” Wickersham said.

Caton Landfill manager Randy Caton said he believes that fire has been extinguished, but they’re working to confirm that with county regulators before resuming operations in the affected area of the facility.

Fire consultants hired by the landfill told Caton the waste was being inadequately compacted.

“We have changed our disposal methods, and we are now compacting it much better and then covering it very quickly so that there’s no chance of oxygen getting in and starting fires,” Caton said.

Neighbors of both landfills say there’s not enough oversight at these facilities, and that improperly dumped waste is harming their communities.

Badillo-Sanchez said the Yakima Health District is troubled by the landfill fires.

“We are working on operational processes with each landfill and how to place waste and add proper soil coverage to the landfills to prevent any future fires,” Badillo-Sanchez said.

But many people are tired of waiting.

“Yakima County is becoming a waste ground,” said Scott Cave, with the advocacy group Friends of Rocky Top.

Cave points out that a lot of that waste is being trucked in from the west side of the state, near big cities like Tacoma and Seattle.

“We're receiving a lot of out-of-county material, and the reasons for that seem to be cheap disposal and a kind of lax regulatory environment,” Cave said.

The group keeps track of what goes into the Anderson Landfill. Last year, they say 71% of the waste came from outside Yakima County – up from 54% in 2021.

DTG is developing its cleanup plan now, as the state Department of Ecology works on its own investigation. It’s not clear when either of those will wrap up.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.