UI Officials Take Precautions, Lend Help as Landfill Fire Burns

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

By Stephen Pradarelli
University of Iowa

Smoke billows from the Iowa City Landfill.Smoke billows from the Iowa City Landfill. A radar unit being tested at the landfill by the University of Iowa's Iowa Flood Center is visible in the foreground. Photo by Aneta Goska and the Iowa Flood Center.

As the fire in the Iowa City Landfill continues to burn, the University of Iowa is both taking precautions and lending assistance to help minimize the risk to public health.

The State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa is working with Johnson County Public Health to take air samples, using a vacuum system to draw air into a canister before bringing it to the lab and introducing it to a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer/flame ionization detector for processing.

Additionally, UI Facilities Management has directed building system operators to monitor wind direction and other conditions and adjust air-handling systems as needed to help maintain good indoor air quality. It has also directed its outdoor crews, including those responsible for landscaping, to report any health concerns related to the smoke to their supervisors as soon as possible.

UI Athletics officials are similarly alerting parents of students attending upcoming summer sports camps about the situation, stating that while there is no immediate threat, they’ll continue watching the situation and will take any necessary steps to ensure students’ safety while they’re on campus.

Officials suspect that the now-7.5 acre fire began when someone dumped hot material at the south end of a largely unused landfill cell. The fire was reported at about 6:45 p.m. Saturday.

Crews tried three times to contain the fire by clearing ditches with bulldozers, but the flames jumped the breaks each time. A fourth ditch successfully contained the fire. But because the fire is burning through a 2- to 5-foot layer of shredded tire lining, there’s no way to put it out and it’s expected to burn and smolder for several more days at least.

Prevailing winds kept the smoke largely away from Iowa City until early this week, when the distinct chemical odor of rubber burning could be detected in many parts of the city and on the UI campus.

Matt Mainprize, environmental chemist, conducts air quality testing at the State Hygienic Laboratory.
Matt Mainprize, environmental chemist, conducts air quality testing at the State Hygienic Laboratory. Photo by Pat Blake.

Air samples taken by the State Hygienic Laboratory over the weekend showed no immediate risk to the public. However, health officials advise young children, older people, and those with respiratory conditions against spending a great deal of time outdoors until the fire is suppressed.

As a matter of happenstance, the Iowa Flood Center (IFC), part of the UI, is getting an up close and personal view of the smoke via a remote camera trained on a mobile weather radar unit it was in the process of testing when the landfill fire broke out. The radar unit is one of four in the Iowa City-Coralville Corridor, and the camera was set up to watch how the mobile unit responds to remote commands. View the live feed here.

The IFC operates the radar units as a network providing high-resolution rainfall intensity data over the Clear Creek experimental watershed. The radar units are optimized for rainfall observations and help researchers as they develop improved algorithms for determining precipitation.

The radars have polarimetric capabilities, which provide higher-quality data for determining rainfall quantities. The IFC is one of only a few institutions nationwide operating a radar network with these capabilities. IFC researchers currently use radar data from National Weather Service radars to develop high-resolution precipitation maps for the Iowa Flood Information System.

In addition to the landfill site, IFC radar units are stationed at the Iowa City Municipal Airport and the Eastern Iowa Airport.

“Our way of displaying the data is unique,” says IFC Director Witold Krajewski. “The precipitation maps will not provide a forecast, but rather an almost real-time report of precipitation.”

Krajewski says the landfill radar unit doesn’t appear to be in any immediate danger. However, after the fire is extinguished, he says IFC engineers will return the unit to campus for a thorough cleaning.

To learn more about the IFC, visit www.iowafloodcenter.org. To explore maps and tools currently available online, click on “Iowa Flood Information System.”

For the most up-to-date information on the landfill fire, visit the City of Iowa City website.

View answers to Frequently Asked Questions about the landfill fire here.