Orlando Sentinel

Flames erupt from landfill

By Alicia A. Caldwell | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted December 4, 2002

ORANGE CITY -- A small but stubborn fire at the GEL Corp. landfill in October smoldered for more than a month, occasionally emitting white puffs of smoke, before flames once again broke through the debris piles early Tuesday morning.

Orange City fire officials said they were first called to the 13-acre landfill off Leavitt Avenue about 2 a.m., when someone at the site noticed the flames in a section of the landfill reserved for construction debris. Several other calls were also made to the Fire Department to report flames at the landfill, which is also a recycling facility, a Fire Department spokeswoman said.

By Tuesday afternoon, the fire, which environmental officials have been told likely originated in a woodpile Oct. 22, had been put out, though smoke was still rising from the mountain of debris. At the time of the original fire, Orange City Fire Chief Chris Sievert said he expected embers from the extinguished blaze to smolder for several days.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokesman David Herbster said fire officials told him it appeared that the embers did not just briefly smolder. Instead, the fire is thought to have traveled nearly 600 feet below the surface to the site of Tuesday morning's blaze.

No one was hurt in either fire, but dozens of area residents voiced their concern about the smell and smoke that surrounded their homes Tuesday, interim City Manager Eugene Miller said.

"They operate a construction and demolition landfill, and in that operation it's not unusual to have a fire once in while," Miller said. "As to the number of incidents, then it becomes a concern of [Florida] DEP and other agencies, and that's where we are right now. We are making sure that the agencies that we can think of that have any possible authority . . . to investigate have been notified."

According to DEP officials, there have been four other fires described as "flare-ups" at the GEL landfill in the past 18 months.

Herbster said flare-ups such as the one in October are not unusual at a construction-and-demolition-debris landfill. Tuesday's fire was more unusual, he said, because the earlier fire probably sparked it.

Holly Smith, a Volusia County spokeswoman, said the county Fire Department responds to about a dozen landfill fires each year. Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Plummer said he does not recall the department's responding to a landfill fire in the past several months.

Herbster said DEP officials last inspected the GEL site on Oct. 31 and had been aware of the smoldering fire. He said GEL officials, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, have repeatedly smothered the original fire with dirt and will continue that effort in the wake of Tuesday's fire. As long as the company continues those efforts, Herbster said, GEL will neither lose its operating permit nor be fined.

"We will consider enforcement if we sense they are not doing all they can to keep fires from breaking out," Herbster said. "We have not gotten that sense yet."

Orange City has had a contentious relationship with GEL Corp. In 2001, city officials spent months lobbying DEP to reject the landfill's request for a new operating permit, which probably would have forced the dump to close. The city lost its battle in Sept. 2001, when the DEP renewed GEL's permit until 2006.

Miller said the city will not ask DEP officials to close the landfill, but it will keep in contact with any agency responsible for monitoring GEL's activities.

Herbster said Tuesday that GEL officials were still working on several permit compliance issues, including ensuring that a certified operator is at the landfill at all times and that recycling materials are not being stored at the landfill. Despite the deficiencies and the stubborn fire that resurfaced Tuesday, Herbster said the company is not in danger of losing its license.

Alicia A. Caldwell can be reached at acaldwell@orlandosentinel.com or 386-851-7924.



Fires plague landfill neighbors

By BOB KOSLOW (bob.koslow@news-jrnl.com)
Staff Writer
ORANGE CITY -- Flames shot more than 50 feet in the air at the G.E.L. Corp. landfill early Tuesday morning and thick smoke descended on local roads and the nearby Wal-Mart parking lot as the sun rose.

"It started getting bad at about 11 last night," said John Wright, who lives less than a half-mile north of the construction and demolition landfill on Leavitt and Rhode Island avenues. "I was up at 3 a.m. and heard two gun-type explosions. The smell is horrible and for people with breathing problems, this is dangerous. These fires have been off and on for more than a month. It's not under control as everyone says."

Tuesday morning's fire was centered in the landfill's southwest corner near Rhode Island Avenue, Orange City Fire Marshal Capt. Herb Hoffman said. The blaze is the result of previous fires left smoldering deep within the landfill after sections are covered with dirt, he said. New fires erupt when new areas are opened and combustible material is added, Hoffman said.

City firefighters have visited the G.E.L. Corp landfill 101 times in just over four years for a variety of complaints and incidents, Chief Chris Sievert said, including almost 30 trips during the past two months.

"When the cold weather starts and the humidity drops, the number of fires and calls increases," Sievert said. "We can get 10 to 15 calls a month. There are times we get so many calls we may not respond to them all, knowing we just left the landfill an hour ago and we get another call for smoke."

Crews made 15 trips during a 10-day stretch in late October to help smother a fire in a mulch pile. Firefighters also were busy helping fight a fire that spread to bales of aluminum and plastic material stored at the company's recycling business.

"DEP has complete control over the landfill and we're doing all we can to help solve the problems," Hoffman said.

The Department of Environmental Protection renewed the company's landfill permit Nov. 5 after a two-year delay to address Orange City's opposition. Agency officials inspected the site the first week of November.

"Fire-prevention measures are being taken to smother the fires. We are optimistic they will work," DEP spokesman David Herbster said Monday. "The mulch fire is not as much a concern as if it was in the landfill."

Tuesday, he repeated the agency's position that G.E.L. was doing all it can to prevent the fires. DEP officials contacted Volusia County Environmental Management on Tuesday to have a staff member visit the site and report to DEP.

"We are not in the fire-investigation business," Herbster said. "We wanted to get someone with some expertise on the ground quickly to tell us what was going on."

More experts are needed to solve the periodic fires at the landfill, City Manager Eugene Miller said.

"I am concerned about the fires, smoke and odor that habitually plague the city and the cost of our fire response. I am satisfied (DEP) is cognizant of the fires and understands the urgency. But, we need to get some technician who understands landfill composition to remedy the problems and provide a permanent solution," he said.