Lower Saucon Township waited more than a year for a report on whether the IESI Bethlehem landfill could be hurting the health of its residents.
But on Tuesday, when officials got the report from the state Department of Health, they were no closer to the answer. That's because the 35-page report said the overall results were inconclusive due to "limited monitoring information."
According to the findings, the air monitoring system used for the study was not sensitive enough to collect data needed to determine if chemicals in the air were harmful. In addition, the report said, the six monitoring sites were located upwind from the landfill, making it impossible to tell if chemicals detected were coming from the facility.
The state Department of Environmental Protection, which performed the testing for the Health Department, monitored the air June 2-4 at two landfill locations, the Bethlehem Waste Water Treatment Plant, Steel City Mennonite Church, Hader Lane and Steel City Park. It also collected multiple water samples at two residential wells downhill from the landfill.
The report, which is posted on the township's website, listed three conclusions:
•Monitoring detected five chemicals — benzene, methylamine, methyl mercaptan, nitrogen dioxide and ozone — that could be pose health concerns at concentrations high enough and long enough. However, the instrument used to collect the samples was unable to make those distinctions.
• Monitoring did not detect three odor-causing chemicals typically associated with landfills — hydrogen sulfide, acetaldehyde and carbon disulfide —. However, the instrument's minimum detection limits were higher than odor threshold values for the chemicals.
• Two tested residential drinking water wells had safe chemical levels, although one had elevated levels of manganese and iron that could give it a bad taste and make it dangerous for iron-sensitive people with a rare genetic disease. The report said the testing of only two wells limited their conclusions about the landfill's groundwater impact.
The Department of Health did not provide comment Wednesday or Thursday.
DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly said in an email that the DEP always assists the Department of Health with such landfill health reports and often uses the same chemical-measuring device that was used in Lower Saucon.
She said conditions were not ideal for placing monitoring devices downwind of the landfill. She also noted one of the primary concerns from residents was odors in the Steel City area, which is not downwind.
"The community is not predominately downwind of the landfill," she wrote in an email.
Township Councilwoman Priscilla deLeon, who lives in Steel City, said it was unfortunate the testing was conducted over the course of three days when odors weren't at their peak.
"I still have questions on what would the results have been if they would have done them on days when the odors were horrific like they'd been," she said.
She also said she was angry to learn the monitoring wasn't done downwind of the landfill.
Waste Connections Inc., the company that owns the landfill's owner, was happy with the outcome.
"Waste Connections is pleased that the findings of the PA DOH Report support the conclusion that the robust engineering measures employed at the IESI Bethlehem Landfill to collect and properly manage landfill gas are effective, and that the air and groundwater test results confirm that the facility is not causing an adverse health impact to the surrounding community," Don Hallock, a district general manager, said in a statement.
Lower Saucon Township officials requested a health impact study from the Department of Health in May 2015, after they learned about a similar project in two Lackawanna County municipalities where the Keystone Landfill is located.
The request also followed an April 2015 DEP review of landfill odors that resulted in on-site odor control violations being issued against the landfill when it was discovered that methane levels were more than 10,000 parts per million in certain areas of the landfill.
IESI Bethlehem Landfill officials Wednesday made assurances an expansion they're seeking to build, with new landfill capacity on top of existing garbage, won't cause a landslide like a similar situation at the Chrin landfill did.
Both IESI and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection officials said much has been learned from the cap failure March 2013 at the Chrin Brothers Sanitary Landfill in Williams Township.
The DEP hosted a meeting Wednesday night in Lower Saucon to gather initial public input on IESI's plan to add 28 new disposal acres at its Applebutter Road landfill in the township, including 22 acres on top of existing landfill.
The Chrin failure happened in an area where new garbage was being placed onto of older garbage. Officials at Wednesday's meeting said a study determined an improperly designed liner caused the Chrin landslide and the study also recommended how to build better liners.
"What happened at Chrin -- we're looking at all landfill expansions through those eyes to avoid that in the future," DEP Environmental Engineer Manager Jeffrey Spaide said.
Rick Bodner, a consulting engineer for IESI, said the company also took the Chrin report recommendations very seriously. Their engineering designs for the liner for the so-called "piggyback" section considers the most conservative estimates, he said.
"We base our liner strength ... not on peak values but on long-term values," he said.
After a Lower Saucon Township rezoning request to allow for 53 new disposal acres stalled, IESI submitted an alternative, smaller expansion plan to the state that doesn't require any rezoning. The smaller plan creates six acres of entirely new disposal area as well as the 22 acres of additional disposal area on top of existing landfill.
The state approval process will take more than 13 months, DEP Facilities Supervisor Tracey McGurk said. Lower Saucon officials and residents were encouraged to submit comments early on in the process and McGurk said the state could come back for another public meeting.
In addition to raising several concerns about the new piggyback section, township officials also asked why IESI can't cap the open west end of the landfill before possibly creating the new disposal area on the east end. Most of the odor problems stem from the western end of the landfill, said Lauressa McNemar, the township's consulting engineer on landfill matters.
"Would there be a consideration in the application process to seal off that part of the landfill?" she asked. "Rather than leave it open for another six years uncapped?"
DEP Environmental Program Manager Roger Bellas thanked the officials for raising those concerns to them and said a western cap could be a requirement of the requested expansion approval.
"That's things we can address through this process," Bellas said. "The fact this is being raised as a concern now is a great help to the department in its review process."
IESI's application will be formally accepted by the state Thursday and it should be deemed complete shortly, state officials said. After the application is deemed complete, a 60-day public comment process starts.
During that time, comments can be emailed to DEP Environmental Program Manager Roger Bellas at email@example.com or mailed to the Waste Management Program, Northeast Regional Office, 2 Public Square, Wilkes Barre, PA 18701-1915.
Lynn Olanoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LynnOlanoff. Find Bethlehem news on Facebook.