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Smoldering rubble site fouls neighbors’ air

Smoldering rubble site fouls neighbors’ air

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Plumes of smoke escape from a smoldering fire at the SunLand Rubble site on Friday, Oct. 22, 2010. (Ryan Soderlin/Journal staff)

Puffs of foul, acrid smoke rose steadily from a vast mound of rubble at the SunLand Industries rubble site before drifting southwest through small clusters of homes towards Box Elder and Ellsworth Air Force Base Friday.

It's been more than a month since a fire ignited in the deep pile of crushed homes packed in a steep gully northeast of Box Elder. The site is 2 miles northeast of the Douglas School.

"It's not something that anyone should have to put up with," said Vonnie Kallmeyn, waste management administrator for the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The department has been in constant contact with rubble site operator Gerald McFarland since he reported the fire.

"We want it out, and whatever it takes, they'll have to do it," Kallmeyn said.

"I'm sorry. I'm on it. I'm doing everything I can," McFarland said Friday.

Kallmeyn's office started receiving complaints about the smoldering piles two weeks ago.

Students and staff in the Douglas School District have complained of headaches since the fire started, according to superintendent Loren Scheer.

A few Meade County residents living in the area have called or written the county to complain, county commission Chairman Robert Mallow said.

"I understand the smoke is pretty rancid, as far as the smell is concerned," Mallow said.

Box Elder Mayor Al Dial has consulted with state and county officials about the situation.

So far, the offensive odors have not caused any complaints at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base, according to base commander Col. Jeffry Taliaferro.

"We haven't smelled anything out here," said Taliaferro, who lives on base.

On Friday morning, none of the rancid smell had reached Douglas Middle School where Scheer stood outside talking on the telephone.

It was a good day for McFarland who owns the land where the rubble site sits. McFarland operates the site with a partner Dane Sundstrum. The site is perched on top of a hilly ridge that drops off sharply to the north.

The problematic pile fills a deep, north-facing gully. Surrounding hills form a perfect wind tunnel to channel extra air to feed the fires burning deep in the rubble.

When the wind is light and from another direction the fires in the mound settle down. On those days, a random gust of smoke or a plume of steam from a soggy spot in the pile might be the only indication of the problem, McFarland said.

Windy days are another matter, and McFarland understands how unpleasant the smell is. He has spent the past month trying to extinguish the fire burning deep in massive mound that holds the remains of about 300 homes demolished on Ellsworth Air Force Base and the old Piedmont school.

A rubble site started to help recoup losses on a housing development has now literally turned into a money pit for McFarland. Over the past month, he's spent between $30,000 and $50,000 attempting to extinguish the fire, he said. 

But, it's turning into a daunting, if not impossible task.

McFarland is convinced that a lightning storm around Sept. 8 ignited the fire.

"We had about four, five grass fires in that same area," McFarland said.

McFarland calls the fire a "natural disaster" and plans to approach Gov. Mike Rounds to ask for help in extinguishing the blaze that some have predicted could take months to burn out.

Initial efforts to put out the fire involved attacking visible flames by exposing the area and then dumping dirt and sand on it to smother the fire. The sand and dirt snuffed out the surface flames, but did not extinguish the fires burning in the porous materials beneath the surface.

The result -- without a hot, clean-burning flame, the fire smolders and stinks.

McFarland admits it makes "an outrageous smell."

McFarland has since switched tactics to attacking any buried hot spots revealed by dense, black smoke. With the assistance of the Box Elder and Ellsworth Air Force Base fire departments, thousands of gallons of water have been poured on the site.

Taliaferro said the base is happy to provide as much support as it is authorized to do to help its neighbors.

Wetting down the smoldering sites has helped control the odor, McFarland said.

McFarland has contained the fire to the rubble site that measures approximately 100 yards by 100 yards and is 60-80 feet deep, according to Pennington County fire coordinator Denny Gorton. The Box Elder fire chief called Gorton to help evaluate the situation.

"There's not a whole lot a person can do when you get those deep landfill fires," Gorton said.

In Gorton's opinion, McFarland is "willing to try anything he can" to get the fire out.

McFarland and state environment department have consulted experts across the country and one in Canada to look for a solution.

"Landfill fires can be difficult to manage," said Jim Wendte, the engineering director with the department's waste management program. "They can burn for months to years. We won't accept that."

The primary recommendation is to bring in heavy equipment to dig apart the gigantic pile to separate the waste and extinguish the fires with water and soil.

That can be dangerous, Gorton said.

"As some of the material in the pile burns, it has a tendency to cave in," Gorton said.

A piece of equipment could hit a hole measuring anywhere from the size of a basketball to room-size, Gorton said.

"Someone could get trapped or burned or seriously injured," Gorton said.

That almost happened to one equipment operator and the equipment he was using to dig into the pile, McFarland said.

The SunLand site is one of 178 permitted construction/demolition debris sites and restricted-use sites across the state, according to Wendte. Forty-five sites are located in western South Dakota

The sites are inspected at least once every two years, but most West River sites receive an annual inspection because of the fewer numbers.

At this point, the department has not fined SunLand, but it has sent a letter of warning advising the company that the fire must be dealt with as soon as possible. Any potential penalties will not be considered until after the fire is out, Kallmeyn said.

 "Anyone who has a landfill can have the same issue," Gorton said. "There just isn't much you can do."

Contact Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or


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