Fire in the Hole: Aluminum Dross in Landfills

This Note appeared in JNREL Vol. 22. No 2. and was written by staff member Thomas Szcsygielski. Staff member Sunni Harris wrote the following abstract.

Every year there are approximately 8,300 fires that occur in landfills. Landfill fires frequently emit harmful dioxins that can cause cancer, liver damage, skin rashes, and reproductive disorders. A growing subset of these fires is caused when aluminum dross reacts with water.

Aluminum dross is the material that is left behind when aluminum ore is melted or processed. Five million tons of aluminum dross is produced per year as aluminum is often used for such commercial products as pistons, engine and body parts for cars, beverage cans, doors, siding and aluminum foil. Aluminum dross can become dangerous when it is improperly stored in landfills because it is highly combustible when mixed with water.

While aluminum dross storage can be easily regulated by legislation, it currently is not. CERCLA (The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act) is the primary source of federal jurisdiction over hazardous material dump sites. CERCLA allows the EPA to undertake direct removal or remedial action to protect the public health or the environment when it determines that release of a hazardous substance poses an imminent and substantial danger; however, the EPA has not used CERCLA to regulate aluminum dross because it does not consider aluminum dross a hazardous material. It is interesting that while the EPA does not officially recognize the production of aluminum dross as hazardous, it recognizes the need for its regulation.

Barmet Aluminum Corp v. Reilly illustrates this point well. In Barmet, the plaintiff operated an aluminum recycling plant that produced aluminum dross as a by-product. The plaintiff stored the dross in landfills; however, the EPA placed these landfills on a list of high priority hazardous sites under CERCLA and threatened to hold the plaintiff liable for damage to a nearby stream that originated in the waste. The plaintiff sued for injunctive relief arguing that the EPA forced them to expend resources for expensive, remedial feasibility studies before they were deemed responsible for the damage to the nearby river. The court rejected the plaintiff's argument. Barmet is a demonstration that while the U.S. EPA does not deem aluminum dross as legally hazardous, they recognize the importance of its regulation.

Going forward, there are three main suggestions to decrease the amount of fires that are started because of the improper disposal of aluminum dross: (1) continue to allow landfills to be responsible for their own dross, (2) encourage or mandate companies that produce dross as a by-product to recycle it, or (3) have the EPA classify aluminum dross as hazardous substance. The most effective solution will most likely be a combination of the aforementioned approaches.