EPA should follow Maryland’s lead and strengthen landfill standards | GUEST COMMENTARY

Gulls have their fill at the Quarantine Road landfill in Baltimore City in this 2015 photo.

Landfills stink. Worse, they emit hazardous air pollutants, precursors to ozone and particulate matter, and methane — a super-potent greenhouse gas with about 80 times the near-term warming power of carbon dioxide. Methane is generated in huge amounts when organic waste decomposes in the landfill.

In fact, landfills are the third largest source of human-driven methane in the United States, with annual emissions equivalent to driving 66 million gasoline-powered cars or operating 79 coal-fired power plants for one year. Federal regulations require some municipal landfills to capture and control their pollution, but current standards are failing to deliver the methane reductions urgently needed to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.


Landfills can impact air quality, human health, and quality of life for nearby communities. Many landfills border communities that are disproportionately made up of low-income or people of color. In the Curtis Bay and Brooklyn neighborhoods of Baltimore, communities that are majority Black and Hispanic, a nearby landfill is one of the top methane emitters in Maryland.

We need better controls to mitigate landfill emissions and organic waste diversion to keep methane-generating waste out of landfills in the first place. Some states are stepping up. Governor Wes Moore’s administration just finalized a major rule to guard against methane pollution in Maryland. The new rule makes several improvements to landfill design, operation and monitoring requirements that will meaningfully increase methane capture and reduce the risk of large leaks. When fully implemented, the Maryland rule will reduce “trash gas” emissions from landfills by an estimated 25-50%. Maryland is now the third state after California and Oregon to set stronger landfill standards than the Environmental Protection Agency.


Another law, written by state Sen. Shelly Hettleman and Del. Lorig Charkoudian, requires large waste generators to arrange for disposal alternatives to landfilling or incinerating food waste, such as reduction, donation, animal feed, composting or anaerobic digestion. Maryland is now home to one of the largest municipal composting facilities on the east coast (Prince George’s County). And the Baltimore Compost Collective in South Baltimore sets a fine example of a composting effort that provides community services and helps develop youth leaders in an environmental justice community that was once slated to host the country’s largest toxic trash-burning incinerator.

Progress in Maryland and other states shows landfill methane reductions are possible to achieve at low cost and right away. In fact, California’s rules — on which Oregon’s and Maryland’s are partly modeled — have been on the books since 2010. Federal policy should build on state rule-making to deliver emissions reductions at scale and protect communities across the country.

On June 22, the Environmental Integrity Project and other advocates formally petitioned the EPA to update its Clean Air Act standards for municipal solid waste landfills to better control methane emissions nationwide. Among other things, the groups ask the EPA to allow landfill operators to meet regulatory requirements by diverting organic waste, so long as it provides equivalent emission reductions.

More ambitious federal landfill standards would bring additional benefits. For one, methane mitigation is the strongest lever we have to slow near-term warming and limit the risk of dangerous climate tipping points. Relative to carbon dioxide, methane has high warming potential but a short atmospheric life; this means cutting methane emissions now can rapidly reduce the rate of near-term warming.

Secondly, federal action on landfill methane is critical to protect communities in states that won’t act themselves. Stronger standards to capture and control landfill gas can help address the air quality and odor issues facing communities near landfills. Organics diversion can bring additional benefits by increasing edible food donation and creating valuable products like compost. Composting can create jobs, improve soil health, and sequester carbon.

Through stronger landfill standards, the EPA can slash dangerous methane pollution, make progress on climate and environmental justice goals, and protect communities across the country. Maryland took a big step forward. Now it’s the EPA’s time to shine.

Brian E. Frosh (Twitter: @BrianFrosh) is former attorney general of Maryland.