History of the area puts microscope on methane issue

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Methane is the raison d’être of the Bio-En site in Elmira. Making it, collecting it and burning it to create electricity, they very much want the biogas. Just a few doors down, however, the opposite is true.

A former municipal landfill site at the edge of Bolender Park is at the heart of a methane gas problem that has lingered for years. The problem is largely contained to what is now 86 Auto and Metal Recyclers, though the issue predates by many years that new operation and even the former one, Paleshi Motors, as the Bolender landfill was in use between 1962 and 1970.

Complicating matters, however, is the presence of contaminants directly related to longtime automotive use of 39 Arthur St. N.

Understandably, Woolwich Township doesn’t want to foot the bill for cleaning the site of contaminants beyond the methane, for which it admits responsibility. Equally understandably, the property owner has no interest in paying to clean up a mess not of its making, which applies to both the methane and any pre-existing hydrocarbon pollution on the site.

Further complicating matters is the less-than-cordial relationship between 86 Auto and Metal Recyclers and the township, which hasn’t exactly embraced the operation. Owner Frank Rattasid recently de-emphasized the metal recycling operation – taking down the signs, for example – after determining Woolwich wasn’t going to approve the necessary zoning changes to bring the business into compliance.

Township planners maintain that the property’s current zoning allows for the processing of only salvaged vehicles – the M-1 classification has a site-specific exemption for cars dating back to 1987 – while allowing some forms of metal collection, but with onerous conditions. They call on Rattasid to submit a formal application, either for a minor variance or a full-blown zone change, while the owner wants a commitment from the township before doing so.

The result is a stalemate, with the relationship further strained by the methane issue.

There’s no small irony in the fact that the environmental studies required for a zone change are a major stumbling block, as it’s clear there are issues on the site. That said, 86 Auto can continue to operate as it does now without tackling those issues, the methane mess perhaps notwithstanding.

Dealing with the cleanup would be much easier if the relationship between the two sides was better. Conversely, a successful cleanup effort might make the next steps at the site much easier. As with the standoff on official applications, the chicken and the egg continue to vie for supremacy.

Unlike the recycling operation, however, the methane problem may have a longer reach, as the former landfill site extends into the park – currently a construction site for a new splash pad – and towards some residences on George and High streets. The township’s position, backed by studies, is that the methane poses no threat to residents, most of it contained to the wrecking yard.

While the township hasn’t heard concerns from homeowners in the area, officials will have to ensure that they have all the evidence ready given the history of issues in that part of Elmira. From the chemical contamination to plant odours and the biogas debate, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical.