Measuring up for data monitoring

Landfill monitoring needs to be robust - and efficient data capture is crucial to this process. Richard Foote visits a site in the North-west to see how one specialist is making this happen.

I am standing in the grounds of a landfill in the Northwest of England. To the untrained eye, the site resembles a typical nature reserve - dog walkers regularly pass by and two bird watching hides overlook a small lake. The only indication that I'm positioned near the final resting place of thousands of tonnes of rubbish is a couple of borehole caps.

"The open section of the landfill is over there," explains Matt Green, environmental technician for landfill monitoring specialist RSK Argus, pointing beyond the lake to a large grassy verge topped with trees. Beyond the verge is a mound of rubbish so big that the off-road bulldozers driving across its surface resemble tiny, wheeled ants.

Trucks with wheels taller than a man regularly arrive with more waste. The majority of people in the UK would not choose to live near a landfill site. Odour, truck noise and vermin are all reasons why the public understandably declare "not in my back yard". However, while a landfill may not look or smell very nice, the real danger is usually out of sight.

Prevention better than cure
"It is crucial to have robust monitoring procedures at landfills," explains Green. "A company such as RSK Argus is like the canary in the mine, capturing the data people need to act on before it is too late." Landfill dangers include production of gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrogen sulphide, which can build up underground and ignite or migrate to the surface and escape into the atmosphere to potentially asphyxiating or explosive effect. Other risks include the presence of bioaerosols that can cause illnesses like farmer's lung.

RSK Argus combines technical expertise with efficient data delivery to handle millions of datasets every year. Its clients include Waste Recycling Group, SITA and Biffa. The company has a simple business model - it focuses on monitoring and monitoring only, whereas rival companies' abilities are often diluted by their auxiliary services.

In the UK, landfill monitoring is chiefly governed by the Landfill Regulations 2002, which sets out minimum monitoring procedures for licensed UK site operators. The regulations place responsibility for monitoring and maintaining the landfill in the hands of the operator. It also charges them with the remediation of any environmentally damaging events.

Made to measure
As the number and distribution of samples varies between landfills, depending on the licensing conditions agreed with the local council, sampling requirements can range from hundreds to thousands of measurements on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis. RSK Argus's trump card is Sentinel - an integrated data management system that enables it to collect and process environmental data in a closed loop system.

Monitoring for each site is set out in an operational schedule that is dictated by the client. A chain of custody, starting from two weeks before the visit, through to final delivery of the data, maps out each visit down to the tiniest detail. A new chain of custody is generated for each visit. This is sent to the laboratory, ready to accompany clean bottles. An encrypted version is sent to the site operatives', who download it directly into their dataloggers. Once downloaded, it is then impossible for anyone to edit the schedule.

"This minimises mistakes, protects the data from fraud and means that the customer's original request is used as a basis for the entire monitoring process," says RSK Argus founder and managing director Rob Arthur. "We have key performance indicators that we have agreed with the customer, if we do not deliver on time, we can be penalised."

The company has spent 20 years finding new ways to make its systems more efficient. Its most recent breakthrough is software developed with fellow RSK Group member RSK Business Solutions, which allows field operatives to check data for anomalies before they leave site. "Until now, we'd have to return to site if the data centre identified unusual readings. This is potentially disruptive as it can impact the integrity of the sampling time window," says Arthur.

RSK Argus has its sights on tapping into the landfill waste-to-energy market, but it is also keen on seeking challenges beyond its traditional comfort zone. "We see big opportunities in the water and transport industries due to rigorous monitoring requirements," Arthur notes. "The water industry especially is in a similar position to that of the landfill industry 20 years ago."

Richard Foote is a freelance journalist

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