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December 2007

Four killed at Wisconsin landfill

In a tragic turn of events, four men, two of them brothers, were overcome by fumes and died at a landfill in Superior, Wisconsin. The landfill, Lakehead Blacktop and Materials of Superior, Inc., is a private construction and demolition site.

Joseph Kimmes II, who founded J. Kimmes Construction, owns the landfill along with several other companies. Killed in the accident were Kimmes’ sons, Joe Kimmes, III and Scott Kimmes, as well as landfill employee Harold Olsen, and Paul Cossalter, an electrical contractor.

The fumes were hydrogen sulfide, which is a breakdown product of the landfill waste, according to Connie Antonuk from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “You have to anticipate that it will be there,” she said.

Antonuk noted that this sort of accident is not confined to landfill operations. Farm workers and silo operators also have to be aware of the dangers of trapped gasses in confined spaces.

In this case, Antonuk said, “From what we can determine, they went into a lift station,” which is a 4 foot diameter and 20 foot deep manhole with a pump at the bottom. The pump is used to send leachate into the city sewer system as needed.

“Our understanding is that the pump was not functioning,” Antonuk said. However, she explained that it should not have been necessary for anyone to enter the manhole. “The design of the pump is such that you can pull it up to work on it,” she said.

Reports state that after the first person entered the manhole and did not return, three others followed him, one at a time, in rescue attempts. By the time rescue workers arrived from the local fire department, it was too late to save the men.

A manhole, like the one at the landfill, is defined as “a confined space” in state codes, and there are safety precautions required when entering such a space. Antonuk said that when someone enters a confined space, they should have a tripod, harness, gas meter and breathing equipment. A second person should also be outside the manhole.

Wisconsin State administrative codes also include training and certification requirements for owners and operators of landfills. Neither Antonuk nor Mike Kolanczyk from the Superior fire department, which responded to the accident, was aware of any previous safety issues at the site.

Antonuk noted that worker safety is also an OSHA requirement, and OSHA is in the process of investigating the event. It may take as many as six months for a final determination from OSHA, and they will not make any comments until they have finished the investigation.

While it may be some time before all of the details are known, one thing is obvious. “They did not use the confined space entry techniques,” Antonuk said. “It’s very sad.”