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#268 - EPA's New Landfill Rules Protect Only The Largest Garbage Haulers, 14-Jan-1992

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] issued new solid waste
landfill regulations (FEDERAL REGISTER October 9, 1991, pgs. 50978-
51119), requiring the nation's 6500 municipal garbage dumps to install
liners and leachate collection systems within two years, or shut down.
This means most communities will have to close their local landfill and
will not be able to afford to build a new one because the liners and
leachate collection systems simply cost too much. A landfill in
compliance with the new law will cost $10 million or more.

This means instead of 6500 local dumps, the nation will develop about
1000 large regional dumps, owned and operated not by local people but
by huge waste hauling companies like Waste Management, Inc., Browning-
Ferris Industries (BFI) and Chambers Development. Communities will face
a difficult choice: either host a regional dump and put up with the
truck traffic and the fear of contamination, or pay a high price to
have their garbage trucked to a remote regional landfill.

"A little county like ours can't afford to build a new dump, so we have
to have a [waste-hauling] company do it for us," Dwight Faulk told the
NEW YORK TIMES January 6, 1992 (pg. 1). Mr. Faulk is chairman of the
County Commission in Crenshaw County, Alabama. "These laws were set up
for big business to monopolize an industry," he said.

"The new regulations are proving to be a bonanza to the nation's
largest garbage companies," said the TIMES. "Rarely have environmental
regulations produced as many political distractions for the communities
they are written to protect, or meant as much to the bottom line of the
industry they are intended to regulate.... In effect the Government may
be helping to establish regional monopolies, and that worries some
officials," the TIMES said.

"It's not difficult to project a situation in the future where very few
firms could have regional or statewide control on the management of
public wastes," said Thomas C. Jorling, the Commissioner of
Environmental Conservation of New York. The TIMES then quotes waste
industry executives who argue that it won't be a monopoly situation--
communities can choose other alternatives like recycling and
incineration. But the TIMES points out correctly, most garbage will
still be buried in the ground. "The big money in garbage, nevertheless,
still remains in dumping it," the TIMES says. Whoever owns the landfill
controls the prices charged to anyone dumping there--so the company
that owns the dump has a big advantage over competitive haulers.

Managing garbage is now a $30 billion per year industry, and it is
expected to double in the next five years as large companies gain
control over fewer and fewer dumps. They will be in a position to
dictate the price of garbage disposal--an essential public service, as
anyone knows who has experienced a garbage strike when tons of stinking
garbage pile up on street corners. Profits in the garbage business can
run 25% to 50% on investment for a shrewd operator able to monopolize
markets and dictate prices.

Even waste industry executives admitted to the TIMES that EPA's new
landfill regulations will give them a natural monopoly over this costly
and essential public service: "There are only a handful of companies
that have the capabilities to provide the type of environmentally sound
facilities that the public is demanding," said John C. Shirvinsky, vice
president of public affairs for Chambers Development, a Pittsburgh-
based garbage company that operates 14 huge landfills around the

The great irony in all of this is that no one--certainly not the
garbage haulers, and least of all the EPA, which made the new rules--
believes that landfills with liners and leachate collection systems are
environmentally sound, or will protect public health and safety.
Everyone who has ever looked into the matter agrees that all landfills
will eventually leak when their liners degrade. "Eventually liners will
either degrade, tear, or crack and will allow liquids to migrate out of
the unit [the landfill]," says EPA's official handbook on landfill
liners, known as SW-870 [1, pg. 1].

A landfill is a bathtub in the ground. When fluids, such as rain, get
into the bathtub and combine with the wastes they produce a toxic soup
that, sooner or later, will contaminate the local environment. If the
bottom liner fails, leakage occurs through the bottom. If the bottom
liner doesn't fail, fluids fill the bathtub and it spills over the top
of its sides. To forestall this inevitability, EPA has developed what
the agency calls its "Liquids Management Strategy" [2, pg. 1], a fancy
name for keeping the rain out. A plastic liner forms the bottom of the
landfill and, when the landfill is full, a plastic cover over the top
acts like an umbrella.

Thus the dangerous wastes in municipal garbage--oven cleaner, paint
thinner, rat poison, and so on--are held inside a huge plastic baggie
to protect the local environment. This is the essence of a modern
landfill. No one believes it will protect the local environment for
very long. EPA's textbook on the design and construction of landfills
says, "EPA realizes that even with a good construction quality
assurance program, flexible membrane liners (FMLs) will allow some
liquid transmission either through water vapor permeation, or through
small pinholes or tears in a slightly flawed FML." [2, pg. 121]

The protective parts of landfills--the liners and leachate collections
systems--are only INTENDED to last 30 to 100 years [2, pg. 113]. The
manufacturers of liners only GUARANTEE their products for 20 years.
EPA's own regulations only require landfill operators to try to protect
the environment for 30 years after a dump is filled and closed. If they
meet their design potential, modern landfills will protect the
environment only until our grandchildren start paying taxes. If they
don't meet their design potential--and experience tells us many won't--
they will pollute the land and water of our children.

Why, then, has EPA passed regulations that will cost the public an
estimated $330 million, will end local control over garbage hauling,
will wipe out small competitors in the garbage business, and won't
protect the environment? Three reasons.

First, to a distracted public it can be sold as action by the
"environmental President" to solve the garbage crisis. Only when you
look into the details do you realize landfills won't protect the
environment, and how many members of the public will ever look into the
details of landfills?

Second, the waste business is now one of the largest and fastest-
growing businesses in America. Waste haulers make really good money,
and they kick some of it back into the political process. Politicians
therefore curry favor with the waste industry. For example, when George
Bush announced appointments to the President's Commission on
Environmental Quality, the waste industry had three representatives out
of 25: Browning Ferris Industries, or BFI, has William Ruckelshaus; and
Waste Management, Inc. has two members from its board of directors:
Dean Buntrock and Kathryn S. Fuller (a WMI board member but presently
"on leave"). (NY TIMES 7/24/91, pg. A14.) No other industry comes close
in terms of representation. The waste industry is among the most
politically powerful, and politically favored, in America.

The third reason why George Bush's EPA issues make-believe landfill
regulations is that real environmental protection would require
fundamental changes in the way we do business. Real environmental
protection is not a plastic baggie in the ground filled with toxins
waiting to poison our children. Real environmental protection will
require us to make our products compatible with the environment,
starting with the DESIGN of products. From the extraction and
transportation of raw materials, the energy required to process them,
the manufacturing method itself, the use of products in our homes and
businesses, and the disposal of products (when they are returned to the
environment)--each of these steps must be thought out in terms of
environmental compatibility and human health. This concept is called
"clean production" and it will limit the freedom companies now have to
make any product they wish to, using any materials and processes they
like, no matter what the consequences to the environment or public
health. Real environmental protection will require companies to be
accountable to the public for their decisions.

Clean production will change the way we make decisions. Anything less--
including expensive regulations requiring us to wrap our toxics in
silly plastic baggies--prolongs the myth that "business as usual" is
sustainable, and thus hastens the destruction of the planet as a place
suitable for human habitation.

--Peter Montague


[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, LINING OF WASTE IMPOUNDMENTS
AND DISPOSAL FACILITIES [SW-870] (Springfield, VA: National Technical
Information Service [NTIS], March, 1983.) NTIS publication number PB86-

[2] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, SEMINAR PUBLICATION;
CLOSURE [EPA/625/4-89/022]. Cincinnati, OH: Center for Environmental
Research Information, Office of Research and Development, U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, August, 1989. Free; phone (513) 569-

Descriptor terms: epa; landfilling; regulations; wmi; chambers
development; bfi; msw; landfill liners; leachate collection systems;
rcra; subtitle d; clean production;