Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#260 - Long-Term Above-ground Storage Of Superfund Wastes Seems To Make Sense, 19-Nov-1991

Not all wastes can be recycled. For example Superfund cleanup wastes.
These chemical leftovers from the past are sitting around waiting to
leak into somebody's drinking water. The point of the Superfund program
is to clean them up to protect people. But that's not easy, it's not
cheap, and it's a political hot potato.

The Superfund law was passed in 1980 and Congress told EPA (U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency) to go out and clean up all the old
chemical dumps. EPA began doing it and then realized they had no place
to put the stuff they were cleaning up. So they started trucking it to
Alabama and to Niagara Falls, NY, and burying it in enormous holes in
the ground (landfills). That's actually what they were doing--digging
up toxic soil in one location, hauling it by truck several hundred
miles or more, and burying it in another hole in the ground. Hard to
believe, but true.

Then the public began to catch on. In about 1983 Joel Hirschhorn of the
Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) had the guts to point
out that this emperor was wearing no clothes. In public Hirschhorn
started saying EPA's cleanup strategy was a "shell game" and everyone
immediately saw he was right. Congress realized EPA was bungling the
job, got serious, and passed a new law that told EPA to "prefer
permanent cleanup technologies." This may have been a mistake.

EPA took this to mean incineration. EPA likes incineration. To EPA, an
incinerator looks just like a landfill. It's a machine with a hole in
its face and you can throw in anything, whether it burns or not. But
you say an incinerator produces toxic ash? You rename the toxic
ash "special waste" and bury it a hole in the ground out back.
Seriously, that's how it works.

Unfortunately, people don't trust incinerators, for good reason, so
EPA's new Superfund strategy has shipwrecked on sharp rocks. Massive
citizen opposition has developed at nearly every Superfund cleanup site
where incineration has been proposed.

What else is there? Chemical detoxification. Set up a chemical factory
(small scale) and pull apart the toxic molecules as you dig them up.
This is the right approach. Unfortunately, often the wastes being dug
up contain a wild mixture of glop and crud so a chemical detox unit to
handle them is expensive and tricky to design and run.

What's left? Temporary cleanup. If we believe that technology will
continue to produce better solutions to nasty problems like "how to
detoxify mixed crud/glop," then we should store the Superfund wastes in
large reinforced concrete buildings above-ground where we can satisfy
ourselves that they are under control, and then wait for better
technologies to develop.

This is a serious proposal. Superfund cleanups are too often stalemated
because no one likes any of the available solutions. Meanwhile, real
people are poisoned or are terrified of becoming poisoned while the
citizenry and the EPA dance around. Superfund victims need real
solutions now.

Four civil engineers from Alabama and Florida have proposed large
reinforced concrete buildings for long-term waste storage.[1] For some
situations--for example, some Superfund cleanups--such buildings appear
to make sense.

Such buildings would be square, measuring 250 feet on a side. They
would be 70 feet tall. Need more space? Put four such buildings right
next to each other. They would be designed to withstand hurricanes and
tornadoes. Wastes inside them could be placed in containers, or
merely "bulk stored" (heaped into the open concrete sections). In
Figure 1, wastes would go where the words "Load Bearing Floor" appear.
The base of the building would be a 12" concrete slab. The first floor
would hold no wastes but would contain inspection walkways so people
could satisfy themselves than nothing was leaking from above. Leachate
would be collected, treated by ion exchange, activated carbon
absorption, and solidification, then returned to storage in the

The buildings could not be placed over sinkholes or over areas where
shaft and tunnel mining had occurred, nor over highly compressible
soils that would allow different amounts of settling beneath different
parts of the building (the floor slab might crack). But except for
that, such buildings could be sited almost anywhere. Of course they'd
be ugly. But why kid ourselves? Superfund wastes are ugly. I'd emboss
the exterior walls with huge skulls and crossbones to get the message
across to enthusiasts and critics alike--this building is a deadly tomb
for technical hubris and dumb ideas.

Separating such buildings from human communities by half a mile or so
would be a good idea. Operator error could, under some circumstances,
mix incompatible wastes and cause an explosion--and human error can
never be completely avoided. Errors are what make us humans and not

Such buildings would produce no water pollution, no air pollution (a
blower with a charcoal filter would keep the interior under negative
pressure, so air wouldn't escape outward). Compartmentalization of the
wastes would allow an inventory to be kept, so particular wastes could
be retrieved when recycling technologies improved.

Such buildings should last for many decades, perhaps as long as a
century. The cost of a 250 foot square building 70 feet tall would be
roughly $6 million. Considerably cheaper and safer than a landfill.
Cheaper and safer than an incinerator for many wastes.

The authors of this idea want everyone to adopt these buildings as
substitutes for hazardous waste landfills, substitutes for municipal
solid waste landfills, substitutes for incinerator ash monofills. To
us, they make best sense for Superfund cleanup wastes where you can't
make the argument that we should avoid the creation of the waste in the
first place. By definition, Superfund wastes already exist.

The original newsletter contained a figure that is not reproducible in
this version. The caption reads: Sectional Perspective of Structure
Showing Base Slab, Inspection Walkways, and Double-Tee Roof Sections.
[See PDF format version for a reproduction of this figure.]

--Peter Montague


[1] James V. Walters, Tola B. Moffett, Jerry D. Sellers, and W. Adrian
Lovell, "Use of Elevated, Concrete Building for 'Sanitary Landfills,'
Monofills, and Cogeneration Facilities." JOURNAL OF RESOURCE MANAGEMENT
AND TECHNOLOGY Vol. 17, No. 2 (April, 1989), pgs. 123-130.

Descriptor terms: waste disposal technologies; waste treatment
technologies; hazardous waste; superfund; epa; landfilling; alternative
treatment technologies; ota; joel hirschhorn; incineration; chemical
detoxification; above-ground storage buildings;