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#164 - The Landfillers' New Plan: Megafills, 16-Jan-1990

As long as there have been humans, there have been garbage dumps.
Archaeologists call dumps "midden heaps" and sift through them
meticulously, searching for the meaning of life--or at least trying to
understand what it means to be human.

For thousands upon thousand of years, humans have thrown their detritus
into holes in the ground not far from home. And for thousands of years,
this made sense. Soil contains an immense number of tiny creatures who
spend their time breaking down organic materials into their original
constituents. (These creatures make up the "detritus food chain" and
they are essential to the wellbeing of the planet, though we rarely
hear much about them--after all they are so small they are invisible,
and who likes to discuss detritus-eaters anyway?) Bury a banana peel or
a dead squirrel for a month or two and they begin to lose form and
substance, recycled by members of the detritus food chain back into
their original inorganic constituents (oxygen, nitrogen, calcium and so
forth). Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yes, shallow land burial (a dump)
makes good sense for nontoxic materials.

But now dumps have become dangerous because many of the things we throw
into them are toxic. Starting about the time of World War II, the
nature of our economy changed. We began to turn our backs on the old
raw materials--cotton, wood, paper, leather, glass, and iron--and we
began substituting new raw materials. Many of the new materials are
toxic. Because many of these materials do not occur in nature, the
detritus food chain has never developed any members who lunch on them,
so the new materials persist in the environment, unable to be broken
down efficiently.

As a consequence, if you expose a modern dump (called a landfill) to
rain, then collect the rain water that has filtered through the garbage
(it's now called "leachate"), you will find that the leachate from a
solid waste landfill has about the same toxicity as the leachate from a
landfill specially designated for toxic industrial chemicals (a
"hazardous waste" landfill). (See RHWN #90.) This should not surprise
us. There is one stream of raw materials coming in the front door of a
factory. Inside the factory, manufacturing occurs. Two streams of
materials leave the factory--one is "hazardous waste" and one is
"product," but they are both made from the same stream of raw materials
that came in the front door. After the "products" are used, they are
discarded into a "municipal solid waste landfill." Leachate from each
type of dump--municipal waste vs. hazardous waste--is about equally
toxic; no surprise.

For nearly 40 years after World War II, people buried toxic materials
in the ground. Make no mistake--industrial chemists knew what they were
doing; they knew it was dangerous (see RHWN #97), but it was cheap, and
America was on a blind binge of growth and affluence. The modern
formula for success became, "Haste plus waste makes profit." And let
the devil take the hindmost. Then Love Canal occurred. Suddenly within
about five years everyone with a shred of sense came to realize that
landfilling the byproducts of the modern economy is certain to cause
enormous environmental damage and human misery.

In 1980, Congress passed the Superfund law to begin to clean up the
past 40 years' abuse. Then Congress began to ban landfilling of the
most dangerous materials. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
funded studies showing that 86% of all the landfills they studied had
actually contaminated groundwater. (See RHWN #71.) Combining these
studies with the fundamental principles that underpin physics and
chemistry (for example, gravity and the second law of thermodynamics),
EPA began saying in the FEDERAL REGISTER that there is good reason to
believe that, sooner or later, all landfills will leak, and will
contaminate the local environment. (See RHWN #37.) Even more
importantly, citizens across the nation took to the streets to prevent
the siting of new landfills. The movement for environmental justice was
born.

While this scientific and common sense opposition to landfilling was
growing, a counter-current was developing among those who make billions
of dollars burying poisons in the ground--the waste hauling industry.

During the '70s and '80s, the waste hauling industry was being
transformed from thousands of unorganized local haulers into a
nationwide network dominated by a few corporations who learned their
business techniques from organized crime. (See RHWN #40.) A few
visionary and ruthless business leaders saw that citizen opposition to
new landfills created a fabulous opportunity. Their initial tactic was
to purchase every landfill in sight. The fact that these landfills were
leaking dangerous materials into the local environment might seem to be
a serious liability, but the waste haulers saw that this was actually
an opportunity. The large firms organized themselves into hundreds of
small subsidiary corporations, no one of them holding much capital.
Then each small firm bought one or two leaking landfills, went to local
government, and said, "We own this landfill, which is leaking poisons
into your water supplies. If you allow us to expand it, we will be able
to make money and we will use part of the money to contain the poisons
and do our best to clean up past damage. If you will not allow us to
expand it, we will be forced to declare bankruptcy and leave you to
clean up the poisons." The federal Superfund cleanup program has shown
that the average cost of cleaning up a leaking landfill is $25 million,
so most local governments can't think about financing a cleanup
themselves. Never mind that the expanded landfill will eventually leak,
making the local problem much worse, and that the owner of the landfill
will then declare bankruptcy and skip town; for people worried about
the short term only (i.e., politicians), the proposal to clean up the
site in return for a license to expand is an offer they can't refuse.
Once the giant waste haulers had hundreds of landfills under their
control, they began to form alliances with garbage incinerator
companies; the incinerators can be sited on, or very near, the landfill
sites, thus avoiding the troublesome problem of siting a new landfill
to handle all that incinerator ash, which is laced with toxic metals
(see RHWN #92). It's perfect--especially if the Washingtonbased
environmental groups and Congress will cooperate to strip incinerator
ash of its "hazardous" label. (See RHWN #85.) Then the toxic ash can be
put into the local landfill and no one has any grounds for objection.

Thus the country now finds itself in the throes of a major struggle
that will play itself during the 1990s. Those scientists and regulatory
officials who haven't been bought by the giant waste haulers plainly
state that all landfills leak and can be expected to poison local water
supplies. Yet the waste haulers have developed what amounts to a
political movement to a maintain landfilling as the nation's principal
means of waste disposal.

Local people are tipping the balance in this struggle. The nationwide
movement opposing new landfills continues to gain strength, and it is
taking a terrible toll on the waste haulers' profits. The waste haulers
are having to defend themselves at every turn; this is expensive, it
creates bad publicity, and it's a nuisance. Their goal is to make money
by burying dangerous wastes in the ground, not to fight with citizens.
So now they have developed a new strategy designed to minimize siting
battles. They have formed an alliance with the nation's railroads to
develop a few giant landfills, each covering one thousand to 40,000
acres, which will accept wastes from cities a thousand (or more) miles
away. The term being used to describe these giant new landfills is
"megafill."

Only one megafill is operating today--BFI's 880-acre dump near Poland,
Ohio. Another megafill on the drawing boards is the 8,300-acre Eagle
Mountain Project, currently seeking permits to operate in the desert
200 miles east of Los Angeles. It is designed to accept 20,000 tons of
trash each day for 100 years. If successful, it's owner will only have
to fight a siting battle once every century.

The 2782-acre Gallatin National landfill in Fairview, Illinois, and the
1200-acre site near Edgemont, South Dakota, are other examples of
burgeoning megafills. The two largest proposals are near Lordsburg, New
Mexico (23,480 acres), and in Schuyler County, Missouri (40,000 acres).
Railroads are involved in each proposal.

Trains make sense for large garbage operations. One train can carry
4000 tons, about the same amount carried by 400 18-wheel semi-trailer
trucks. Conrail now hauls about 700 tons of garbage a day, earning
roughly $4 million per year. Within 10 years they expect their earnings
from this source to hit $100 million.

Soon the deserts of the southwest and prairie hillocks of the midwest
may be graced by megafills yawning open to swallow the toxic residues
of New Jersey and New York. After all, it's got to go somewhere,
doesn't it? Or does it? That's the central question, and we'll have an
answer during the 1990s.

--Peter Montague

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Descriptor terms: landfilling; megafills;