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#176 - Hooked on Danger: Expanding Landfills, 10-Apr-1990

We live in a strange world. Everyone now acknowledges that
landfills leak and contaminate groundwater. Even the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now says all landfills will
eventually leak (for example, see REHN #37.) Scientists comparing
the toxic strength of leachate dripping from beneath municipal
landfills find it as potent and dangerous as the chemicals that
leaked out of Love Canal. (For example, see REHN #90.) A careful
study of 50 landfills, commissioned by the EPA and conducted by
the nation's premier groundwater consulting firm revealed more
that 10 years ago that 43 of the 50 landfills (or 86%) had
definitely contaminated groundwater. (See REHN #71.) Half the
American people draw their drinking water from groundwater. Yet
state after state continues to rely on landfills for handling the
vast majority of municipal trash. It's as if we don't believe our
own experience, our own scientists, or our own officials.

The U.S. produced 163 million tons of municipal solid waste
during 1988. The EPA estimates that 82% of this (or 134 million
tons) was buried in municipal landfills. The U.S. General
Accounting Office (GAO) recently surveyed municipal landfills
with some interesting results. (Page numbers in our text refer to
this GAO report, which is cited in our final paragraph, below.)

Up until 1980, it was perfectly legal to dump any amount of
hazardous waste into a municipal landfill, and it was common
practise to do so. After 1980, only "small" quantities of
hazardous wastes could be legally dumped into municipal
landfills: households or companies generating less that 2640
pounds (1.3 tons) of hazardous waste each year can still dump
them into municipal landfills. People and businesses who generate
more than 1.3 tons per year must send it to an approved
"hazardous waste landfill," a facility controlled by the federal
law known as RCRA (the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act).
The GAO says EPA does not know how many tons of hazardous wastes
are created by "small" generators each year and they don't know
how much goes into municipal landfills (pg. 9).

In June, 1988, the federal "Superfund" list of contaminated sites
requiring federal cleanup contained 1,177 sites; of these, 249
(or 21%) were municipal landfills (pg. 15). Four states--New
York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin--each have more
than 20 municipal landfills on the Superfund list. Fourteen
states have no municipal landfills on the Superfund list, and the
remaining 32 states have between one and 19 municipal landfills
on the Superfund list.

Of the 249 municipal landfills on the Superfund list, 207 are
closed and 42 are still operating. Of the 42 operating Superfund
municipal landfills, half are located in four states: Indiana,
Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Washington state.

During the 2-year period from 1984 to 1986, 10 states received 14
applications to expand municipal landfills that are already on
the Superfund list--that is to say, 14 applicants wanted to
license landfills to take still more trash, even though they have
already seriously polluted the local environment. Of these 14
applications to expand, Colorado received two and approved one,
with one still pending; Indiana received one and approved it;
Kentucky received one and denied it; Michigan and Minnesota each
have one application pending; Oklahoma approved one; Pennsylvania
approved three and has one pending; Rhode Island and Vermont each
have one pending; Wisconsin approved one.

Eight states reported to GAO that they have identified a total of
116 municipal landfills that didn't make the Superfund list but
require cleanup under state statutes; the remaining 42 states
have not identified municipal landfills needing cleanup under
state statutes. Here are the ones requiring cleanup: Arkansas has
identified one closed municipal landfill; California has
identified four operating landfills and eight closed landfills;
Florida has identified one closed landfill; Illinois has
identified eight closed and one operating; Minnesota has
identified 10 closed and 31 operating; North Carolina has
identified nine closed landfills; South Carolina has identified
one closed and one operating; Virginia has identified 13 closed
and 28 operating landfills requiring cleanup. It is perhaps
noteworthy that, of the 31 operating landfills requiring cleanup
in Minnesota, 12 have applied for permits to expand their

The 32 states that haven't identified municipal landfills needing
cleanup have various reasons for not finding any. Twenty of the
32 states have no funded programs for cleaning up non-Superfund
sites, so they're not looking. The 12 states that have funding
are looking at a total of over 226 municipal landfills to see of
they require cleanup (pg. 20).

Nationwide in October, 1988, there were 7,575 municipal landfills
operating (not including landfills on the Superfund list or
requiring cleanup under state laws). Between October, 1986 and
October, 1988, 640 of these landfills in 31 states sought to
expand their operations; 396 succeeded.

[See the PDF format version for a table illustrating the story, state
by state.]

Get: General Accounting Office, NONHAZARDOUS WASTE: STATE
1989; free from GAO, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, Md 20877;
request GAO/RCED-89-165BR