Last Thursday, I finally managed to get onto the Brisbane landfill to take pictures. It was quite an adventure. Various people came after me to find out what I was doing, what I was taking pictures of, what I was taking pictures for, and who I might be working for. It’s interesting to consider why everybody is so nervous about seeing a general member of the pubic saunter by with a camera.
The landscape is very odd, because the dump is currently occupied for the most part by a company that deals in sand, gravel, and recycled construction materials. Large piles of the stuff are positioned all over the place, heavy equipment is moving it about continuously, while trucks drive in for fresh loads every few minutes. Piles of scrap and decommisioned vehicles are provisionally stored in between the sand and gravel piles. All of this on top of the artificial hills created by the original landfill operations.
Dependably, in the middle of all of this, there is a heron, fishing in a little gully that cuts across the dump on its way to the bay.
It’s an eerie, other-worldly place, with an excellent history. Brisbane is a company town—a garbage company town, to be exact. The Brisbane dump, which came into being in 1932 to relieve San Francisco of its household garbage, predates the town by nearly 30 years of mostly peaceful fill-and-cover dumping. The company that operated it, Sanitary Fill, helped to incorporate Brisbane in 1961, apparently in search of a receptive business partner. As soon as Brisbane was official, Sanitary Fill presented the brand-new city council with a contract to extend dumping rights by several decades. That contract kicked the Brisbane citizenry into high dudgeon and sparked off years of intense environmental drama, at least in the recollection of local activists.
Against all expectation, Brisbane’s new planning commission evinced some pride of place and considered that several additional decades worth of garbage would not be conducive to a radiant future. Two out of the three planners voted against the proposal and promptly got themselves fired. Undeterred, the city council signed the contract anyway.
The anti-garbage faction united under the banner of BCCP (Brisbane Citizens for Civic Progress) and pushed for an election on the issue, which took place in 1965. The city council reportedly tried to turn popular sentiment against the BCCP by alleging a gay plot, putting out posters that read “Don’t Queer Our City.” The strategy backfired, and the people of Brisbane voted to stop the influx of San Francisco’s refuse immediately, without waiting for the contract to expire. As a result, the city council saw itself obliged to hire a lawyer to back out of the deal with Sanitary Fill. In a moment of inspiration, Brisbane retained Caspar Weinberger to turn the garbage tide.
Weinberger, who became head of the California Republican party only a few years later and went to Washington with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, was evidently well connected in California even then. As members of the BCCP remember it, some smart political manoeuvering on his part quickly got the contract thrown out as invalid. Sanitary Fill countered by offering free beer at a local bar and more money for the trash, arguments that proved persuasive with the general populace, if not with the BCCP. In the end, Sanitary Fill found a less contentious outlet for San Francisco’s garbage in Mountain View in 1967, bringing the local garbage wars finally to a close. San Francisco’s 1970s garbage now slumbers undisturbed under Shoreline Park, shoring up golfers and concert goers and sparking urban legends about the magic of methane.
Where the BCCP remembers a victory of the people against “organized garbage,” Sanitary Fill predictably has a different slant on the matter. Stewart Perry’s Collecting Garbage, a study of the ethos and culture of San Francisco’s garbage collectors entirely written in the tone of voice usually reserved for the heroes of the Normandy invasion, has company officials explaining that there were only a few more months of space left in the Brisbane dump anyway. When people began to raise objections, Sanitary Fill just looked for other options and conveniently found one in Mountain View.
However this may be, the final result takes up just about 550 acres, perhaps one-half to two-thirds of Brisbane’s total area, at a rough estimate. It contains some 12.5 million cubic yards of waste, about 25% of which is inert, meaning it’s demolition debris. The rest is made up of the slops and discards of San Francisco’s householders, much of it organic, with loads of paper mixed in, some plastics, and the usual complement of hazardous waste—batteries, paint, mercury thermometers, neon bulbs, motor oil, herbicides and insecticides, and all the other chemicals and metals that wend their way into the average American household—or used to, at least.
The dinky toys and football gear of my friend Paul, who grew up in the Sunset in the 1950s, are reposing somewhere in this giant midden. Here lurk his high school exams, the scraps from the countless dinners his mother cooked, the crusts of bread he disdained to eat, the shampoo bottles he tossed when he was done with them. And, most likely, none of this rubbish has changed much since the days he pitched it. The University of Arizona’s Garbage Project, having completed an impressive number of landfill excavations, reports that biodegradation is a rare phenomenon in garbage dumps. Apparently, the hot dogs are clearly recognizable 50 years later, still pink and plump, so a football helmet could almost be ready to wear.
That doesn’t mean that all is well in the Brisbane dump. In preparation for the hoped-for redevelopment of the site, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board published a mealy-mouthed report in 2002 that mentions “evidence that constituents of concern may be leaving the site, particularly along the eastern and southern perimeters.” It’s meager consolation that these “constituents,” whatever they may be, are not on the official list of hazardous wastes.
Brisbane was one of the first examples of a fill-and-cover operation, in which the daily dose of refuse is covered up with a layer of “clean dirt” at day’s end, to keep the rats at bay. Fill-and-cover was a vast improvement over an open dump, such as the one San Francisco maintained at Islais Creek, just south of Potrero Point, until 1925. Nevertheless, by today’s standards, the Brisbane dump is an ecological embarrassment. Originally, the garbage was simply chucked into the local tidal marsh, in a general spirit of improvement. (Commercial interests and property values are best served by solid footing and a clearly defined boundary between water and land. Bogs and marshes are for the birds.) The causeway that was built in 1948 isolated the garbage from tidal action, but all the same the dump does not have a liner and it was never properly capped. A methane extraction system was only installed in 1991.
Back to the Bay, the CLUI Bay Area land use guide, suggests that there are six superfund sites at or near the dump. To be sure, the dump is probably not the only source of pollution. Southern Pacific Railroad once maintained a yard on the same site, now lying idle and partially submerged, and it might be the source of the bunker fuel that contaminates it today. The Water Quality Control Board found gasoline, motor oil, diesel, bunker-C oil, benzene, ethyl-benzene, toluene, and xylene on the dump, to mention only the fuels.
Ominous as all of this may sound, a good half of the Brisbane dump looks innocuous enough: a grassy field, a little weedy and unkempt, lined with boulders and enlivened with random piles of rock. It offers a resting place in winter to weary flocks of geese traveling the Pacific Flyway, like a tired rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. Here, the original tidal marsh has been filled to create level ground, and how far it extends only the map reveals. When you think about it, that isn’t very reassuring. Garbage dumps may not be very comfortable to look at, but there is some consolation in the idea that you know them when you see them.
Commercial activity further disguises part of the landfill. Norcal, the parent company of Sanitary Fill and the cooperatives that have collected San Francisco’s garbage for a hundred years or more, sits on top of the garbage at the north end. The transfer processing station, the fleet yards, the recycled sculpture garden and the art studio (located in the old recyclables sorting area and set aside for artists in residence), a miscellany of sheds—the whole complex spreads out over some 50 acres. Norcal is joined by a few other businesses with little concern for curb appeal: two lumber yards, one or two sand and gravel businesses, a recycler of demolition debris. The most makeshift of them all is Pyramid Networks, which, to judge by the street number (601B) is squatting on a corner of someone else’s lease. What they make, or destroy, is anybody’s guess.
But it’s the recognizable part of the dump that I’m most interested in—the characteristic flat-top hills, looming some 40 feet above the level of the surrounding terrain in some places, more neatly graded than anything the wind would do. Every time I drove to San Francisco and back again, I eyed those mounds. I traveled the little square around it: Highway 101, Beatty Road, Tunnel Avenue, Lagoon Way, and back to Highway 101 again. I got online to try to find out more about the dump, and eventually I ended up with Steve at Universal Paragon, an Asian development company that is Brisbane’s next best hope for redemption. Steve, having had some idea of taking pictures at the dump himself at one point, fitted me out with an indemnity agreement that certifies I would not sue Universal Paragon no matter how horrible the fate that lay in store for me there.
Viewed from the truck entrance without benefit of wheels, the dump is an intimidating place. Walking in armed with nothing but my indemnity agreement and two cameras requires a few deep breaths. Trucks come tearing out of the landfill in a steady stream over a road that’s only a little wider than they are. There’s not much solid footing for a pedestrian and even less opportunity to remain inconspicuous. I certainly don’t feel welcome.
Once I’m in, it’s difficult to get a panoramic view of the terrain. The road that leads across the dump from north to south is hemmed in on all sides by sand and gravel arranged in hills and piles, each with its own angle of repose. Nothing grows anywhere. Dust and haze mix in the slanting rays of the December sun to create a golden incandescence, like the aureoles of medieval saints. The light is weirdly out of place in this superindustrial environment. If purgatory smelled, this pervasive odor of Portland cement, lifeless and anti-organic, would be just right for it.
Heavy equipment is everywhere, pushing the piles of stuff around ceaselessly and keeping up a more or less continuous roar. There probably is a master plan, but it looks like busy work. Odd constructions in various places appear to have outlived an uncertain purpose, including an asphalt road that leads up to the top of a half-buried tank. The tank itself emerges from the artificial hillside at just the right height to drive another vehicle underneath its spigot. I’m at a loss to think what might have circulated through this system. Other items are sitting around in wait for new inspiration, including a first aid hutch that appears to have survived an outdoor concert or sporting event. Scrap metal is arranged in tangled heaps.
At the same time, a few mysterious construction projects are underway. Things that look like future water features lie in the crooks of the road that leads across the dump, half of them containing water. The southern end is in the process of being shaped to a purpose apparently unrelated to garbage, some curving terraces emerging from the mounds.
I may be the first person to have walked onto the old dump in my lifetime, and I attract a lot of attention. I’m stopped three different times by polite and somewhat awkward but very puzzled men in pickup trucks who have been dispatched—by whom it seems unwisely provocative for me to inquire—to ascertain the nature of my intentions. They obviously find it hard to understand why I’m there and are especially incredulous about my reasons for taking pictures. Who am I taking pictures for? What am I taking pictures of? Who do I work for? Give me five minutes at a dinner table and most everybody understands exactly what’s interesting about garbage dumps, but on the dump itself the argument is just not so easily made. And what’s hard to understand is apparently difficult to believe. They just keep coming.
To listen to these men talking, trucks are more dangerous and unpredictable than Komodo dragons, and the drivers must be blind. It’ll be a miracle if I come out of there alive. I could sprain my ankle and nobody would even know where I was! “These trucks don’t even have horns!” says George, the Universal Paragon project engineer in the third pickup. A teenager sits next to him in the passenger seat. The boy, who looks as if he might be George’s son, ardently nods his head and smiles encouragingly at everything I say, the only one to whom my explanations appear to sound perfectly obvious. If only he’d thought to bring his camera himself, he seems to be thinking, such an amazing place and to be caught out here without the means to record it! It’s a crying shame.