When they started digging for the landfill I said to Sherm, “Ain’t that where we used to went skating?” “Still do,” said Sherm. “You ever seen them dig a landfill except where there’s groundwater?” Sure enough by July the Jack Wells Brook looked like swill. Sure enough by August there wasn’t a minnow left in Eagle Pond. Where was the state water folks when the brains was handed out? Sherm says they was out behind the Grange getting paid off.”
Donald Hall reports this story in his book Eagle Pond as a representative example of New Hampshire country conversation. It has a lovely local twang, but the events it describes have taken place a million times, all over the country and probably just about everywhere else. There is an intimate connection between garbage and corruption. Not so much the corruption of the garbage itself, unfortunately. The process of biodegradation, no matter how ardently hoped-for by all of us ordinary householders who put our wishful faith in it, is significantly retarded by current landfill disposal practices. Organic corruption is curbed significantly. To make up for it, there’s a lot of human resources corruption, involving the people paid to ensure proper handling of the waste and then paid again to grease the skids for a little extra profit to the people getting paid to do the proper handling.
The most high-profile stories of garbage-related corruption that have come to light include these lurid tales:
– A mafia cartel with its origin in Yonkers controlled commercial garbage collection in New York City and outlying areas in the latter half of the twentieth century (see Rick Cowan and Doug Century, Take-Down: The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire);
– A recent garbage showdown in Naples involved the accumulation of household waste in the streets because the landfills were full (again) as well as the dumping of toxic waste all over the surrounding region of Campania (see Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System);
– The passage of the RCRA in 1976, which controlled the dumping of toxics, sparked a wave of organized illegal disposal and stockpiling in eastern New Jersey and New York (see Alan Block and Frank Scarpitti, Poisoning for Profit: The Mafia and Toxic Waste in America).
And then there’s the story of Browning-Ferris, which gave away waste oil mixed with various toxics to southern counties, also in the 1970s, so that it could be used to lay dust on unpaved country roads. This is a minor story, comparatively speaking, but there’s something so brazen about it, so light-of-day, it deserves a spot in the pantheon.
Lest we think that this is a thing of the past, there’s James Galante, who got one conviction for tax evasion in 1999 and another one in 2008 for racketeering, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and additional tax shenanigans. Up until that last conviction, he had the controlling interest in 25 garbage-related businesses that held most of the disposal contracts for western Connecticut as well as Westchester and Putnam counties in New York.
And then there are all the international scandals—ocean tankers dumping toxic sludge of uncertain origin in poor neighborhoods in Ivory Coast and other African nations, 90 shipping containers with contaminated recyclables from Britain delivered to Latin American ports—which don’t actually look all that different from the legal movement of toxics.
Garbage is not unique as a temptation to augment one’s income by cutting corners, it appears. Neither is it unique in attracting organized crime. Robert Kelly explains in his book The Upperworld and the Underworld: Case Studies in Racketeering and Business Infiltrations in the United States that there is a range of commercial enterprises that have historically been beset by those inclined to bribery and violence in the furtherance of their material longings. This includes construction, pizza parlors, and waterfront businesses, as well as the full range of garbage-related enterprises. Industries in which many small businesses offer low-margin services are especially susceptible to racketeering, Kelly points out. It helps if there’s a labor union to bend to one’s criminal purposes.
But the most interesting contributing factor is the existence of regulation. The consequence of regulation goes a step beyond the well-known fact that crime is created by the law that makes it so. Before the early 1970s, it was lawful to dump industrial wastes freely into air and water, although it certainly wasn’t sanitary and the dumpers would have been pretty well situated to know that. As soon as the RCRA was passed into law, dumping industrial wastes became a crime, which exposed the guilty to (relatively small) fines. Similarly, Europe has stringent regulations that say toxic wastes cannot exported out of the country in which the waste is created and they can certainly not be exported to places that don’t have the same regulations. By definition, sending a shipment of used European refrigerators to Africa is a crime. Sending a shipment of used American refrigerators to Africa is just business as usual, because the US doesn’t have the same export restrictions.
But something else happens, besides the mere change in status of the activity. Regulations make it more attractive to cheat, because they typically make it more expensive to properly treat or dispose of waste. And that means that the profit margin associated with the improper treatment or disposal of waste increases, often sufficiently to catch the attention of organized crime. In the first place, it becomes attractive to charge the going rates for proper disposal of a vast range of poisons and then just dump it in the landfill or stockpile it in an abandoned warehouse or let it run into the nearest stream when nobody is looking or set it on fire or lay it under an overpass under cover of darkness or wait for rain and open up the spigot of your tanker truck as you drive along the interstate. And then secondly, if you lower your prices just a tiny bit under the going rate, you can undercut your honest competitor and still make a handsome profit. Block and Scarpitti’s Poisoning for Profit may be read as an indictment of widespread corruption but it’s also a tips-and-tricks sort of “Poisoning for Dummies”. The most brazen scam I have heard of was perpetrated in Italy: the Camorra would take loads of toxic waste from the north (in return for payment), dump it into the pits meant for the subsidized destruction of agricultural surpluses (and collect the subsidies), and then sell the agricultural surpluses that didn’t actually end up in the pits to grocery stores (at decent prices).
However, all of the experts on organized crime say that it exists only where there is widespread collusion by authorities and other bystanders. And I suspect that, in addition, garbage is especially attractive as merchandise because the rest of us find it so difficult to pay attention.