The Fresno Sanitary Landfill is a national historic landmark. It is also a superfund site. Yet, if you were to drive by unarmed with inside information, you would come away with the notion that it actually is a regional sports complex, as proclaimed by the large sign in front of the dump. Not all elements of reality, obviously, are equally attractive. And not everybody is equally eager to point them all out.
In 2001, Martin Melosi, the country’s foremost environmental historian, working with the NPS, sought to redress the sad lack of attention to sanitation—undoubtedly a very important part of our society—in the register of national historic landmarks. They proposed the Fresno municipal dump as the first “true” sanitary landfill in the US. That is, it was the first dump in which organic garbage was buried in compartments, first introduced in 1937. A trench was dug for the trash, which was then covered up with the dirt dug up out of the next trench.
I love words in general, but garbage has produced some special gems. My favorite is “clean dirt,” for the layer that goes on top of the garbage that closes the trench. “Sanitary landfill” isn’t bad either, but more on that later.
The FSL nomination was successful. The secretary of the interior, Gale Norton, put the landfill on the register, but without paying attention to the fact that it was just then in the final stages of a superfund cleanup. The press got a hold of this tidbit and had a field day of fun and sneers with it. I think some people objected to the mere notion of commemorating a garbage dump. Other people felt that the superfund status automatically disqualified the dump as a landmark. Secretary Norton promptly did an about-face and tried to take FSL off the register again. It turns out, however, that the procedure for removing a landmark from the register is as cumbersome as the procedure for adding one. Thank heaven for bureaucracy.
I personally think that FSL’s landmark status is perfect. I’d be very happy to put a few more garbage dumps on the register. I’m with Melosi all the way. Garbage matters. However, I also believe that superfund status obviates the use of “sanitary” in front of “landfill.” The trenching method was a nice idea, cutting down on odors and pests. But history has shown that it made burial of garbage no less dangerous, only more superficially acceptable. Arguably, trenching has been harmful, in facilitating an almost exclusive reliance on landfilling without any real environmental safeguards for almost 40 years, from the 1930s to the 1970s. And the safeguards that have been put in place since then are by no means foolproof. (See a brief primer on plumes for more detail.)
In the case of FSL, the trash was poisoning air and groundwater. People living nearby complained. The City of Fresno became alarmed at its own measurements of methane and volatile organic compounds, including vinyl chloride and trans-1,2-dichloroethene, in groundwater. It tried, unsuccessfully, to put some containment systems in place in the 1990s. The dump became a superfund site, and the EPA did a “cleanup” project in 2001.
There’s another word. When I hear “cleanup,” I think of a process with a defined end result, of clean-ness, spic-and-span-ness, unpolluted, dirt-free, pure wholesome-ness. That is not how the EPA cleans up.
An EPA cleanup is more typically an effort at containment, a way to encapsulate pollutants and prevent their further spread. It might consist of a system to capture methane and flare it off, and another system to capture leachate and divert it to the water purification system, and finally some layers to minimize the penetration of rainwater. I understand that such an approach may be financially more appealing than the kind of operation one envisions at the word “cleanup,” but it’s not exactly a permanent solution. And it doesn’t always work.
The 2005 inspection of the FSL revealed a host of issues, including methane above acceptable levels and further migration of toxins, both wider and deeper, as they appeared to be moving from shallow aquifers into deeper ones. Some remedial actions were recommended, but no further reports have been published.
In the meantime, above-ground, FSL is a really boring hill, bristling with little pipes like birthday candles. It takes up some 145 acres in the middle of what looks, to me, like really scraggly farmland only a short step away from outright desert. Dusty vineyards and tired-looking orange groves groves are holding on for dear life, in between falling-down houses and farm implements laid out for sale near the road. Trash festoons all the high fences. Rottweilers pace the naked yards.
In its 2005 inspection report, the EPA recommends a survey to ascertain whether any endangered species are dependent on the neighborhood for habitat. I’m thinking t might be time to worry about the humans too.
P.S.: I hear from the city of Fresno that methane levels are acceptable these days and that a new pumping system helps prevent the spread of contaminants in the deeper aquifers. It seems the athletes will be quite safe.