02
Aug
08

Erased

Ginger Strand, in her wonderful book Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies, tells a story about bringing a friend to Niagara Falls because “Niagara’s landfills are amazing.” They do sound pretty good, from her descriptions, so I looked up the ones she mentions with Google Maps. Of course, landfills aren’t actually marked on the map, so I usually look up an address, if I have one, then zoom out a bit and then load the satellite view.

I quickly found the small landfill created by the Hooker company at the south end of Love Canal, because Strand supplies an address. I found the much larger CECOS landfill by the fact that Strand says you can see it from the freeway off of Grand Island. And I found the Niagara Falls Storage Site/LOOW, where a lot of the radioactive waste ended up from wartime nuclear development in and around Niagara Falls, by looking for Model City. In the image at left, I drew in the landfills myself, with approximate boundaries in red.

Niagara Falls, plus a few landfills
Niagara Falls, plus a few landfills

And then this morning it suddenly occurred to me that it’s pretty interesting that landfills are not marked in the mapping tools. I checked out the different tools, to see if any of them provide clues about landfill. They all seem to use Navteq data, and not one shows landfills, at any scale.

Mapquest’s map shows the Niagara Factory Outlet and the Hyde Park Golf Course. Google’s map also shows the St. Joseph’s Cemetery, in addition to shopping meccas and parks. The Yahoo map spurns the shopping opportunities but does name the Cayuga Creek, which remains nameless on the other maps. In addition, it points out Pletchers Corners, at the intersection of Lockport and Military, northeast of Niagara Falls. There’s no explanation of what kind of feature this might be. Clearly each service has a different notion of what a person could reasonably be expected to look for, picking out different bits of information from the data Navteq offers. Landfills are not on any list.

It’s not like people don’t need to find landfills, however. Most active landfills allow individuals and small contractors to drive in with trash and dispose of it, for a small fee. And I know people search for landfills regularly because I can see some of the query strings on the basis of which they arrive at my own blog. Some of these clearly are very practical: “where do i dump household garbage in palo alto” and “discard old tires antioch.” I’m always sorry they found me, because I doubt it gets them any closer to their goal.

It’s tough to know who exactly made the decision to leave the landfills off the map. Navteq seems to have something to do with it, because each of the maps simply shows a blank. Where there is landfill, the maps simply show nothing, leaving a hole in the map, so to speak.

I know our society is based on an out-of-sight , out-of-mind approach to garbage, not to worry us with the consequences of our behaviors. But why exactly does Navteq participate in it? I asked a question via the Navteq website, but I don’t have a great deal of confidence that I’ll get an answer back. I had to disclose all sorts of interesting personal information in a pretty complex form, while the field where I could type a comment of some sort, dangling at the very end of the process like an afterthought, was the only field that was not required. It didn’t exactly feel like Navteq is eager to hear from me.

And I don’t want to create the impression that Navteq is the only culprit. I checked my Thomas Guides for Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco counties, only to confirm my suspicion. Not a landfill is marked, although all the parks on top of closed landfills are duly labeled, without reference to the substructure. Active landfill is simply blank. Frankly, I’d have been amazed if it had been otherwise. Denial is the normal inflection of our society when it comes to garbage.

Ginger Strand, meanwhile, says, “if we don’t admit that the things we do to make our lifestyle possible even have a cost, how can we ever know when that price has become too high?”

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