Archive for October, 2008

27
Oct
08

not what it seems

Regional Sports Complex, Fresno

Regional Sports Complex, Fresno

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.)

Fresno dump, with plume

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.

Jensen Avenue, running north of Fresno dump

Jensen Avenue, running north of Fresno dump

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.

22
Oct
08

sight to see

Neighbors to the New Haven dump

Neighbors to the New Haven dump

It’s Sunday morning, and the cloud cover is thick. A breath of winter blows across low-rent New Haven, rustling up the scraps of trash along the side of the road. I am looking for my garbage—discards tossed between 1983 and 1986, when all of New Haven was a low-rent zone—among the schoolbuses, the weeds, the auto junkers. A couple bundled up in sports jackets and hoodies walk along the road, carrying trash bags and a rake, searching for recyclables hiding in the weeds. Makeshift barriers made out of chunks of broken-down concrete mark the edges of the pavement.

Before I started looking for trash, I never really saw these kinds of places. They’re not part of what we are supposed to see. Rebecca Solnit writes about the national parks—how good we are at looking at the view and not at the parking lot. Garbage is similarly part of a deprecated reality. We don’t see it, even though we ride by it on the freeway. It barely registers even if we travel through it on our way to a visible and visitable place.

But I think there is another dynamic at work, which hinges on the fact that I am a woman. I negotiate my way across public space by reading it, carefully and incessantly. It’s a subconscious activity that continually informs my decisions—to proceed or turn back, stand still or keep going, turn left or right, study the environment or pretend I don’t see a thing—all inspired by “how safe” the landscape reads for a woman by herself. Places like the banks of the Quinnipiac, packed solid with garbage and junk of every other stripe, are marginal. They are a question mark to me. And equally, I am a question mark myself. I’m out of place. Neatly dressed, with a haircut and a full complement of teeth, trim but well-fed, and female—it just doesn’t fit.

Garbage bump in the background

Garbage bump in the background

Well, here I am. An unnaturally regular, grass-covered hill rises up in the background. I believe I have found my trash.

I have to admire it from a distance, however, because the recycling business that guards the entrance is closed on Sundays. A sturdy gate hangs over the street, warning tresspassers of dire consequences should they proceed.  What looks like the back of a car’s bench seat defies the warning, lying lazily and emphatically in the middle of the road. A last blush of red lingers on the naugahyde, which is already declining into the brownish-grey of all disowned objects.

Ironically, I can actually see the dump much better at home, looking at satellite imagery, than feet on the ground. The trash mountain sits in the watery periphery of the Quinnipiac River, hemmed in by rail lines and freeways.

New Haven dump from above

New Haven dump from above

The garbage bump, in the shape of a backward comma or an opening apostrophe, is clearly visible as a slightly brighter green, perhaps because of the overabundance of nutrients in the ground. But much of the surrounding area may also be fill. After all, the original thought behind dumping trash into wetlands was to convert commercially worthless acreage into commercially viable real estate. And given how close this is to the mouth of the river, and how flat the surrounding area, it seems likely that much of what shows in the satellite image was not always solid footing.

In many places, garbage dumps eventually are repurposed. Sports complexes, golf courses, housing developments, pods of office buildings—all of these uses sooner or later take advantage of the reasonable price of not-quite-real estate. But in this place, the economic tides would have to turn very drastically for office buildings to become possible.

Freak flying out of the junk yard

Freak flying out of the junk yard

At the very least, the freak guarding the entrance to the junk yard would have to disappear. And on balance, I think that might be a loss.

17
Oct
08

a brief primer on plumes

The United States may have as many as 100,00 landfills, large and small. A significant proportion of them doesn’t have a liner.

A plume visualized by cross-cut

A plume visualized by cross-cut

Contaminants from landfill leach into groundwater in unsavory plumes containing heavy metals, chlorinated compounds, and hospital germs, to mention just a few of the ingredients. Take Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, which is built in a tidal swamp. The tides wash into its bed unhampered and wash out leachate, an estimated 3 million liters of it every day (which is almost 800,000 gallons). Under certain conditions, some of the contaminants from landfill may be cleaned up by naturally occurring processes, as a study at the Norman, Oklahoma, landfill has shown. but not nearly all of them. Moreover, it takes time.

In addition to leachate, landfills release methane, which is created when organics decompose when there is no oxygen and which contributes heavily to global warming. In fact, landfill methane is thought to account for about 5% of the total annual increase in “radiative force” that lies behind the greenhouse effect.  In other words, the adverse effects of landfill are both local and global. Back to Fresh Kills for a moment: according to a 1998 estimate, it releases 2,650 tons of methane a day. Perhaps that number is reduced somewhat since dumping stopped (in 2001), but it can’t be by much. After all, the garbage is still there quietly percolating under the skin of dirt that covers it up.

How long it takes for a dump to stop being a source of pollution is not yet known. Under normal conditions, most organic materials will decompose to clays and other natural substances in about 30 years. But in landfills, conditions are not normal. The stuff is packed in so tight that not enough air and water gets to it for the decomposition to proceed apace, in part because these huge piles we build cocoon much of the trash inside them, in part because sanitary engineers try to halt the decomposition process to prevent leaks.

On the whole, then,  there’s not enough air and water to speed along biodegration, too much air and water to prevent contamination and outgassing.

Guadalupe landfill, San Jose, CA

Guadalupe landfill, San Jose, CA

The serious environmental impact of landfilling our waste was not fully recognized until the 1970s, when the EPA began to insist on an engineering standard to contain leachate and methane, at least to some extent. All the same, the EPA recognizes that no liner is equal to the environmental stresses to which it will likely be subjected over its lifetime. Sooner or later, that leachate plume will emerge. And no methane collection system comes close to capturing all the gas generated in our trash heaps.

In the decades after the EPA established regulations, many of the older unlined, unengineered dumps were closed. In some cases, remediation systems were subsequently put in place. Most dumps, however, were simply taken out of operation and covered up. I’m sure it’s a good thing to stop adding to the problem, but closing a landfill to new arrivals doesn’t in any way mean that current occupants are no longer leaving. “Closed” really isn’t quite the word for a landfill at which the garbage trucks have stopped coming. Neither is “inactive.”

A few of the very worst landfills have been cleaned up, such as the infamous Love Canal dump in Niagara Falls. Much depends, it seems, on local activists. In other cases, cleanup is really unimaginable. Think of Fresh Kills again, which contains 67,000,000 cubic meters of compacted trash in four mountains spreading over 12 hectares of land (or 2,366,082,670 cubic feet spread out over 2200 acres). Perhaps we can expect improved containment systems in the future, but cleanup is hardly in the cards for a country that has squandered much of its wealth in the pursuit of ever greater riches.

Why exactly do we have landfills if they are so bad? Why are new landfills still being made?

It’s not that there is no alternative. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, all non-recyclable, non-hazardous waste is burned. In 40 years of heavy reliance on incineration, there have been no environmental disasters. From what I can understand, incinerators don’t scrub every last pollutant out of the exhaust gases, but their overall environmental impact is considerably less severe than the cumulative effect of landfill when considered over the entire life of the garbage.

From all my reading on the subject, I can distill only two reasons why landfilling is still standard practice in this country, despite severe environmental consequences:

> Space is still cheap, and landfills are relatively simple to build, requiring modest upfront capital investment, even now that more engineering is required.

> The environmental movement has organized very aggressively against incineration. In Fat of the Land, Ben Miller explains that environmental organizations feared that incineration would stand in the way of recycling. They scared people half to death with the notion of toxic ashes left over after combustion, and all over the country they turned out crowds to protest very effectively. Too bad if it was under false pretenses. Incinerator ash doesn’t contain any toxins that aren’t to be found in the dump. Burning doesn’t create toxins, although of course it does get rid of biohazards. Ash is significantly more stable than household garbage.

Northwest Incinerator

Northwest Incinerator

Of course this is not to say that every incinerator necessarily runs as it’s meant to. The Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which has devoured some of my own trash, seems to have been in violation of safety standards much of the time.

If Miller’s supposition is true, it’s a sad chapter in the history of the environmental movement. Here we are, 30 years later, with a handfull of incinerators, 100,000 leaky landfills, and 100,000 plumes, large and small. , a mere handfull of incinerators (a few of them them–I will say this–perpetually in violation of safety standards, such as the Northwest incinerator in Chicago), and no recycling yet in lots of places.

Fortunately, new developments are underfoot. With the rising price of oil, the larger landfills have started turning captured methane into usable fuel. There are experiments with bioreactor landfill, in which the trash is treated to decompose faster and release more methane (for fuel) under more controlled circumstances. A new generation of incinerators is being built, which would burn garbage at higher temperatures, posing even less environmental risk. I’ve heard they can mine old landfills for fuel, which would mean that some of those 100,000 could perhaps finally disappear.

More on Fresh Kills:

love letters and  cabbage leaves

landscape inspirations

More about trash in Chicago:

connecting the dots

13
Oct
08

refugees

People live on dumps in many places in the world, and I’m sure they would do so in the United States if it weren’t for a couple of simple facts:

> Our landfills bury the treasure as soon as it arrives, so it’s hard to make a living on the dump. You would have to dig surreptitiously, after nightfall, as a kind of latterday Penelope slyly undoing at night the progress made by day by the bulldozers covering up our gluttonies.

> Landfills in this country have gates and fences. Whether to keep out the homeless, keep out donations for which no fee is paid, or keep out witnesses to unlawful practices, I do not know. There are easier ways to get to the gold besides storming the dump.

> The most easily recycled materials are, in various places, obediently sorted by householders and presented for removal on the eve of collections every week. Some people travel the collection route before the official truck comes by and stay a lot cleaner than the folks who pull out the goodies on a dump. (Note: New York City has made this a crime,  punishable by a stiff fine and forfeiture of vehicle if committed by motorized transport. If committed by shopping cart, you lose your gleanings, I think, but you get to keep your wheels. I’m of course not suggesting anyone should do this.)

Photo by Olga Saly

Photo by Olga Saly

Such deterrents from scavenging on the dump apparently don’t exist in Russia, as witness this blog entry: Castles in the Country: Refuge from Everyday Life. Actually, I made that title up, because Google Translate delivers something that only vaguely resembles English. Perhaps the original title speaks of refugees from everyday life, which would be a little more charitable.

My friend Nina, who can actually read the original, sums up the piece as follows: “The author’s intent is not to describe the garbage/recycling problem in Russia, but to share her shocking discovery that some (Russian) people actually live at dumps. In the end she concludes that these people chose to live at this dump and this is their own choice and nobody else’s fault.”

Nina speculates that the dump is in Novosibirsk, Siberia. I looked it up on the map, and I’m thinking it must get very cold there in the winter. Some gleaners come to work every day, looking for recyclables, which they sell to the “master,” a middleman who presumably resells the booty to recycling outfits. One of those workers is a 29-year-old woman, who has a husband with a regular job and a little boy whom she has started leaving at home ever since he got buried under a pile of trash. A few others live at the dump, a circumstance that works in their favor, because they don’t have to commute. They can get down to work first thing in the morning and get first dibs. They don’t seem to leave the dump at all, finding food enough to eat at work. The vodka delivery service brings the more important staple of their diet right to their door,  if they have one, much as my grandfather used to deliver milk.

I’ve written about scavenging before (see scavenging, how the other half used to live, and saucepans, bonnets and umbrellas). I started out thinking this was a simple issue. Gleaning, recycling and scavenging, formally or informally—it’s all good in principle, a fact that is daily becoming more obvious. At the same time, nobody should have to live or work under conditions that are likely to cause illness or injury. I believe there are sufficient resources in the world to go around, even for the vast numbers of people who currently inhabit the earth. I’m convinced it is unnecessary for anyone to live on the dump. I would like to be able to vote for people who actually have some idea of working towards a more just sharing of resources. Instead of going to Vegas and giving my extra earnings to the filthy rich, I try to give money to organizations already embarked on the effort. In small ways, I look out for opportunities to share, and I try to refrain from judgments of people whose story I don’t know.  Straightforward enough, I thought.

But I got some interesting comments on earlier posts–about the manipulative nature of pictures appearing with some regularity in the newspapers–about the question of what you are to do in the face of the misery pictured and described–about the invitation to just feel superior or perhaps even to blame the victims. Food for thought.

I think we are probably programmed to want to do something to fix what is obviously not right. If you see a baby drowning in a pond, you jump in to pull it out. If you see people looking for food on the dump, you know just as intuitively that you are supposed to do something. But what? Pulling something out of a dump isn’t as straightforward as dragging a baby ashore and returning it to its rightful owner. It’s not like you can give these people back to their mother. Besides when you see a picture in the newspaper, doing something is pretty much ruled out altogether. Instead, it’s easy to feel guilty. Either that or you have to tell yourself a story about why you don’t have to care.

Face to face, I suspect, people who live on the dump are likely not very clean and otherwise very scary. I base this estimate on my exposure to the homeless in San Francisco, who are not very clean and for the most part very scary. I must confess I have racked my brain many times for a route from my parking lot to my client’s offices that doesn’t lead straight through the “dorms” under the bus terminal overpasses downtown. It really is hard to see them and feel powerless to change their predicament. It’s a signficant tax, much more onerous frankly than an extra few % would be.

And that brings me back to the beginning. I’m convinced such extremes of poverty as life on the dump is a systemic problem, for which I’m not personally responsible, and which I cannot personally solve, but with which I am complicit to some extent just because I have been lucky. I have fared well. In the uneven division of resources that rules our world, I came up roses. Compared to the wealthiest, I’m a poor slob. Compared to the mass of humanity, I’m exceedingly well-off. The least I can do, it strikes me, is be happy. And the next logical step is to scale back, to cut out any consumptive bloat from my own lifestyle, to work against the competitive consumption that says resources must be unevenly divided for happiness to ensue.

One closing thought: I’d like to live in a society that has a social contract–some sense that we are all in it together, some sense of mutual responsibility, some idea that everybody needs to be taken care of, long before anyone ends up on the street, unemployable, angry, deranged, hungry, and addicted. Or on the dump, with a special liquor delivery to accommodate the agoraphobic.

—-

Berdsk, near Novosibirsk, in Siberia

Berdsk, near Novosibirsk, in Siberia

Postscript: A friend enlightened me regarding the location of this landfill. It is not in Novosibirsk but in nearby Berdsk—across a little tendril of water sticking out from Novosibirskoye Lake like a raggedy tail.

10
Oct
08

debris

Every disaster—manmade or natural—is likely as unique as Tolstoy’s unhappy family, set apart by the incommensurable that lurks in pain and privation, the transforming and deforming nature of grief.

Photo by Dimitri Messinis

Photo by Dimitri Messinis

Nevertheless, over the last few years I have begun to notice a common theme that binds them all together: every calamity creates inordinate amounts of trash. I first really noticed this in 2006, after Israel attacked Beirut and laid large parts of the city in ruins.  A familiar story, unfortunately. But then the New York Times ran a report in the aftermath of the attacks that contained an amazing image: a traffic jam of  trucks carrying rubble curve off into the distance, on their way to a landfill stuck out into an otherwise picture-perfect Mediterranean sea, on a perfectly brilliant day. A billboard on the beach advertises some kind of tourist attraction—picturesque rocks rearing up out of a deep-blue sea—a tourguide’s version of the Mediterranean incongruously stuck into an a much more painful and intractable reality. Then again, that little point being pounded into terra firma by shovels and grabbers in the far distance may just be the foundation for an upscale hotel meant to deliver on the promise contained in the billboard. The French call this kind of thing mise en abime, or “putting into the abyss.” It’s never been clear to me what the abyss has to do with such a playful device, but in this particular context I think I am staring straight into it.

Chef Menteur by satellite

Chef Menteur by satellite

Hurricane Katrina created an estimated 22 million tons of garbage, which comes to 3.5 million truckloads. It sat around for weeks and weeks on people’s front lawns before local collection services figured out how to separate it—more or less, I am sure—into construction and demolition debris, household waste, and hazardous waste, all of which have different destinations. Construction and demolition debris, normally inert, went into Chef Menteur landfill, right next-door to an immigrant community, as well as into Bayou Sauvage and Chantilly.  Eventually the community managed to persuade local authorities that they deserved better than to live virtually on top of the disgusting stew people all over New Orleans wanted out of their yards as soon as possible. I wouldn’t have believed it was inert either.

Photo by Barbara Wood

Photo, Barbara Wood

Most recently, Hurricane Ike created another mountain range of debris. My friend Barbara, who went to help in Red Cross shelters in the aftermath of the storm, spent time on Galveston. Her pictures of the trash created by the storm are mind-boggling.

Airplanes have broken through the walls of their hangars, noses hanging by a thread. Oddly crumpled monsters sit in the street, giving no hint of what they once might have been. Yards are carpeted with broken possessions. A pickup truck has straw sticking out of the cab, which must have started, pre-wind, in the pickup’s bed.

Photo, Barbara Wood

Photo, Barbara Wood

What were once gardens now are strangely reminiscent of graveyards. Brick walls lie in piles outside the wood frames of houses still standing, while other houses have just buckled to earth, neatly depositing an intact roof at a graceful angle in the driveway. One desperate homeowner tried to sell his wreck without benefit of realtor, leaning a handpainted sign against the debris pile that was once a house with the plea, “Make Offer.”

All the devastation—$11 billion worth of trash—is going to go into local landfill in the next couple of weeks and will be covered up and over by Waste Management, the nation’s largest garbage collector headquartered just up the road in Houston and undoubtedly ready to receive the windfall.

Photo, Barbara Wood

Photo, Barbara Wood

As the British say, it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. Nevertheless, someone is bound to live within reach of the leachate plume that will eventually form downstream of wherever it goes.




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