Archive for the 'pollution' Category

05
Oct
14

Official History

A few weeks ago, shortly after take-off from New York’s JKF,  I looked out of my airplane porthole and saw an unmistakable garbage dump, on a spit of land sticking out like a hitch hiker’s thumb into a wide river. I just managed to snap a picture before it was lost from view. The stylized shape and the unnatural parched grass cover are each a dead giveaway, as are the straight trails following the precise angles of this man-made hill.

croton point focus

Croton Point landfill. Click to see a larger image.

A little scouting on Google Maps and Google Earth showed this to be the centerpiece of Croton Point Park, in Westchester. It lies just north of Ossining, within view of the famed Sing Sing prison. A history of the park explains that the point has served its humble purpose for a long time: it was once a Native American oyster shell midden. Started as early as 7000 years ago, it is apparently the oldest shell mound found on the East Coast. The official history does not mention that the current park is laid out on top of a more modern garbage dump. That silence is also part of the perennial landfill pattern. Native American garbage, less noxious to start with, has been purified by time. Our own garbage is a different matter altogether and is still unmentionable.

I do wonder how it happens. Perhaps someone wrote a history that referred to the dump and was made to erase all reference to it by reviewers who were afraid to scare off the public? Or did the writer not even think to include it? Judging by my own experience of group encounters with the less ideal contours of reality, either of these possibilities is thoroughly plausible.

The New York Times manages this negotiation with the unpleasant just a little bit better in a 1990 article about an exhibition of local folk tales: “MONEY HILL is no longer shown on any Westchester map, and if it once was haunted the witches have fled the old knoll on Croton Point. The Indian trinkets and pirate gold reputed to be buried there – which gave the hill its name – will not be found now. The site is buried under the thousands of tons of waste that cover what is now a landfill.”

Just two years earlier, the news was even more explicit: “THE 600 acres of Croton Point once formed one of the largest tidal marshes on the Hudson River. After 50 years as the site of an active county dump, however, the area is judged by environmentalists to be a health hazard. A Federal judge last month called the landfill, which was closed in 1986, an environmental time bomb.” Again we are grateful to the New York Times in reporting on several lawsuits over toxic waste and possible groundwater pollution from the site. Imagine the poisoned plume that spreads from what must be an unlined dump, old as it is.

That’s why I love garbage, repulsive as it is. No matter how much it is hidden, erased, or denied, it sticks around, stubbornly bearing witness to what we most like to forget.

14
Mar
10

Recyclable Me

We might not like to think about it, but we ourselves are highly recyclable. Under the right circumstances, even teeth and bones will eventually resolve into new forms. Left to our own devices, we will at long last be carried away by critters or become absorbed into the mysterious, inexorable life of slowly heaving rock. Except for fillings and crowns, pacemakers, artificial knees, and other late-arriving hardware, nothing much remains.

To me, that sounds like absolution. Composting may not be a pretty process, but it’s the closest thing to the magic of “poof” that nature delivers. I bow to the light within that.

Skylawn Cemetery, San Mateo, CA

Nevertheless, a whole industry in the US takes the opposite view. A quiet army of morticians routinely embalm the broken bodies that arrive on their doorstep, pumping them full of chemicals that divert the dead from the cycle of life, transforming the remains into an environmental hazard. The only benefit achieved by the process is to sanitize the open-casket obsequies that appear to be nearly obligatory in the United States.

Of course there are alternatives. Cremation is better, though it too is associated with environmental burdens.  (The ovens contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and our non-organic hardware may be transformed into toxic fumes.) A green burial is the low-tech best, if you’re lucky enough to have a green cemetery nearby, easily determined with reference to the Natural End map. It turns out I can avail myself of a funeral home in Colma and repair to Mill Valley, California, where I can receive a natural chemical-free burial, involving a biodegradable casket or shroud and GPS coordinates to mark the spot. As Fernwood points out, I get “to be part of a land restoration project” in a whole new way.

But there’s a third high-tech recycling option, for those who lack the patience to do it the old-fashioned way: alkaline hydrolysis, a process by which the body is broken down to constituents in just about three hours. The Wikipedia article on resomation—the name by which the process is being marketed—specifies that what’s left at the end is “a small quantity of green-brown tinted liquid (containing amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts) and soft, porous white bone remains (calcium phosphate) easily crushed in the hand (although a cremulator is more commonly used) to form a white-coloured dust.” The liquid can be used to water the lawn, the dust is returned to the survivors.

And the New York Times pointed out that the industrial hardware—replacement parts, augmentations, and other devices—is delivered up clean and pristine and ready for another go-round. Perhaps Goodwill can handle the trade.

21
Apr
09

studying stink

I recently ran into some of the scientific literature about stink studies. These are conducted in the Netherlands near garbage dumps, incinerators, and other business enterprises likely to cause environmental nuisances, especially of the olfactory kind.

I don’t know if this is the case in the U.S., but stench is considered pollution in Europe. There’s a hedonic value scale that says that “very slightly unpleasant” (H=-1) is acceptable, but “slightly unpleasant” hedonic values (H=-2)  in residential areas amount to actionable environmental degradation. That is to say, if people live in a “slightly unpleasant” stink plume, something must be done to contain the nuisance.

Obviously, no enterprise is going to spend good money remediating its general stinkiness unless there are reliable, quantitative measurements that show incontrovertibly that H=-2 has been achieved. Measurements are made in stink units and in sniff units. If I understand the literature, the organization undertaking the stink study sends something much like a focus group into the field, at the same time that project leads analyze and measure ambient air and track activities at the (potentially) offending location. The members of the focus group, known as the sniff team, sniff the air. I’m not sure if they use expert sniffers or if they are recruited on Craigslist as representatives of the general population, as is standard operating procedure for focus groups these days.

Sniffing

Sniffing

Whatever their credentials, I can’t resist picturing them, standing in the weeds like partridge hounds, chin raised, nostrils flared, brow furrowed. They inhale slowly and deeply, experiencing the air, savoring its aroma as if it were wine being judged in a contest, and then spitting it out. Bluuch. Very slightly unpleasant, full-bodied and complex, methane-forward, with suggestions of trichloroethylene, halogenated hydrocarbons, considerable complexity in the biphenyls, and a sexy note of barnyard. Units are noted on the PDA.

I imagine the sniffers are posted all around the area, and they probably raise their olfactory equipment into the air at prescribed intervals for repeated readings. Their various savorings of the air are eventually compiled. Obscure calculations are performed to transmogrify qualitative experiences into quantitative results and to correlate awarded sniff and stink units with business activities and weather conditions. The idea is to produce not just readings of the moment, but to pinpoint the source of the bluuch and to extrapolate how often bluuch might obtain during the year.If the units exceed legal limits, remedial actions must be undertaken, and then the focus group/sniff team goes to work again, to make sure hedonic values are up into approved regions. It may also occur that plans to build new housing in the plume will be scotched based on findings.

Like many things in life, the law is a two-edged sword. I quickly ran into some studies commissioned by the stinkers to prove that they produced too much stink to allow housing to be built in their vicinity. Clearly, they didn’t feel like cleaning up.

A person who was at one time employed by the province of Zuid-Holland appears to have been in the course of compiling a stink atlas of the Netherlands, gathering together an array of stink findings for various locations and branches of industry. For the most part, incinerators are found to remain within permissible hedonic limits. Landfills are a different matter. The active face is, predictably, the source of most of the offending odors, but fugitive methane from older sections is also fingered as problematic. It doesn’t just cause global warming, then; it induces anhedonic states in the bystanders.

Now I don’t believe that the  Zuid-Holland stink expert was at all concerned with agricultural stink, which I can testify, as a focus group of one, is considerably more than slightly unpleasant in the general environs where I currently reside. (Agricultural stink might be too gargantuan a project to map, but I suspect that the real reason is that farmers are too well organized to permit any government to put stink limits on their activities.) A short bikeride from my cottage to the nearby village for groceries is an obstacle course through multiple chicken dung, sheep doo, and hog manure plumes. It smells rural, Dutch people say.

Local farmers are apparently resolarizing agriculture, refusing petroleum-derived fertilizers in favor of the traditional thing. Good for them, of course. But the hedonic values are way south of the worst landfill I’ve ever smelled.

13
Apr
09

Transmigration of Matter

April 8, 2009 — AVR Rijnmond, Rozenburg, the Netherlands

Snail Mountain

Snail Mountain

A road spirals up the mountain, around back and to the top, where the big trucks back up to the very edge to release a load of ash, making a lovely dust cloud as the stuff rolls down the hill. It seems a little precarious to me. Here’s another job I’m glad I do not have.

In Dutch, bottom ash is referred to as “slakken,” which I suspect is just a close relative of “slag,” the waste material produced in coal mining. But “slakken” also means “snails” in everyday Dutch, which makes for a very lively image.

The mountain, currently growing on the grounds of the AVR Rijnmond, is a little higher than usual, I’m informed, because of the economy. Less trash comes into the front door, it’s true, but the snails don’t get carried out the rear as they usually are either. Demand for bottom ash—which is used in roads, dikes and other infrastructure that requires massive amounts of more or less inert matter—is down even further than the supply of trash.

Gifts Delivered

Gifts Delivered

Despite the troublesome shortage of garbage of the moment, there’s plenty of activity at the front door. My guide refers to it as the “bordes.” It reminds me of the “bordes” that the Dutch queen stands on at Soestdijk Palace, on her birthday, to receive her loyal subjects bringing birthday presents. I doubt, however, that anything as useful as ash and energy results from that annual patriotic operation.

Unlike the loyal subjects, the trucks back up to the doors and spit out their treasures without ceremony. A cloud of dust and exhaust blows back out into the open. A thick smell of rot hangs in the air. Gigantic grabbers hanging off the ceiling inside pick up the waste and deposit it on the dissassembly line. Then it trundles into the tops of the seven ovens that perform the first step in its transmigration from useless trash to useful infrastructural filler. Another stream, almost as voluminous, comes in at the Laurenshaven docks in back, barges delivering containers of garbage from cities like Utrecht and the Hague.

The trash literally disappears into the maw of the incinerator, never to be seen again. It passes through the bowels of this gigantic beast like grass through the multiple stomachs of a cow. The process is entirely self-contained. A little peephole at the bottom shows a line of disintegrating trash bags on a long down escalator engulfed in flames. But there’s not a whiff of garbage anywhere, not the slightest inkling of heat. Only the little peephole confirms the conflagration within.

The plop, carried off on a conveyor to a steaming pile of slag outside, still contains some undigested matter–bits of broken glass, odds and ends of metal. The metals are removed for re-use, and what’s left is heaped onto the mountain top. Meanwhile, heat is transformed into electricity. Various kinds of nastiness are scrubbed out of the flue gas and eventually buried in landfill.

Maasvlakte

Maasvlakte (Garbage at Left)

My own historical trash has made this digestive trip as well, including a small portion in 1972 and then again a bigger batch from 1978 to 1983. Especially that earlier contribution may have helped to “fill” some of the construction at the mouth of the Maas. It’s not a very exact way of pinpointing the ultimate resting place of my garbage, but it’s as close as I’m going to get.

The whole question of whether the transmigration of trash to ash might be good or bad for the environment is obviated by the neighbors. AVR Rijnmond stands in the middle of miles and miles of chemical and petrochemical industry, which is responsible for a significant stream of hazardous waste (some of which arrives at the AVR for cleanup) as well as fugitive emissions. The whole question takes on a distinct air of futility in this environment. Nonetheless, some activists worry about ultra-small particles and traces of toxic substances sneaking out the chimney. I’m not in a position to judge if such worries have merit. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is room for improvement.

But what makes incineration unbeatable in my mind is that it makes plastic go away at the end of its useful life, yielding up a little burst of energy, a puff of usable ash, and a smidge—but just a smidge—of something impossible to reuse. It’s like absolution. Like getting a hall pass.

25
Mar
09

making a stand, calling a halt

Play a little movie for your mind’s eye: A retreating glacier gradually uncovers a long low valley. Pooling meltwater makes a chain of mirrors for the sky. Slowly the waters rise and a continuous lake forms, dammed up behind the former glacier’s terminal moraine. Eventually, the water breaches the moraine and leaves behind a green world of low-lying meadows dotted with stands of larch and spruce. Humans thread their way through the landscape occasionally, on foot or by canoe, hunting or fishing, building small settlements and giving them up again as their needs and local environmental conditions change.

frozen wetlands

wetlands in winter

The climate warms; the waters rise again. Gradually, salt marsh begins to form at the edges of the meadows as the sea pushes up into the valley, creating an estuary. Cedars move in where the stands of older trees give up their hold. Eventually a vast system of tidal wetlands forms, fed by two separate rivers. Then things stabilize. The seasons come and go for a few thousand years, but each day dawns on a landscape that remains essentially the same, wild and peaceful, quiet though crowded with a rich array of plant and animal species. Reeds rustle in the wind. A bird calls. A rabbit screams as it is carried off by a raptor. The water gurgles in and out of creeks on the tides. Every spring and fall, the squawking, honking, and screeching of migrating birds adds depth to the silence and the wind resonates with the whooshing of a million wings.

European farmers arrive, with their cattle and their agricultural traditions, which tell them that salvation lies in improving the landscape.  They do their best, but for the most part their efforts are modest, the forces of nature too vast, and their tools too simple to permit extensive change. Imagine primitive farm houses, inhabited by ragged families clinging to survival by their fingernails. The cows roam on higher ground in summer. Their owners mow the salt grass meadows for winter feed. Scraggly fences go up here and there, writing the notion of ownership across the valley slopes. A few ditches are dug, painstakingly, in an effort to drain the soggy low-lying meadows. Somehow, they must be made to support more cows, more people, more dreams of wealth and power.

The native hunters and fishermen are pushed back, and hostilities ensue. Dikes are thrown up, but time and weather bring them down again. One farm might fail. Another. A dike might breach, a ditch silt up. A whole family might die of fever. It hardly matters, because others take their place.

Bit by bit, the newcomers begin to sculpt the mud. Land is bought in large swathes. Roads appear. Straggling communities of farms become villages, then burgeon into towns. Brick kilns, tanneries, copper mines, and lumber mills show up in between the meadows. More roads are built. Those made from cedar planks swallow up the last of the valley’s trees.

Large-scale reclamations are attempted, to wring more profit out of the land. It begins to look more and more like something we are familiar with. Ferries and railroads help bring produce and manufactured goods from the hinterland to the coastal cities. Eventually all the upland areas are taken in hand, increasing the pressure to reclaim the marshes. The whole endeavor survives only by growth, like a malignant tumor. The towns grow together, making a single continuous urban wasteland, cross-hatched with roads and bridges, turnpikes, railroads. More and more, the valley is a place to get through, rather than a place to be in.

garbage mountain

garbage mountain

Ports grow larger. The machinery becomes more powerful, and the people more organized. Farms are pushed out by industries. Sounds of engines drown out the sounds of life. The last meadows are done over into suburbs. An airport is built. And all the remaining lowlands are filled up with garbage. Eventually, 51 separate and unregulated garbage dumps sprout in an area no larger than 32 square miles.

As time goes on, it must become increasingly apparent that what was begun as an experiment in improving the landscape is ending up an industrial desert, a slough of suburban despair. The Hackensack Meadowlands are now nothing but a misnomer, a historical name by which to measure the cost of improvement. To wring more profit from this poor place in an orderly manner, the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission is created in 1969. Its task is to help speed the development process for the last remaining virgin land and to regulate garbage disposal, which, it can no longer be ignored, is not just unsightly but outright poisonous.

Then, finally, the movie takes a slightly different turn. Just in time too, I have to say, because the plot is awfully depressing, and besides it seems I’ve seen this movie many times before. Do we have to watch it again?

Hold on. Not long after its inception, the development commission decides that a far better mission would be conservation. Indeed. It throws itself up as the protector of the few unspoilt stretches of wetland, it attempts to restore the natural marshes at the foot of the garbage mountains, it opens an educational park and research facility on the waterfront, as a memorial to the decision never again to allow uncontrolled dumping.

There’s no turning back the clock, of course, no digging up of garbage, no pulling out of roads to make room for the natural salt grass, no removal of housing or factories,  even when they appear to be falling down of their own accord. Upon first arrival, the impression is still overwhelmingly of utter degradation. Finding the park is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Nevertheless, there’s ample reason to be grateful for the tag end of history, because it gives us at least a choice of morals. It’s undoubtedly possible to see the story as yet another illustration of the rapacious predatious nature of humanity or any subgroup thereof (see, for example, my own meadow lands). We’d have reason on our side to figure it’s too little too late. But we might also think about the meadowlands as evidence of our extreme adaptability and resilience. Time to get serious.

28
Nov
08

to burn or to bury

Incineration process at Roeselare, Belgium

Incineration process at Roeselare, Belgium

Some time ago, I wrote about the vehement opposition of the U.S. environmental movement to garbage incineration (a brief primer on plumes), a position not shared by environmentalists anywhere else except the UK. I asked Milieudefensie, the Dutch Friends of the Earth, to offer me some thoughts on the subject, to try to determine if I had somehow missed the secret garbage underground in continental Europe. Here’s what they had to say:

“Waste management is not a subject Milieudefensie concerns itself with at the moment, because things are properly arranged in the Netherlands. Other environmental topics, such as climate change, make a more urgent claim on our attention.”

The way things are arranged in the Netherlands at the moment is to rely primarily on re-use and recycling and secondarily on incineration. Thirteen incinerators operate across the country, some in the most densely populated areas, a few others in the rural outback. Landfilling takes place only insofar as there is insufficient incinerator capacity and requires a special waiver. Hazardous wastes which are unsafe to burn are also landfilled. Germany has an even stronger emphasis on incineration, with plants all over the country, and no movement opposing them. An official noted that people oppose incinerators during the planning phases. Resistance dies down after the plants become operational.

There are concerns.  Fine particulates are released in exhaust gases and their health impacts are not very well understood. Fly ash is highly toxic and must be buried or incinerated in special rotating kiln incinerators. Toxic chemicals may escape when a plant is powered up or down. That they are so much more visible than lowly landfill, I’m sure, doesn’t increase their popularity either. It is so much easier not to think about the deleterious but invisible effects of an invisible landfill than it is to ignore a very high smokestack belching clouds, with heaven knows what in them.

Cross-cut incinerator

Cross-cut incinerator

The EPA meanwhile appears to be solidly in line with Milieudefensie in its evaluation of various disposal methods when considered in terms of their net effect on global warming. Its report Solid Waste Management and Green House Gases rank orders the different methods from least to most harmful:

> source reduction (i.e., reduced consumption or reduced use of materials in consumption)

> recycling

> composting

> incineration

> landfilling

Obviously there are more attractive options than burning trash, but conventional landfilling isn’t one of them. (Experiments with landfill are under way to make them less environmentally wasteful, so to speak.)

Rotating kiln incinerator, used to burn toxins

Rotating kiln incinerator, used to burn toxins

I also ran into a different evaluation of waste disposal methods, by a Dr. Jeffrey Morris, which tries to attach a monetary cost to each method, calculating operating and environmental costs and subtracting environmental benefits. Constituent prices vary by location and over time, so this model is more difficult to generalize from. However, a few specific examples from that calculation, showed incineration finishing dead last. This is not terribly surprising, since operating costs for incineration are generally high while landfilling is still cheap in many places. A landfill, no matter how carefully engineered, doesn’t come close to an incinerator in terms of capital costs.

Incineration, unfortunately, may be too expensive outside the industrialized west. While waste prevention is more attractive than any other option, the total elimination of waste is an unlikely  prospect. It follows that landfill will just have to be organized to do better–capturing methane more effectively and delivering more usable fuel. And in the meantime, the economy is in process of imposing a new frugality, which will eventually lead to less waste, if it isn’t doing so already.

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.




June 2017
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