Posts Tagged ‘contamination

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.

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

25
Jul
08

Love Letters and Cabbage Leaves

Fresh Kills landfill was used in 2001 as the site where debris from the World Trade Center was separated into evidence on the one hand and waste on the other. Some victims, not having been recovered from the debris among the evidence, must have ended up in the waste. That is to say, their ashes now rest somewhere high on the gigantic piles of trash built by New York City out of all the waste it didn’t need for parks, parkways, and real estate improvement of a private sort. Until 2001, people in the know used to say you could see the World Trade Center from the unnatural mountains of Fresh Kills.

Now Fresh Kills is in the process of being redeveloped into a recreational area, and the planners envision a monument to the fallen of September 11 at the highest point.

A view of the Arthur Kill

A view of the Arthur Kill

I feel for everyone who has to let go of the people they love under circumstances such as these, their remains sifting right through the fingers of the investigators and drifting away, indistinguishable from the other ashes coming out of the conflagration. Nevetheless, I was relieved to read that a judge decided against the families suing to have Fresh Kills reopened for another effort to remove any human remains from the waste.

Fresh Kills is maybe a weird but not the worst place to end up. The mounds offer magnificent views, abundant wildlife, and endless peace and quiet. Below a report from a visit I made in 2005.

————————

November 5 and December 31, 2005

Fresh Kills is peaceful and deserted. Grass and weeds have sprung up on the garbage mounds, while a few scraggly trees are struggling in the wetter hollows and around the monitoring stations. The hillsides bristle with equipment—vents and pumps, drains and wells poke up out of the slopes everywhere. There’s a smattering of birds—a heron, an egret, an osprey. Fluids seep out of the sides of East Mound, making filmy puddles in suspicious colors on the road below. Here and there, a whiff of methane underscores the point. The largest and most famous garbage dump in the United States is officially in hiatus. Fill activity has stopped, the World Trade Center debris has long been processed, and the dump lies quiet. If you don’t look too closely, you might think it is a nature park.

Fresh Kills tour

Fresh Kills tour

I’m on the bus with perhaps 30 other visitors, taking a tour of the future. The New York City planners for the borough of Staten Island who have organized the tour are so full of hope, it’s infectious. They look out of the windows of the bus and see a pastoral idyll, a green haven in an urban jungle, an island oasis in the midst of a desert of urban sprawl. One of them proudly notes that this is the most engineered landfill in the world.

Through their eyes, how beautiful it is, how promising. They point out that 55% of Fresh Kills was never used for dumping to begin with. The water in Main and Richmond Creeks is as clean as the water in the Hudson River. (Whether that’s good or bad news I don’t know, but apparently it could be worse. The Arthur Kill, a major shipping lane that separates Fresh Kills from New Jersey, is reportedly more polluted.) And the views! On a clear day, you can see Manhattan from the garbage pinnacles, which form the highest point on Staten Island.

In its various planning documents, the City of New York relies on a profusion of images of what the dump will look like in the future—icons of wholesomeness and gleaming grass, nature groomed into polite submission and peopled with model citizens (not a single one of whom is fat). They are meant to prove its point that Fresh Kills is not a badge of shame, not a showcase of environmental insult and collective wastefulness, but rather a great natural resource that argues the versatility and tenacity of nature.

It came as a shock to me to realize, a few years ago, how hospitable and appealing a garbage dump is to a broad range of species. The raw garbage, of course, is an irresistible food source to birds. Besides the wheeling, screaming flocks of inevitable gulls, I have seen a heron virtually under the treads of a dozer while a pheasant went about its tranquil business less than 100 feet away. Virtually ineradicable, weeds colonize the mounds at the speed of the wind, and trees follow suit shortly after. The hares and rabbits, squirrels and other vegetarians move in probably only months after the weeds arrive. It’s hardly surprising that one of the visitors on our tour discovers deer droppings on South Mound.

Fresh Kills forest

Fresh Kills forest

This swift recuperation notwithstanding, for me it is a little more difficult to ignore what’s underfoot: a seething leachate stew bubbling up new chemical compounds, made up of manual typewriters, half-eaten hot dogs, cabbage leaves, love letters, safety pins, office chairs, paint thinner, tampons, lawn mowers, cigarette butts and yoghurt cups. All sorts of things once loved and then discarded. Barbie dolls and baseball gloves. Things no one ever cared for overmuch that were pitched in a trash can without a thought. Candy wrappers, potato peels, and nail clippings. It’s not so much that it’s wrong to ignore the garbage, it’s just a lot more interesting to think about. Hospital waste. Communion dresses and baptismal gowns. Dead rabbits. Incinerator ash.

The CLUI people describe Fresh Kills as “an undulating, dripping, vented bio-reactor of artificial organic decay, covered by a thin lid of soil.” Which is not to say it doesn’t have a great future as a recreational park.

Fresh Kills served New York City for a little over 50 years, from 1948 to 2001. The garbage, originally meant just to fill up the tidal marsh to pave the way for residential development, reaches some 20 to 40 feet down into the water without benefit of a liner. While the city planners paint a rosy picture of its environmental impact, the authors of Rubbish claim that the dump “pours a million gallons of leachate into New York Harbor every day.” Indeed, of all garbage dumps investigated by the University of Arizona Garbage Project, Fresh Kills was the only one that offered up evidence of advanced biodegradation, presumably because the tides continually wash the garbage, stimulating bacterial action—which in turn creates leachate. And the leachate flows into open water on the outgoing tides.

View of New Jersey

View of New Jersey

At its peak, the dump received 29,000 tons of garbage daily, which amounts to about 10 million tons a year. The barges arrived from the five boroughs around the clock. Just imagine the scene at dead of night in the middle of a winter storm: barges looming up out of the inky blackness, wind howling, cranes straining to transfer fresh garbage out of floodlit holds and into waiting trucks, which would disappear into the blackness themselves, only their headlights showing their progress up the face of the garbage mountains.

The four giant mounds are named for the compass points. North and South Mounds are the oldest and the smallest, at 250 and 345 acres respectively. At its highest point, North Mound is 146 feet above sea level. East Mound and West Mound, both larger and higher, are more recent and still in the process of being capped. West Mound, the tallest of the piles, will rise about 225 feet from the plain and spreads out over 500 acres. A September 11 memorial is planned for West Mound, to commemorate not only the tragedy but the fact that Fresh Kills was temporarily reopened after the attack to process debris and sort through the evidence. Some or all of the ash is buried there, making West Mound the final resting place for some of the victims.

In a photo I took from the summit of South Mound, I see some little ant-like scribbles on top of West Mound and realize with a shock that it must be the earth-moving equipment being used to place the cap. They are like a ruler in a picture of an archaeological find. If the dozers are so tiny that I never even noticed them with the naked eye, then the garbage mountain is 10 times bigger than I already thought it was. In fact, Fresh Kills takes up just about as much space as the lower third of Manhattan.

At the foot of North Mound

At the foot of North Mound

No matter what its spic-and-span future, Fresh Kills will always be a garbage dump. There are plenty of recreational parks in the U.S.—some of them quite large—where a despoiled nature is squeezed and groomed for the maximum convenience of an alienated people. But very few will have the same potential as Fresh Kills to invite us to reflect on who we are.




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