Posts Tagged ‘pollution

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

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15
Jun
08

Filing Cabinet

I have tried to explain (to myself and to others) what I find so compelling about garbage and garbage dumps. But I’m not the only one who’s asked the question. My daughter, Lauren, has had plenty of opportunity to wonder what is the matter with me as well. Below, I post her account of what it’s like to have a mother with an unusual passion:

It started with the pictures, thousands of them. Sunrises blazing bright across the sky. A little enchanted world shown day after day in vibrant orange and red. My mother put them in a book with fine black paper. They were beautiful. And they were all pictures of a garbage dump.

Sunrise over SF Bay

I guess if we’re being honest it really started with a commute to San Francisco. My mother had taken a job as an interface designer for Blue Shield. She’d had to get up every morning before the sun rose to make the forty-five minute commute (turned rush-hour nightmare) up 101 to the city center. One day, when her camera happened to be in the car, she stopped at the exit for Candlestick Park and took a photo. I wonder if she has that first picture marked in her book with the black paper, the sunset that started it all. Maybe she simply knows with a look which one it is.

That first photo turned into countless landfill visits, and seemingly thousands of rolls of film. By the time I entered high school, my mother knew where every landfill was in the Bay Area. She’d been to most. Shoreline. Brisbane. Oyster and Sierra Points. Bayfront Park. Byxbee Park. Fort Bragg. Coolee Landing. Hayward.

Her interest in landfills mutated, grew. She wondered about what went into dumps, what they said about our lives as Americans. She hoarded trash so that she’d have a reason to visit. We didn’t really need a new table, but my mother carted the old one off because she’d run out of things to throw away. She wrote stories about the paths that garbage took through our lives and made garbage her free time.

Glass Beach, Fort BraggSometimes I found myself in the car, weighted with a little dread, watching as she snapped photos of the stark and sterile coast line nudging shoulders with the batteries, old furniture parts, and the crappy romance novels you felt dirty for reading. I didn’t like how I felt on those trips, desperate for humanity, and horribly, horribly ugly. How could we let this happen? My mother recently went back home to the Netherlands and decided while she was there that she’d search out their landfills, and surprise surprise, there were none. They burned their garbage in Europe. They got rid of it.

The reason we have dumps, landfills, places that might eventually be covered up with a layer of clay and turned into an idyllic lakeside getaway like Shoreline, is because we don’t want to think about our waste, what we lose and leave behind. The only time the landfill was convenient was when the Stones came in 1999 and Mick Jagger collapsed on the stage. Clearly it was the methane emissions they were venting out from the earth and not all of drugs he’d probably ingested.

Mostly we cringe at the photos we see in environmental documentaries, vow to recycle better next time, and then forget about it altogether. That’s what landfills are designed to do, allow us to brush packaging and toxic paint and plastic twisty-ties off, like so much dirt on our shoulders. They’re the filing cabinet of problems too big to consider at this moment. Sometimes they’re easy enough to hide. Once they become too saturated with debris they simply get sealed away—recycled into a park. But Shoreline and Byxbee, no matter how pretty you paint them, how much grass and trees you lay over the clay covering, are never going away. They’re trapped, lying in stasis, never decomposing or breaking down, a constant memento mori for those of us who think to look.

I spent years being exasperated and annoyed at my mother and her penchant for weekend daytrips to the local waste way stations. I don’t know what I wanted from her. An obsession with classic films or antiques—something I could connect with on some level. Instead I had a mom who thought subscribing to the trash collector’s union magazine was interesting, who asked for Soylent Green on DVD for Christmas, and who got excited by road signs pointing to local dumps.

Somewhere along her expeditions, as she refers to them, these dumps and way stations became a story that needed to be told.

She decided to write a book about it, The Landfill Diaries, and she joined a writing group that met Mondays. I stuck to my bedroom on those occasions, furiously doing math assignments and procrastinating on the internet. I didn’t want to hear about the layers of garbage, the dead girl who showed up on the waste conveyor belt, and certainly not the number of tons of crap Americans let anonymous men cart off and dump into barren stretches of land kept well hidden from the average citizen. A job, as it turns out, that is more dangerous than being a soldier in Iraq, or a police man in Camden, New Jersey, or a fire fighter in desert country. The homework and the computer and the snacks I munched on all represented more trash, more waste, more detritus.

One Monday, I walked out of my room to get a glass of water, and I overheard my mother reading the tail-end of her latest chapter. She was probably talking about those long ago sunrises. I don’t know. I was tired of hearing it. I did notice when a woman, severe glasses and clothing and expression, and the writer of the worst sort of romance schlock, spoke up.

“It’s so beautiful, the way you phrase it. I wish it…weren’t about garbage.”

I stopped still in the kitchen and though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had an epiphany. That woman had so incredibly missed the point. That’s why my mother did it. That’s why she took a trip to New York City in the middle of my senior year, to visit Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. Garbage is not beautiful in each individual piece, or even when we bag it up and stuff it into blue bins. With a shock of sky as a background to mountains of Styrofoam and discarded clothing and food strewn over dead gray earth it is transformed. It is not pleasant, and perhaps only my mother would put such an image up on her wall. The devastation I see in those pictures is frightening. The things we are capable of doing in our carelessness should give anybody pause. And yet it’s still magnificent.

Sunrise over SF Bay, AgainThe sky blazes in polluted pink or deep, deep blue, plants still fight there way up to the sun, and even so it smells horrible. It should. It takes a diaper nearly 10,000 years to degrade. There’s history in that landfill. When we’re all gone, have covered every last landfill with fake parks and strip malls like in Fresh Kills, archeologists will be digging that garbage up and positing about how we live. Everything will be perfectly preserved. Do we want our forgotten bicycles, chip bags, and worn-down shoes to be how history remembers us? Do we want them to see our filing cabinet of problems we couldn’t deal with or simply forgot about? Just like the pictures, they are frozen snapshots.

Postscript: Lauren is still in school. She’s a writer and an artist. I am very proud of her.




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