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Nation's Landfill Problems Grow as U.S. Tightens Regulations : Waste: In the last 10 years, America lost more than 70% of its dumps. Half of the remaining 6,000 will be shut by the year 2000, largely to avoid having to comply with federal standards, officials say.

February 03, 1991|WILLIAM H. INMAN | UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL

Across New York Harbor from the Statue of Liberty stands a monstrous monument to the throw-away society.

It is Fresh Kills--the world's largest landfill. Each day, more than 30,000 tons of garbage is added to this corner of Staten Island.

The trash at Fresh Kills towers 150 feet above New York Harbor. It generates 5 million cubic feet of methane a year, enough to heat 50,000 homes, and by the end of the decade, it is expected to be 500 feet high--the highest prominence on the East Coast south of Maine and half as tall as the Chrysler Building or the Statue of Liberty. City authorities say it cannot be piled higher without blocking flight paths to and from Newark International Airport.

"Fresh Kills is big and ugly, but it's not one of a kind," says Bruce Weddle, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's municipal solid-waste program. "Few major city landfills these days meet environmental standards. New York is lucky to have this."

In fact, Fresh Kills is the sole repository of New York's trash. It is allowed to operate in violation of scores of sanitation laws because all other facilities in the region have been closed. Officials say they have no choice.

In nearby New Jersey, which already ships 66% of its trash to other states, guards are posted at supermarkets to protect trash bins from free-lance dumping. In other Northeastern states, agencies such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army have been forced to close their outdoor receptacles and bins. Instead of repairable goods, the charities have been swamped with junk such as dead animals, oil cans and food scraps.

"We want broken goods, not garbage," said James White, a Boston-area Goodwill employee. "What's happened to people's sense of shame?"

Shame appears to be a commodity that can be reduced by distance. Many East Coast cities, unwilling to impose taxes to finance local solutions, pay to send trucks, 24 hours a day, as far west as Ohio and Indiana. Nodody wants trash dumped in their back yard, but America and the world are running out of yard space. Consider the odyssey of the Mobro, the garbage scow that spent two months at sea several years back, searching for a home for 3,100 tons of rotting trash. The cargo eventually was returned to sender, the Long Island community of Islip.

(Because of Long Island's high water table--just 3 to 4 feet from the surface--most municipal dumping is banned. Towns send their refuse as far away as Canada, and wildcatters fill the countryside with illegal dumping.)

"We realize there's no equitable solution, not even a half-way decent one," said Judith Yaskin, New Jersey's environmental protection commissioner. "We're trying to work with the least offensive monster we can find."

The fact is, such a monster is hard to come by.

In the last 10 years, America lost more than 70% of its landfills; about 14,000 dumps were closed. Of the remaining 6,000 sites, half will be shut by the year 2000, largely to avoid having to comply with new federal standards, officials say.

Few new landfills are being opened to replace the old ones. Wide-open Texas issued only 35 permits in 1989, even as authorities closed hundreds of landfills. California, which has some of the strictest regulations, has licensed only a handful of sites in the last year.

Even in Alaska, landfill space is at a premium, sharply limited by mountainous terrain, climate and the tendency of garbage to attract bears. Of 220 villages, 165 have inadequate sanitation and do not meet federal standards, according to officials. In some villages where lack of money has precluded water and sewer systems, landfills serve as community septic tanks where household chamber pots are emptied.

Americans have become the world's trash junkies. They generate at least twice as much waste per capita as the Japanese or Europeans. Each New York resident discards nine times his body weight each year, three times the rate of industrial Milan or Dusseldorf. And that has been true since earliest times. The 19th-Century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville was appalled at the number of dead horses and coal scrap heaps outside the American cities he visited.

America's throwaway habits go to its roots. When historians excavate Colonial sites, they look first for the remnants of household trash. That unerringly means there was a window or a door nearby. Americans, it seems, never cared where their trash went, as long as it went.

Perhaps that explains why 80% of America's 200 million tons of trash continues to flow into the remaining landfills, two-thirds of which do not meet state or federal environmental regulations. Fresh Kills, for instance, breaks every rule in the book. Wildlife is poisoned by its unfiltered fumes and slicks each day, and barrels of toxins are leaching into the ground water.

Trash industry leaders can only shrug. For a variety of reasons, they say, there are no successors to today's pollution juggernauts.

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