Landfills: A Growing MenaceWhen asked to think of the largest man made structure, people willinvariably come up with an answer like The Great Wall of China, the GreatPyramids, or the Taj Majal. In contrast to these striking achievements ofmankind is the Durham Road Landfill outside San Francisco, which occupies overseventy million cubic feet. It is a sad monument to the excesses of modernsociety Gore 151. One must think this huge reservoir of garbage must be thelargest thing ever produced by human hands then.
Unhappily, this is not the case. The Fresh Kills Landfill, located on Staten Island, is the largest landfill inthe world. It sports an elevation of 155 feet, an estimated mass of 100 milliontons, and a volume of 2. 9 billion cubic feet. In total acreage, it is equal to16,000 baseball diamonds Miller 526.
By the year 2005, when the landfill isprojected to close, its elevation will reach 505 feet above sea level, making itthe highest point along the Eastern Seaboard, from Florida to Maine. At thatheight, the mound will constitute a hazard to air traffic at Newark airportRathje 3-4. The area now encompassed by the Fresh Kills (Kills is from theDutch word for creek) Landfill was originally a tidal marsh. In 1948, New YorkCity planner Robert Moses developed a highly praised project to depositmunicipal garbage in the swamp until the level of the land was above sea level. A study of the area predicted the marsh would be filled by the year 1968.
Hethen planned to develop the area, building houses and attracting light industryover the landfill. The Fresh Kills Landfill was originally meant to be aconservation project that would benefit the environment. Themayor of New YorkCity issued a report titled “The Fresh Kills Landfill Project” in 1951 whichstated, in part, that the project “cannot fail to affect constructively a widearea around it. ” The report ended by stating, “It is at once practical andidealistic” Rathje 4. One must appreciate the irony in the fact that RobertMoses was considered a leading conservationist in his time.
His majoraccomplishments include building asphalt parking lots throughout the New YorkMetro area, paved roads in and out of city parks, and the development of JonesBeach, now the most polluted and overcrowded piece of shoreline in the NortheastUnited States. In Stewart Udall’s book The Quiet Crisis, the former Secretary ofthe Interior praises Moses. The JFK cabinet member calls the Jones Beachdevelopment “an imaginative solution . . . (the) supreme answer to the ever-present problems of overcrowding” Udall 163-4.
JFK’s introduction to the bookprovides this foreboding passage: “Each generation must deal anew with theraiders, with the scramble to use public resources for private profit, and withthe tendency to prefer short-run profits to long-run necessities. The crisis maybe quiet, but it is urgent” Udall xii. It is these long term effects that thedevelopers of landfills often fail to consider. Oddly, the subject of landfillsis never broached in Udall’s book; in 1963 landfills were a non-issue. A modern state-of-the-art sanitary landfill is a graveyard for garbage,where deposited wastes are compacted, spread in thin layers, and covered dailywith clay or synthetic foam. The modern landfill is lined with multiple,impermeable layers of clay, sand, and plastic before any garbage is deposited.
This liner prevents liquids, called leachates, from percolating into thegroundwater. Leachates result from rain water mixing with fluids in the garbage,making a highly toxic fluid containing inks, heavy metals, and other poisonouscompounds. Ideally, leachates are pumped up from collection points along thebottom of the landfill and either shipped to liquid waste disposal points or re-introduced into the upper layers of garbage to resume the cycle. Unfortunately,most landfills have no such pumping system.
Miller 527. Until the formationof the Environmental Protection Agency by President Nixon in 1970, there werevirtually no regulations governing the construction, operation, and closure oflandfills. As a result of this lack of legislation, 85 percent of all landfillsexisting in this country are unlined. Many of these landfills are located inclose proximity to aquifers or other groundwater features, or near geologicallyunstable sites.
Many older landfills are leaking toxins into our water supply atthis very moment, with no way to stop them. For example, the Fresh Killslandfill leaks an estimated one million gallons of toxic sludge into thesurrounding water table every day Miller 527. Sanitary landfills do offercertain advantages