landfills



Fact is more ominous than fiction It has long been believed
that the largest entity brought upon the Earth by humankind
is the Pyramid of the Sun, constructed in Mexico around the
start of the Christian era. The mammoth structure commands
nearly thirty million cubic feet of space. In contrast,
however, is the Durham Road Landfill, outside San Francisco,
which occupies over seventy million cubic feet of the
biosphere. It is a sad monument, indeed, to the excesses of
modern society . One might assume such a monstrous mound of
garbage is the largest thing ever produced by human hands.
Unhappily, this is not the case. The Fresh Kills Landfill,
located on Staten Island, is the largest landfill in the
world. It sports an elevation of 155 feet, an estimated mass
of 100 million tons, and a volume of 2.9 billion cubic feet.
In total acreage, it is equal to 16,000 baseball diamonds .
By the year 2005, when the landfill is projected to close,
its elevation will reach 505 feet above sea level, making
it the highest point along the Eastern Seaboard, Florida to
Maine. At that height, the mound will constitute a hazard to
air traffic at Newark airport . Fresh Kills was originally a
tidal marsh. In 1948, New York City planner Robert Moses
developed a highly praised project to deposit municipal
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. He then planned to develop the
area, building houses and attracting light industry. Mayor
Impelliteri issued a report titled "The Fresh Kills Landfill
Project" in 1951. The report stated, in part, that the
enterprise "cannot fail to affect constructively a wide area
around it." The report ended by stating, "It is at once
practical and idealistic" . One must appreciate the irony in
the fact that Robert Moses was, in his day, considered a
leading conservationist. His major accomplishments include
asphalt parking lots throughout the New York metro area,
paved roads in and out of city parks, and development of
Jones Beach, now the most polluted, dirty, overcrowded piece
of shoreline in the Northeast. In Stewart Udall\'s book The
Quiet Crisis, the former Secretary of the Interior lavishes
praise on Moses. The JFK cabinet member calls Jones Beach
"an imaginative solution ......the answer to the
ever-present problems of overcrowding" . JFK\'s introduction
to the book provides this foreboding passage: "Each
generation must deal anew with the raiders, with the
scramble to use public resources for private profit, and
with the tendency to prefer short-run profits to long-run
necessities. The crisis may be quiet, but it is urgent" .
Oddly, the subject of landfills is never broached in Udall\'s
book; in 1963, the issue was, in fact, 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 daily with 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 the groundwater. Leachates result from
rain water mixing with fluids in the garbage, making a
highly toxic "juice" containing inks, heavy metals, and
other poisonous compounds. Ideally, leachates are pumped up
from collection points along the bottom 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 . Until the formation of the Environmental
Protection Agency by Nixon in 1970, there were virtually no
regulations governing the construction, operation, and
closure of landfills. As a result, 85 percent of all
landfills extant in this country are unlined. Many are
located in close proximity to aquifers or other groundwater
features, or near geologically unstable sites. Many older
landfills are leaching toxins into our water supply at this
very moment, with no way to stop them. For example, the
Fresh Kills landfill leaks an estimated one million gallons
of toxic ooze into the surrounding water table every day .
Sanitary landfills do offer certain advantages. Offensive
odors, the mainstay of the old city dump, are dramatically
reduced by the daily cover of clay or other material. Vermin
and insects, both of the terrestrial and airborne varieties,
are denied a free meal and the opportunity to spread
disease, by the daily clay layer. Furthermore, modern
landfills are less of an eyesore than their counterparts of
yore. However, the causality of these positive affects are
the very reasons for some of the significant drawbacks to
landfills . The daily compacting and covering of the garbage
deposits effectively squeezes the available