Landfills: A Growing Menace


When asked to think of the largest man made structure, people will
invariably come up with an answer like The Great Wall of China, the Great
Pyramids, or the Taj Majal. In contrast to these striking achievements of
mankind is the Durham Road Landfill outside San Francisco, which occupies over
seventy million cubic feet. It is a sad monument to the excesses of modern
society [Gore 151]. One must think this huge reservoir of garbage must be the
largest 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 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 [Miller 526]. 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, from Florida to Maine. At that
height, the mound will constitute a hazard to air traffic at Newark airport
[Rathje 3-4]. The area now encompassed by the Fresh Kills (Kills is from the
Dutch word for creek) Landfill 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
over the landfill. The Fresh Kills Landfill was originally meant to be a
conservation project that would benefit the environment. The mayor of New York
City issued a report titled "The Fresh Kills Landfill Project" in 1951 which
stated, in part, that the project "cannot fail to affect constructively a wide
area around it." The report ended by stating, "It is at once practical and
idealistic" [Rathje 4]. One must appreciate the irony in the fact that Robert
Moses was considered a leading conservationist in his time. His major
accomplishments include building asphalt parking lots throughout the New York
Metro area, paved roads in and out of city parks, and the development of Jones
Beach, now the most polluted and overcrowded piece of shoreline in the Northeast
United States. In Stewart Udall\'s book The Quiet Crisis, the former Secretary of
the Interior praises Moses. The JFK cabinet member calls the Jones Beach
development "an imaginative solution ... (the) supreme answer to the ever-
present problems of overcrowding" [Udall 163-4]. 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" [Udall xii]. It is these long term effects that the
developers of landfills often fail to consider. Oddly, the subject of landfills
is 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 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 fluid 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. [Miller 527]. Until the formation
of the Environmental Protection Agency by President Nixon in 1970, there were
virtually no regulations governing the construction, operation, and closure of
landfills. As a result of this lack of legislation, 85 percent of all landfills
existing in this country are unlined. Many of these landfills are located in
close proximity to aquifers or other groundwater features, or near geologically
unstable sites. Many older landfills are leaking 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 sludge into the
surrounding water table every day [Miller 527]. Sanitary landfills do