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