We live in a strange world. Everyone now acknowledges that landfills leak and contaminate groundwater. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now says all landfills will eventually leak (for example, see RHWN #37.) Scientists comparing the toxic strength of leachate dripping from beneath municipal landfills find it as potent and dangerous as the chemicals that leaked out of Love Canal. (For example, see RHWN #90.) A careful study of 50 landfills, commissioned by the EPA and conducted by the nation's premier groundwater consulting firm revealed more that 10 years ago that 43 of the 50 landfills (or 86%) had definitely contaminated groundwater. (See RHWN #71.) Half the American people draw their drinking water from groundwater. Yet state after state continues to rely on landfills for handling the vast majority of municipal trash. It's as if we don't believe our own experience, our own scientists, or our own officials.
The U.S. produced 163 million tons of municipal solid waste during 1988. The EPA estimates that 82% of this (or 134 million tons) was buried in municipal landfills. The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) recently surveyed municipal landfills with some interesting results. (Page numbers in our text refer to this GAO report, which is cited in our final paragraph, below.)
Up until 1980, it was perfectly legal to dump any amount of hazardous waste into a municipal landfill, and it was common practise to do so. After 1980, only "small" quantities of hazardous wastes could be legally dumped into municipal landfills: households or companies generating less that 2640 pounds (1.3 tons) of hazardous waste each year can still dump them into municipal landfills. People and businesses who generate more than 1.3 tons per year must send it to an approved "hazardous waste landfill," a facility controlled by the federal law known as RCRA (the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act). The GAO says EPA does not know how many tons of hazardous wastes are created by "small" generators each year and they don't know how much goes into municipal landfills (pg. 9).
In June, 1988, the federal "Superfund" list of contaminated sites requiring federal cleanup contained 1,177 sites; of these, 249 (or 21%) were municipal landfills (pg. 15). Four states--New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin--each have more than 20 municipal landfills on the Superfund list. Fourteen states have no municipal landfills on the Superfund list, and the remaining 32 states have between one and 19 municipal landfills on the Superfund list.
Of the 249 municipal landfills on the Superfund list, 207 are closed and 42 are still operating. Of the 42 operating Superfund municipal landfills, half are located in four states: Indiana, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Washington state.
During the 2-year period from 1984 to 1986, 10 states received 14 applications to expand municipal landfills that are already on the Superfund list--that is to say, 14 applicants wanted to license landfills to take still more trash, even though they have already seriously polluted the local environment. Of these 14 applications to expand, Colorado received two and approved one, with one still pending; Indiana received one and approved it; Kentucky received one and denied it; Michigan and Minnesota each have one application pending; Oklahoma approved one; Pennsylvania approved three and has one pending; Rhode Island and Vermont each have one pending; Wisconsin approved one.
Eight states reported to GAO that they have identified a total of 116 municipal landfills that didn't make the Superfund list but require cleanup under state statutes; the remaining 42 states have not identified municipal landfills needing cleanup under state statutes. Here are the ones requiring cleanup: Arkansas has identified one closed municipal landfill; California has identified four operating landfills and eight closed landfills; Florida has identified one closed landfill; Illinois has identified eight closed and one operating; Minnesota has identified 10 closed and 31 operating; North Carolina has identified nine closed landfills; South Carolina has identified one closed and one operating; Virginia has identified 13 closed and 28 operating landfills requiring cleanup. It is perhaps noteworthy that, of the 31 operating landfills requiring cleanup in Minnesota, 12 have applied for permits to expand their operations.
The 32 states that haven't identified municipal landfills needing cleanup have various reasons for not finding any. Twenty of the 32 states have no funded programs for cleaning up non-Superfund sites, so they're not looking. The 12 states that have funding are looking at a total of over 226 municipal landfills to see of they require cleanup (pg. 20).
Nationwide in October, 1988, there were 7,575 municipal landfills operating (not including landfills on the Superfund list or requiring cleanup under state laws). Between October, 1986 and October, 1988, 640 of these landfills in 31 states sought to expand their operations; 396 succeeded.
Get: General Accounting Office, NONHAZARDOUS WASTE: STATE MANAGEMENT OF MUNICIPAL LANDFILLS AND LANDFILL EXPANSIONS June, 1989; free from GAO, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, Md 20877; request GAO/RCED-89-165BR"
Here's the story, state by state:
|State||Operating Landfills||Expansion Applications Received||Status (A=approved; P=pending; D=denied)|
|AL||122||6||6A, 3P, 1D|
|AR||88||10||6A, 2P, 2D|
|CT||98||29||10A, 14P, 5D|
|IN||76||27||8A, 16P, 3D|
|LA||35||23||12A, 5P, 6D|
|MI||80||77||54A, 7P, 16D|
|MO||80||32||13A, 14P, 5D|
|NC||119||58||41A, 15P, 2D|
|OK||122||31||15A, 5P, 11D|
|PA||75||73||54A, 13P, 6D|
|WI||775||40||20A, 13P, 7D|
|Total:||7575||640||396a, 172p, 72d|
Descriptor terms: landfilling; drinking water; groundwater; ny, nj, pa, wi; superfund; epa; gao; studies;