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---May 1, 1991---
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Eighty-two percent of all U.S. municipal solid waste--or roughly 134 million tons annually--ends up in the nation's 7575 landfills (see RHWN #176). The vast majority of these landfills have no liners, no leachate collection systems, and no groundwater monitoring systems. In humid regions, all landfills produce leachate, caused inevitably by the interaction of garbage, rainfall and gravity; gravity pulls the rain slowly downward through the garbage until the rain drips out the bottom contaminated. In 1977, an EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) contractor estimated that 90 billion gallons per year of leachate was entering U.S. groundwater from municipal landfills.[1] Since the leachate that drips from beneath a solid waste landfill has essentially the same carcinogenicity (cancer-causing ability) as the leachate that drips from industrial and hazardous waste landfills like Love Canal (see RHWN #90), and since a careful analysis of landfills shows that 86% of those studied have contaminated groundwater (see RHWN #71), it seems safe to say that the nation's 7575 solid waste landfills, taken together, constitute a major source of serious environmental contamination. Furthermore, because household products each year are made from more and more strange chemical mixtures, each year landfill leachate becomes a little more toxic, a little more dangerous, so the problem is getting worse.

Soon the federal EPA will officially recognize the hazardous nature of municipal landfills. In the next couple of months EPA will publish new regulations governing the siting, design and operation of municipal landfills, including monofills for incinerator ash. The agency proposed the new regulations back on August 30, 1988 (FEDERAL REGISTER Vol. 53, No. 166, pgs. 33314-33422) and will soon publish a final version; the 1988 proposal offers some insight into what the new regulations will include.

Unfortunately, the new regulations seem likely to increase environmental contamination by landfills. However, from the viewpoint of present-day regulatory officials and politicians, the new regulations offer a perfect solution to a difficult and worsening problem. How is this possible?

To naive readers, the new regulations will give the appearance of solving the leachate-leakage problem from landfills and will thus encourage increased landfilling of dangerous municipal wastes. However, since contamination from landfills cannot be prevented by regulations that only deal with the design and operation of landfills (ignoring what goes into them) EPA's new regulations will merely delay the appearance of problems from today's landfills and will thus pass the costs of contamination from today's landfills on to the next generation. EPA's "state of the art" regulations essentially guarantee that our grandchildren will live in a world substantially more degraded than our own. Somewhat surprisingly, the Agency acknowledges most of these facts in its August 30, 1988 FEDERAL REGISTER notice.

Here are some details:

First EPA acknowledges that the problems of municipal solid waste landfills and the problems of hazardous waste landfills are identical, when viewed from the perspective of environmental damage: "...the concerns relating to failure of containment structures are the same for any landfill regardless of waste type." (pg. 33334)

The "containment structure" is what a modern landfill is all about. EPA's 1988 proposal would require new MSW [municipal solid waste] landfills to be designed with a bottom liner of plastic (thus forming a plastic bathtub in the ground), a leachate collection system (a set of pipes in the bottom of the bathtub), and, when the landfill is full of garbage, a "cap" over the top--an umbrella made of plastic to keep out the rain (to prevent the formation of leachate).

Thus the garbage will be completely enclosed in a plastic baggie in the ground. This would seem to solve the problem of landfill leachate. What could possibly go wrong?

The EPA answered this very question in the same FEDERAL REGISTER notice in which it proposed the new regulations:

The baggie will delay the introduction of leachate into the environment but will not prevent it because eventually the containment system (the baggie) will deteriorate for a variety of reasons. Says EPA: "First, even the best liner and leachate collection systems will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration, and recent improvements in MSWLF [municipal solid waste landfill] containment technologies suggest that releases [of leachate] may be delayed by decades at some landfills." (pg. 33345) EPA goes on to say that human error may also contribute to leachate "releases due to design or operating errors (e.g., tearing of liners or disposing of wastes that are incompatible with the liner) and routine deterioration of liner." (pg. 33344)

The duration of the hazard is long: "Experience has shown that leachate generation in landfills continues long after closure," says EPA. (pg. 33344)

The EPA notice makes it clear that every part of a landfill will eventually degrade and break down. For example, the cover: "Cover maintenance also includes periodic cap replacement, which is necessary to remediate the effects of routine deterioration." (pg. 33344) And the groundwater monitoring wells will deteriorate: "Because ground-water monitoring wells are subject to routine deterioration, postclosure activities should also include the periodic replacement of these wells as needed." (pg. 33344)

Therefore, it is the Agency's position that "Even when properly carried out, however, closure cannot guarantee against long-term environmental problems at landfills." (pg. 33344) In fact, the Agency explicitly acknowledges that "Particularly for landfills designed with advanced containment systems (e.g., liners, leachate collection systems, or synthetic final caps) groundwater contamination may be delayed by many years." (pg. 33344)

Thus the EPA's proposed new landfill regulations will do two things: they will make landfills very expensive to build and operate, and they will delay but not prevent the appearance of contamination from landfills. Why would EPA--which understands the dangers of landfills as well as anyone--propose regulations that will make landfills expensive and will delay, but not prevent, the appearance of contamination?

Making landfills expensive to build will drive small waste haulers out of business. Even most county governments and municipalities will have difficulty coming up with the tens of millions of dollars needed to build a plastic-lined landfill with leachate collection and a final cover made of plastic. Some states (such as Pennsylvania) have passed such laws and the effect is already visible: only the biggest waste haulers can remain in the landfill business, and small governments are now turning to the giant haulers for solid waste services. Only a handful of wealthy companies, like Waste Management, Inc., and Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), can afford to meet the new regulations. They in turn make substantial campaign contributions.

Secondly, by delaying the appearance of environmental problems, the current crop of regulators and politicians will be able to claim that they have "solved" the garbage crisis, yet they will have avoided any really difficult choices. By the time the bulk of the problems appear, President Bush will be dead, Bill Reilly will have followed the path of Bill Ruckelshaus (former head of EPA, now head of BFI, the nation's No. 2 waste hauler) and all today's local politicians will have been put out to pasture. (Our children will pay, but they have no vote.)

From the viewpoint of contemporary regulators and politicians, it is the perfect political solution to a difficult problem. (Next week: real solutions.)
--Peter Montague, Ph.D. =============== [1] David W. Miller, editor. WASTE DISPOSAL EFFECTS ON GROUND WATER (Berkeley, Ca: Premier Press, 1980), pg. 509. This is a reprint of EPA's 1977 REPORT TO CONGRESS, WASTE DISPOSAL PRACTICES AND THEIR EFFECTS ON GROUND WATER. The reprint is now officially out of print, but is still available for $18 from Geraghty & Miller, 125 East Bethpage Rd., Plainview, Ny 11803; phone (516) 249-7600.."

The only real alternative is to address the source of the problem through pollution prevention--to require that manufacturers keep dangerous (persistent, bioaccumulative, or toxic) chemicals out of their consumer products.

This real solution will require intervention in (or at least public influence upon) the manufacturing process itself; it may require outlawing certain dangerous chemicals (for example, perhaps lead, perhaps cadmium, perhaps some chlorinated compounds such as PVC or perhaps some solvents).

It will take leaders of vision and courage to make these difficult choices. Such questions may provide the ultimate test of the American political system. Judging by its 1988 proposals, the present administration seems unlikely to measure up.

Descriptor terms: MSW; landfilling; epa; leachate; groundwater contamination; cancers; health effects; regulations; liners; pollution prevention

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