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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 [Gore 151]. 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 [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, Florida to Maine. At that height, the mound will constitute a hazard to air traffic Fresh Kills (Kills is from the Dutch word for creek) 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 round 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, 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) 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]. Oddly, the subject of landfills is never broached in Udall’s book; in 1963, the issue was, in A modern state-of-the-art sanitary landfill is a graveyard for garbage, here 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 hipped 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 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 andfills 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 [Miller 527]. 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.

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