Fri, 22 Jan 1999 16:22:27 -0500


To the Editor:

In his June 30th article, John Tierney asserts that "the simplest and
cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe
landfill." Tierney also asserted, "Today's landfills for municipal trash
are filled mostly with innocuous materials like paper, yard waste and
construction debris."

The assumption that new, lined landfills are environmentally safe is, in
fact, erroneous.

In some respects they are even worse than the unlined 'sanitary'
landfills that preceded them. Groundwater monitoring at lined
landfills is less likely to detect contamination before irreversible
damage is done. And today's ostensibly "improved" landfilling
approach gives the public a false sense of safety -- that something
permanent is being done when it is not.

'Dry tomb' landfills of the type being developed today attempt to
isolate wastes using plastic sheeting and compacted soil-clay layers
(liners) to keep the wastes dry and to collect leachate (garbage juice)
generated within the landfill.

It is widely acknowledged that such liners deteriorate over time and
ultimately fail to prevent moisture from entering the landfill and
generating leachate. Keeping garbage dry will require maintenance
and periodic replacement of the cap in perpetuity, not just for the 30
year period arbitrarily set by federal law.

Municipal garbage leachate, even with extensive waste diversion,
contains a large number of hazardous and deleterious chemicals that
can render groundwater unusable for domestic water supply purposes.

What is being accomplished is a postponement of the manifestation of
the problems, an exacerbation of the problems, and the transference of
the economic, public health, and other burdens for addressing the
problems created, to future generations.

Today's landfill regulations evolved from the early 1980s. They are
badly out of date. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
urgently needs to be upgraded to require landfills that will protect
groundwater resources from contamination for as long as the wastes in
the landfill represent a threat.

Landfilling is only the cheapest option for managing our discarded
resources if one discounts the costs of perpetual maintenance needed
to prevent groundwater pollution. Costs of perpetual maintenance --
or remediation -- are subsidies that we are charging to future

Contrary to statements made by Tierney, recycling protects
groundwater by reducing the need for new landfills.


G. Fred Lee, Ph.D., P.E., D.E.E., G. Fred Lee & Associates, El Macero
CA; 916-753-9630.

Bill Sheehan, Ph.D., Sierra Club National Waste Committee and E & C
Consulting Engineers, Lawrenceville GA; 770-995-9606.