Are Subtitle D Landfills a Real Improvement?
Fri, 22 Jan 1999 16:23:24 -0500

TO Recyclers and other resource conservationists
FROM Bill Sheehan

Raising the costs of wasting in landfills ('plugging the toilet' so
to speak) is critical to resource conservation and recycling in my
opinion. The attached article by Dr. G. Fred Lee gives a semi-
technical explanation of how Subtitle D landfills fall short and
transfer liability to future generations. Elsewhere, Dr. Lee
presents figures on how much money it would take to deal with the
perpetual maintenance required to prevent groundwater contamionation
at most sites -- about $40 to $100 ADDITIONAL per ton. Now,
recycling could compete with that!

As recyclers and resource conservationists, we should address the
need for reforming Subtitle D regulations (under RCRA). It is one of
the keys to leveling the playing field for recycling.

Email me if you want a more detailed piece from Dr. Lee.

Subtitle D Municipal Landfills vs Classical Sanitary Landfills: Are
Subtitle D Landfills a Real Improvement?

G. Fred Lee, PhD, PE, DEE and Anne Jones-Lee, PhD G. Fred Lee &
Associates El Macero, CA 95618

In 1993, the League of Women Voters' book entitled, "The Garbage
Primer: A Handbook for Citizens" (Murphy, 1993) included a chapter
devoted to landfills. In its discussion of "state-of-the-art"
landfills entitled, "How Safe Is State-of-Art?" it was stated with
reference to the lined, dry-tomb-type, municipal solid waste (MSW)
landfills prescribed by US EPA's Subtitle D,

"The term `state-of-the-art' evokes unequivocal faith in current
science and technology. However, even the best liners will eventually
degrade, tear, or crack. Landfills are designed to accept waste for
10-40 years, and the new EPA regulations require owners to maintain
and monitor their landfills for at least 30 years after closure. The
questions remain. What happens after 30 years? Who will need
protection then? Who will pay for cleaning up ground and surface
water sources when leaks occur?

State-of-the-art landfills may not be a cure, but they are a
tremendous improvement over their predecessors."

The concerns expressed about reliance on so-called "state-of-the-art"
landfills for protection of groundwater resources are justified.
However, the concluding statement quoted, regarding the comparative
safety of classical unlined sanitary landfills and Subtitle D
landfills, deserves further examination.

Impact of MSW Landfills

Lee and Jones-Lee (1993, 1994a,b,c, 1996) discussed impacts of
municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills on public health, air and
groundwater resources, and the welfare of those who own or use
properties within the sphere of influence of the landfill. Areas of
impact concerns and reasons for concern included:

? Groundwater and surface water quality; leachate migration and
disposal - public health, economics, aquatic life, aesthetics
? Migration of methane and VOC's - public health, explosions,
toxicity to plants
? Illegal roadside dumping and litter near landfill - aesthetics,
public health, economics
? Truck traffic - congestion, air pollution, aesthetics, public
health and safety
? Noise - aesthetics, public health
? Odors - dumping and landfill gas - aesthetics, public health
? Dust and wind-blown litter - aesthetics, public health
? Vectors, insects, rodents, birds - public health, nuisance,
aircraft hazard
? Impaired view/viewshed - aesthetics
? Decreased property values - condemn future uses of nearby

Lee and Jones-Lee (1994a,b) noted that the adverse impacts of
landfills should be considered for two distinct periods: the active
life and the post-closure period. Essentially all of the potential
impacts listed above are associated with the active life of landfills.
After the landfill is closed, the adverse impacts are commonly reduced
to those associated with landfill gas and leachate releases from the
landfill, view/viewshed impairment, and diminished value and use of
nearby properties.

While the US EPA asserted in its Subtitle D municipal landfill
regulations that the opposition to landfills should be significantly
diminished as a result of the adoption of those regulations,
examination of Subtitle D landfilling practice and landfills shows
that the US EPA did not address many of the significant near-term
problems associated with the active life of a landfill. The Subtitle
D regulations did place some restrictions on the siting of landfills,
such as within flood plains, on top of or immediately adjacent to
earthquake fault lines, immediately next to airports, etc. However,
even under Subtitle D, landfills can be sited very close to adjacent
property owners' land without sufficient buffer lands between the area
of deposition of the wastes and adjacent properties. Odors, and
essentially all of the other problems associated with the active life
of landfills, can still occur at Subtitle D landfills and comply with
regulatory requirements. About the only "improvement" over classical
sanitary landfills offered by Subtitle D landfills is that the liner
system required postpones the occurrence of groundwater pollution by
tens of years to possibly a hundred years or so (Lee and Jones-Lee

Is the postponement achieved by institution of Subtitle D
requirements really an advantage? Without the development of an
adequate, failsafe, perpetual funding mechanism developed from
disposal fees today, the postponement of the realization of
ramifications of the landfilling approach shifts the burden of dealing
with those impacts from those who generated the garbage, to future
generations (Lee and Jones-Lee 1993, 1995a). It is appropriate for
those who generate the waste in this generation to have to pay the
total costs associated with the "disposal" of their wastes.

Monitoring of Landfill Liner Leakage

Another factor that needs to be considered is that the manner and
pattern of leachate leakage from a lined Subtitle D landfill is
substantially different from that of a classical unlined sanitary
landfill (Jones-Lee and Lee, 1993, Lee and Jones-Lee 1994c). Because
of these differences, while a groundwater monitoring program of the
type prescribed by Subtitle D may allow ready detection of groundwater
pollution by leachate from an unlined landfill, the likelihood of its
detecting groundwater pollution by leachate from a lined landfill
before widespread groundwater pollution has occurred, is remote.
Thus, not only will the leakage of leachate from a Subtitle D landfill
be delayed owing to the liner system, but also the detection of
groundwater pollution by that leakage will not likely be detected
until widespread pollution has occurred. These postponements will
result in future generations' having to bear the adverse impacts and
the expenses for groundwater clean-up, lost resources, waste
exhumation, proper treatment, etc. in Superfund-type programs, that
will result from the short-sighted, stop-gap approach that the US EPA
adopted in Subtitle D.

Often cited as a significant benefit of the landfilling approaches
of today compared to those of the past is the reduction in input of
currently regulated hazardous chemicals=2E That reduction has nothing
to do with Subtitle D requirements, but rather is an outgrowth of
RCRA. Substantial efforts are being made today to reduce the amount
of what are known as rodent carcinogens (chemicals which, in high
concentrations, cause cancer in rats) in the municipal solid waste
(MSW) stream. While it is no longer possible, for example, to dispose
of 55-gallon drums of spent solvents in MSW landfills, it is still
possible for potentially significant amounts of spent solvents from
household or small commercial use to be legally placed in MSW
landfills. Further, even if all "hazardous wastes" were excluded from
MSW landfills, the leachate that would be produced from such landfills
would still be a highly significant threat to groundwater quality;
small amounts of leachate could still pollute large amounts of
groundwater, rendering it unusable for domestic purposes (Jones-Lee
and Lee, 1993).

Inadequate Regulatory Approach

Rather than addressing the solid waste management crisis in a
technically valid, appropriate manner, the US EPA and now many states,
are continuing to allow the landfilling of solid wastes - industrial,
hazardous, and "non-hazardous" wastes - at prices significantly below
what it will cost to address the problems that will be caused by those
activities. The League (Murphy) is correct in pointing out the
significant deficiencies with the short-term, stop-gap approach
adopted by the US EPA and the states in landfilling of wastes under
Subtitle D regulations. There are significant questions, however, as
to whether the League's statement that today's landfills "are a
tremendous improvement over their predecessors" is appropriate.

Today's ostensibly "improved" landfilling approach gives the public
a false sense of safety - that something better, and more expensive is
being done. However, 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. It also
postpones the pressure on society and regulatory agencies to develop
and implement MSW management approaches that provide truly long-term
protection of public health and environmental quality, and protection
of the interests and welfare of those who live or use properties
within the sphere of influence of landfills and other waste management

The current landfilling regulations evolved out of efforts by
various environmental groups in the early 1980s to improve the
landfilling of hazardous wastes in what became Subtitle C landfills.
At that time, the environmental groups convinced Congress that
Congress should dictate to the US EPA how to design and close
hazardous waste landfills. It was at that time that the dry tomb
landfilling approach evolved. Dry tomb landfills (Subtitle C and D)
attempt to isolate the wastes using plastic sheeting and compacted
soil - clay layers to keep the wastes dry and to collect any leachate
that is generated within the landfill. At the time that the
environmental groups selected plastic sheeting (primarily HDPE
liners), the properties of these liners were not well understood.
Today, however, it is well known that such liners deteriorate over
time and ultimately fail to prevent moisture from entering the
landfill and generating leachate as well as to collect any leachate
within the landfill. The US EPA, as part of developing Subtitle D
regulations, acknowledged this situation when they stated in the Draft
Regulations on Solid Waste Disposal Criteria (August 30, 1988a),

"First, even the best liner and leachate collection system will
ultimately fail due to natural deterioration, and recent improvements
in MSWLF (municipal solid waste landfill) containment technologies
suggest that releases may be delayed by many decades at some

The US EPA Criteria for Municipal Solid Waste Landfills (July 1988b)

"Once the unit is closed, the bottom layer of the landfill will
deteriorate over time and, consequently, will not prevent leachate
transport out of the unit."

Therefore, today's Subtitle C and D landfills at best only postpone
when groundwater pollution occurs by municipal solid waste and
hazardous waste landfills that conform to current minimum regulatory

RCRA-based landfilling regulations are badly out-of-date with
respect to specifying the minimum design of Subtitle C and D
landfills. There is an urgent need to change RCRA from the current
landfilling approach to one that will, in fact, protect groundwater
resources from pollution by landfill leachate for as long as the
wastes in the landfill will be a threat. Effectively, wastes in both
types of landfills will be a threat forever.

Unreliable Reporting of Landfill Protection

While this situation has been well known in the field for a number
of years, unfortunately, landfill owners/operators and regulatory
agencies do not necessarily reliably discuss this situation. Often
the public is provided with highly unreliable information on the
ability of Subtitle C and D landfills to prevent groundwater pollution
by landfill leachate for as long as the wastes in the landfill will be
a threat. This issue has been discussed by Lee and Jones-Lee (1995b)
in an article entitled, "Practical Environmental Ethics: Is There an
Obligation to Tell the Whole Truth?" Lee and Jones-Lee (1995c, 1996)
have discussed alternative landfilling approaches which can be readily
implemented that would provide for true protection of groundwater
resources from pollution by landfill leachate for as long as the
wastes in the landfill represent a threat.

References Jones-Lee, A. and Lee, G. F., "Groundwater Pollution by
Municipal Landfills: Leachate Composition, Detection and Water Quality
Significance," Proceedings of Sardinia '93 IV International Landfill
Symposium, Sardinia, Italy, pp. 1093-1103, October (1993).

Lee, G. F. and Jones-Lee, A., "Landfill Post-Closure Care: Can Owners
Guarantee the Money Will Be There?" Solid Waste and Power, 7(4):35-39

Lee, G. F. and Jones-Lee, A., "Addressing Justifiable NIMBY: A
Prescription for MSW Management," Environmental Management Review,
Government Institutes, Rockville, MD, No. 31, First Quarter, pp. 115-
138 (1994a). Lee, G. F. and Jones-Lee, A., "Impact of Municipal and
Industrial Non-Hazardous Waste Landfills on Public Health and the
Environment: An Overview," Report to State of California Environmental
Protection Agency Comparative Risk Project, Berkeley, CA, 45pp, April

Lee, G. F. and Jones-Lee, A., " A Groundwater Protection Strategy for
Lined Landfills," Environmental Science & Technology, 28:584-5

Lee, G. F. and Jones-Lee, A., "Wet Cell Versus Dry Tomb: Pay a Little
Now or More Later," MSW Management 5:70,72 (1995a).

Lee, G. F. and Jones-Lee, A., "Practical Environmental Ethics: Is
There an Obligation to Tell the Whole Truth?" Published in condensed
form "Environmental Ethics: The Whole Truth," Civil Engineering Forum,
65:6 (1995b).

Lee, G. F. and Jones-Lee, A., "Recommended Design, Operation, Closure
and Post-Closure Approaches for Municipal Solid Waste and Hazardous
Waste Landfills," Report of G. Fred Lee & Associates, El Macero, CA,
14pp, August (1995c).

Lee, G. F. and Jones-Lee, A., "Dry Tomb Landfills," MSW Management,
6(1):82-89 (1996).

Murphy, P., The Garbage Primer: A Handbook for Citizens, League of
Women Voters, Lyons & Burford, New York (1993).

US EPA, "Solid Waste Disposal Facility Criteria; Proposed Rule,"
Federal Register 53(168):33314- 33422, 40 CFR Parts 257 and 258, US
EPA, Washington, D.C., August 30, (1988a).

US EPA, "Criteria for Municipal Solid Waste Landfills," US EPA
Washington D.C., July (1988b).

A copy of the cited work of the authors, as well as additional
information on the flawed technology of today's "dry-tomb" landfilling
approach is available from the authors at G. Fred Lee & Associates,
27298 East El Macero Drive, El Macero, CA 95618, phone: 916-753-9630,