Fri, 22 Jan 1999 16:22:37 -0500

TO Recyclers, reusers, and waste preventers
FROM Bill Sheehan

RE Landfill Safety

In his already infamous June 30th NY Times article, John Tierney
asserts that landfills are safe and cheap, so "there's no reason to make
recycling a legal or moral imperative."

The safety of lined landfills has been greatly exaggerated, but recyclers
and kin don't attack this myth enough. We ignore this issue at our

I am not convinced that we can win the general public on waste
reduction and recycling on sustainability grounds alone. And
arguments about cost advantages of recycling, reuse, composting and
waste prevention versus landfilling are severely and unecessarily
handicapped, if not doomed, if we conceed the safety of landfilling.

Attached are two excerpts from Tierney (which codifies the general
feeling of the waste management establishment), and a longer one
from Dr. G. Fred Lee, a hydrology engineer and leading critic of
Subtitle D landfill design criteria. Email me if you want a more
detailed piece from Dr. Lee.

Bill Sheehan
(comes to jennie alvernaz's email account)
work: 770-995-9606; fax 770-995-6603
home tel & fax: 706-208-1416
268 Janice Drive, Athens, GA 30606

Excerpts from Tierney's June 30 th New York Times article, Recycling
Is Garbage.

... Recycling does
sometimes makes sense -- for some materials in some places at some
times. But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage
in an environmentally safe landfill. And since there's no shortage of
landfill space (the crisis of 1987 was a false alarm), there's no reason to
make recycling a legal or moral imperative. ...

Today's landfills for municipal trash are filled mostly with
innocuous materials like paper, yard waste and construction debris.
They contain small amounts of hazardous wastes, like lead and
mercury, but studies have found that these poisons stay trapped
inside the mass of garbage even in the old, unlined dumps that were
built before today's stringent regulations. So there's little reason to
worry about modern landfills, which by Federal law must be lined
with clay and plastic, equipped with drainage and gas-collection
systems, covered daily with soil and monitored regularly for
underground leaks.

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

G. Fred Lee, PhD, PE, DEE and Anne Jones-Lee, PhD G. Fred Lee &
Associates El Macero, CA 95618 916-753-9630

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,

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

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.

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

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.
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

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