Our Garbage, Ourselves

Scaling Mount Trashmore, sorting through the clues to the mystery of everyday life

In 1989 I went to Mount Trashmore to interview my friend Surrendra Dial, an immigrant from Guyana who was knocking down $280 per week pretax, working as a waste attendant. At that time Trashmore was still interring "white goods" (washing machines, refrigerators, stoves), construction and demolition debris ("C&D" in solid waste argot), tires, and trash (trash, in the technical sense, is dry material such as tree branches and lawn clippings and cardboard boxes, as opposed to garbage, which is the wetter waste typical of kitchen refuse). Night and day, a continual stream of eighteen-wheelers, private dump trucks, and rolling garbage scows from unincorporated Dade and its municipalities rumbled past the scalehouse. The place was noisy and frantic, and one had to take care not to get run over.

Surrendra wore a hardhat as we toured the site, and made vain efforts to dodge the guano dropped on us from Hitchcockian swarms of scavenger birds. He explained that Hugo the Killer Whale, who died at the Seaquarium in 1980, had been buried here, as had the tons of pink plastic used by Christo to create his Surrounded Islands artwork in the Intracoastal Waterway. Over there, Surrendra noted, federal agents in Brooks Brothers suits had chased a fugitive from justice. (The fugitive arrived in a garbage truck, just like Steve McQueen in The Getaway.) A fire the previous April had grown unmanageable, requiring Metro smoke eaters to show up with deluge guns and stay for days. Shortly after I left, the state threatened to fine Dade County $60,000 if it didn't crop fifteen feet of garbage off the top of cells one and two. Surrendra and his homeboys had gotten a bit carried away.

Yes, the late Eighties and early Nineties were high old times at Trashmore. The excitement reached its zenith when the solid waste department sought permission to expand the landfill into 92 acres of wetlands -- the plot where cells four and five sit today. Much to the department's surprise, there was opposition to this idea. A showdown ensued at a February 1991 hearing thrown by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Present in legion was that most lugubrious of American political homunculi, the homeowner, bitching about the dump's aroma. Unaffiliated tree huggers held up placards. Representatives from the Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), the county's pollution-control office, from various environmental groups, and from nearby Biscayne National Park all voiced concern. Part of the concern swirled around the fact that ammonia levels in the canals next to Trashmore were twelve times the legal limit.

Facing this squawk, Dade's garbage planners played the crisis card. John Chorlog, chief solid waste engineer, warned that cell three was due to fill up within months. Even with two new mountains, he said, Trashmore would probably top out by the year 2000. Meanwhile, a welter of businessmen who had bid on the $40 million expansion contract licked their chops at the back of the room, among them the son of Cuban-American strongman Jorge Mas Canosa. Then-Metro mayor Steve Clark was there, too, looking as scarred and rheumy-eyed as that last black bear in Mississippi from Faulkner's yarn. Clark tried to find the middle of the road, and uttered the most profound (or at least the most honest) thing said on the subject: "There is no acceptable manner for disposing of garbage."

Surrendra Dial still works at the South Dade landfill, having been promoted to Trash Truck Driver 1 at double his old salary. Here's the sum total of what's been keeping him busy in the past year: 85 tons of oversize tires, 300 tons of asbestos, 500 tons of dead animals, 1200 tons of contaminated soil (mainly from gas stations with leaky storage tanks), 5000 tons of sterilized medical waste, and 34,000 tons of sludge from the wastewater treatment plant next door.

That sounds like a lot, but it's not. (The roadkill is a drop in the bucket compared to the 15,000 dead horses that plagued New York City annually around the turn of the century.) As recently as three years ago, Trashmore was taking in as much as 14,000 tons of garbage and trash weekly, grinding it up in a "tipping shed" the size of an airplane hangar and dumping it higher and higher on the slopes. Now the grinders are silent. A mere 3000 tons of garbage passes the scalehouse each week -- but it doesn't stay here. A separate fleet of tractor-trailers carries it away to an incinerator. Apart from the entombment of specialized refuse in the amounts noted above, Trashmore is just a garbage transfer depot. The number of Surrendra Dial's coworkers has dropped from 82 to 13.

With the millennium shutting down, so is Dade County's modern mega-landfill A but not for reasons anyone expected. It is not because new state regulations prohibit Trashmore from taking in white goods, car tires, and batteries. Nor is it due to the success of the county's recycling program, which has reduced the waste stream by 31 percent. Certainly it is not for want of space. The controversial landfill expansion passed in 1992. Cells four and five now yearn for solid waste, but their lusts are unrequited. The reason Trashmore is a ghost town is this: Someone is stealing our garbage -- a million tons of it every year.

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