Our Garbage, Ourselves

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

A single strand of barbed wire hung along the top of the chainlink fence. It was the next best thing to an engraved invitation, and the footnote at the bottom of the invitation said: You ain't gonna need them bolt cutters, Bubba.

I climbed over, zipped across an access road, and got into some low bushes. The grainy green and white view through the night-vision scope betrayed no human movement, only a silent bulldozer parked Up There, at the lip of the North Face.

Now the only thing between me and Trashmore was the Interceptor Trench, a muck moat eight feet wide that looked as ominous as it sounds. The trench was filled with black fluid, and stank -- half sweet, half acrid. Here is the place where the dramatist would say, "I knew that if I fell in I'd be a goner." But actually I knew that if I fell in, I would probably be just fine.

The Interceptor Trench is the newest addition to a network of pipes, pumps, and monitoring wells that are used to capture and dispose of Mount Trashmore's leachate -- the migratory juice produced by 7,374,000 tons of garbage. The leachate and rainwater collected by this system -- three million to twenty million gallons per week -- is pumped into a county sewer line along SW 97th Avenue and eventually processed at the South Dade Wastewater Treatment Facility nearby.

The seven-dollar aerial photograph I'd bought at the county's public-works department showed a seemingly curious thing: The Interceptor Trench skirts Mount Trashmore's eastern edge, turning west at both ends but petering out after only a hundred yards. This is because it was designed as an exclusive weapon against seepage from the oldest and worst-conceived of Trashmore's five peaks. Cell one, whose sloping face I was looking at now, doesn't have a plastic liner underneath it -- just a layer of sandy clay. Nor does it have underground drainage pipes like the other cells. Consequently, ooze from cell one has historically been less controlled and less predictable. As recently as March 1994, ammonia levels in the groundwater around Trashmore's eastern edge ran as high as 893 micrograms per liter, nearly nine times the 100-microgram limit for drinking water set by the county and the state. Further back, in 1987, tests showed unacceptably high levels of nickel, zinc, asbestos,and cyanide.

The leachate that fills the Interceptor Trench still contains cyanide, but in barely detectable quantities. It contains arsenic, chromium, copper, nickel, iron, lead, mercury, and zinc, as well as oil and grease, benzene, and a half-dozen other organic and inorganic compounds. But even in the trench -- whose purpose, remember, is to catch and whisk away the nastiest contaminants -- only one of these values comes anywhere near exceeding Dade's rather strict drinking water standards. It's ammonia, the commonest constituent of landfill runoff, that weighs in a little heavy at 424 mcg per liter. (Ammonia at this level is harmless to humans but potentially hazardous to juvenile fish and other marine life.)

No one is drinking out of the Interceptor Trench. Even the birds have better sense. But what about the groundwater that flows underneath Mount Trashmore, meandering through the shallow Biscayne Aquifer in a northwesterly direction and subject to the effect of tidal fluctuations? What about the roadside canals surrounding the landfill, which lead directly to Biscayne Bay? In the most recent quarterly sampling of surface water from the canals, none of the delectables listed above exceeded state or local standards. On September 27 of last year, Orlando Laboratories, the private firm hired by the county to collect and analyze these data, also tested water from nineteen wells around Trashmore's perimeter. Three samples were taken from each well at depths of 10 to 60 feet. Again, none of the compounds showed up in hazardous concentrations. Even ammonia passed muster, though it pushed the limit in well S-4 -- 25 feet down, in the middle of Trashmore's eastern fringe -- where it showed 96.6 mcg per liter.

Only a fool would deny that Trashmore is full of hair-raising quantities of menacing waste -- battery acid, fingernail polish, newspaper ink, oven cleaner, Freon, motor oil, gasoline additives, house paint, herbicides, fertilizers, photographic chemicals, the edible and inedible food waste that accounts for one-fifth of all household garbage, raccoon cadavers -- but the leachate from this monolithic mess is not percolating down into our drinking water or escaping in large amounts into Biscayne Bay.

Why not? The reason is reflected in the fact that, contrary to popular belief, garbage inside a landfill does not biodegrade, not much anyway. In 24 years of excavations at dozens of landfills around the U.S. (including ones in Naples and Collier County), scientists participating in the University of Arizona's Garbage Project found only one instance of true large-scale biological decay. Seventy percent of American municipal solid waste winds up in landfills, and half of that is theoretically biodegradable. But a landfill is not a giant compost heap. It's a vault that tends to mummify its contents. The aerobic bacteria necessary for true biodegradation very quickly die off in places like Mount Trashmore. Beneath the surface, there isn't enough oxygen to sustain life. To the extent that anything degrades at all, it is thanks to anaerobic organisms, but they are scarce. Anna Palmisano, a microbiologist who works for Procter & Gamble's Environmental Laboratories in Cincinnati, recently analyzed twelve samples from the landfill near the Naples airport. She was looking for anaerobic cellulose-degrading bacteria, the kind necessary to break down the newspaper you are reading. She found none. The result was the same at other landfills. The fact that Mount Trashmore's two oldest cells are now sealed promises to make the internal dynamics of the dump even less dynamic -- drier, cooler, and less oxygenated. However hazardous our garbage might be, it isn't disintegrating much or traveling very far in microscopic or larger form from where it was laid to rest. That landfills rarely settle more than a few feet further suggests they aren't roisterous stew pots.

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Thank you for a great article. Very informative, very interesting to read. I can only imagine how much time and research was needed to write this story. Thank you Sean.

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