Our Garbage, Ourselves

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

Citizens of Dade County, rise up and take back your mountain! You built it, after all. It's a monument to you and me, the little guy, the dreamers of the Sunshine Dream, homo disposicus.

I refer, of course, to Mount Trashmore, the monster county garbage dump in South Dade. From its 200-acre footprint on the shores of Biscayne Bay, our putrid Parnassus looms fifteen stories over a mangrove marsh to form the highest point of land in the flattest place on Earth. The alpinist returning from this verticality will say that from its summit you can see the Everglades, the Keys curving over the horizon, the faraway twinklings of Miami Beach. Farther, even: Squint and you can look right through the veil of Time, into the eyes of Civilization and Human Nature. The landfill has its secret life, a hidden hydrology and biochemistry, a singular aesthetic. It has a public life, too, politics and economics and a mythology whose sum is a reflection of ourselves as intimate and ineluctable as our children, familiar yet strange, wonderful and troubling.

Which is why, on the night of the winter solstice, I drove twenty miles south from Neon Gotham and began my assault on the seven-million-ton massif. Because it's there. Because the flag must be planted. Because it is ours, and the time is ripe to claim it.

Standing on the roadside in the shadow of a salinity dam, I climbed into my desert camo coveralls, donned an old pair of Red Wing cowboy boots. I had already, as they say on TV, cased the joint. The night watchman and his pickup were parked a mile away at the landfill administration building. No doubt Mr. Watchman would scratch his head if he could see the contents of my backpack: one pair of bolt cutters, a handheld night-vision scope, rubber chemotherapy gloves, an aerial photograph of the terrain between SW 232nd and 248th streets, a Wal-Mart rat pistol, Mag-Lite with extra batteries, GPS altimeter, plastic sample bags, and a matching set of chilled Heinekens. The snowshoes didn't fit in the pack so I strapped them onto the outside and began blowing up the inflatable kayak.

When I was done, my Casio read 0320. At 0327 I was paddling west through Black Creek Canal, hugging the weeds along the shore. The note I left on the dashboard read: "Out of gas. Back by morning."

In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth, and later on plastics, construction debris, and disposable diapers. What did they do with their apple cores in Eden? With last season's fig leaf? With toenail clippings and empty snake-repellent bottles? Probably the same thing South Florida's prehistoric natives did, which is to say they built middens. From 500 B.C. until the 1700s, the Tequesta threw their oyster shells and charred bones and broken pots in piles, 300 of which remain scattered across urban Dade County -- some smack in the middle of downtown Miami -- at a piddling average height of two to three feet. The Tequesta were jolly itinerant horticulturists and hunter-gatherers, and when the mounds got too big or too foul, they conveniently moved on. Sometimes they used old middens for house foundations. It was when humans took to agriculture full-time and stuck to one spot that garbage became a problem. Gordon Willey, an anthropologist who in the late 1940s studied ancient settlement patterns in Peru, has argued that garbage itself was a significant driving force in the creation of cities and civilization -- dealing with garbage demanded a hierarchical class structure and a high degree of organizational sophistication. In present-day Dade, the 244 men and 16 women who ride the county's 165 garbage trucks earn a salary that ranges from $20,600 to $24,900.

Since the Industrial Revolution, garbage has become more varied, colorful, and toxic, and humans have applied both high and low technology to the challenge of its disposal. But one of the many arresting aspects of garbage is the fact that throughout history there have been only four tried-and-true ways of dealing with it, none of which is new: burying (landfills), burning (incineration), trying to reclaim something of value from the refuse (recycling), and reducing the amount of garbage generated in the first place (source reduction). Like most metropolises, Greater Miami uses a combination of these strategies. Mount Trashmore is our monument to the successes and failures of the first approach, which is, incidentally, the cheapest.

Trashmore, officially known as the South Dade Solid Waste Disposal Facility, is essentially a midden writ large, with a few significant engineering refinements tacked on since the landfill opened in 1980. One of the first surprises for the visitor is the realization that Trashmore isn't a single peak but a broad, panoramic mountain range, with five rectangular "cells" marching westward from Biscayne Bay, north of SW 248th Street and east of 97th Avenue. As you read this, cells one and two, the oldest peaks and the ones nearest the water, are being neatly capped with an eighteen-inch layer of gray-white limestone gravel. They are full, and the goal now is to seal them not only from rodents and rain but from oxygen, in order to keep the 150-foot mounds as inert as possible. Cell three is active, i.e., open for business. Cells four and five are hypothetical: Five, the farthest west, is a big piece of empty, undeveloped land; four is being painstakingly readied for use, with the construction of underground drainage pipes and a floor made of compacted limestone, a layer of clay, and a seamless, 60-millimeter-thick plastic liner. The garbage of the future will be dumped on top of this foundation and will eventually rise to the dizzy height of 260 feet -- the highest geological feature along a 1500-mile strip of Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Florida.

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.

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.

This is bad news for those of us who think buying biodegradable products is better than using plastic and Styrofoam. But which do we really want? An arid, inert, well-engineered dump like Mount Trashmore, or a seething biological cauldron?

Consider the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, since 1948 the primary repository of New York City's refuse. Built on a 3000-acre tidal marsh, Fresh Kills rises slightly higher than Trashmore and outweighs it fifteen times over. It's due to fill up in 2005. Drilling samples have revealed that its core temperature runs as high as 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and every day it spews approximately one million gallons of genuinely toxic broth into the New York harbor. There's no liner of any kind underneath it. This is the one landfill in America where true biodegradation has been shown to take place, and it's not a pretty sight.

Fresh Kills, the largest landfill on Earth, is something of a mecca for garbologists. But there's a less-studied example of bad planning much closer to home. Between 1952 and 1978, the county leased 250 acres of marsh from a group of private owners and dumped into it untold tons of trash, garbage, sewage sludge, incinerator ash, and junk metal. Like Fresh Kills, the Old South Dade Dump has no liner underneath, not even the sandy clay that swaddles Trashmore's first two cells. Moreover, unlike Trashmore, it was not run as a sanitary landfill -- the refuse wasn't covered over nightly with dirt to inhibit biodegradation. For years Dade County has tried to purchase and clean up the site, which lies immediately south of Mount Trashmore across SW 248th Street and the Goulds Canal. So far, efforts have been stymied.

Meanwhile the old dump is poorly monitored. In a July 1995 memo to her boss, Gwladys Scott, a DERM inspector, noted that the dump "predates anything we ever regulated," that it has "a long history of ground water and air contamination," and that spontaneous combustion of the grown-over refuse is a big problem, smelling up the neighborhood for some seven miles.

"The smoke cannot be seen from the paved roads," Scott continued. "The odor often occurs between dusk and dawn in the residential areas and day or night in the farming areas that are closer to the site. The odor is very acrid and irritates the eyes and nose. The waste materials have not been specifically identified but probably contain paints, plasters, batteries, chemical wastes from homes and farms, et cetera. In some photos I saw 55-gallon drums, a car body, and a tire. South Dade landfill employees have stated that the Old South Dade Dump has been burning for as long as they have worked there -- up to fifteen years."

Of course, the fact that Mount Trashmore isn't (at the moment) oozing deadly contaminants into our drinking water or poisoning the marine ecosystem doesn't eliminate it as a potential polluter. Our homegrown Everest is going to be around for a long time. In 1884 British archaeologists dug into a landfill on a hill outside Rome. They found the contents well preserved A and eye-wateringly pungent after twenty centuries. What Trashmore's current good hygiene does indicate is that the Department of Solid Waste Management has done a pretty fair job of dealing with an impossible proposition. The fundamental ecological objection to Trashmore, the unresolvable one, is its location. It would have been hard to find a worse place for a garbage dump than on the edge of a fragile bay in a place with a water table mere inches from the Earth's surface. The problem is, it would also be hard to find any better place. Virtually all of Florida, like Long Island, is geologically unsuited for landfills because of its porous soil.

I made a slow end-run around the Interceptor Trench and arrived, finally, at the base of Mount Trashmore. Not only was this the longest night of the year, it was also perfectly moonless, a confluence that occurs only once every nineteen years. Even so, Trashmore glowed white against the overcast sky. It looked a thousand feet tall. I began to climb, surprised at how hard the white gravel was, like crudely mixed cement.

When my altimeter read 50 feet, I could see Biscayne Bay spreading out toward the invisible Bahamas. At 90 feet I stopped to savor the view, winded -- for seven years I haven't climbed anything more rugged than the back steps to my apartment. All this subtropic sloth has conferred upon me the lungs and legs of a flatlander.

Then I was up and over the top. The wind came on like a rhino, crossing a steppe the size of three football fields. A hundred yards away stood, unmistakably, a porta-potty. Heineken in hand, I swung up into the bulldozer's ragged cockpit, sorely tempted by the starter button; the key had been left in the ignition. I was the prince of Olympus. Cock-a-doodle-doo!

There are getting to be as many people in Greater Miami as there were in the entire United States when the country was born. (Thomas Jefferson counted 3.9 million souls when he oversaw the U.S. census in 1790; today Dade County holds just over two million.) An oft-repeated myth about garbage holds that modern people generate much more of it per capita than did their ancestors. Actual analysis of landfills suggests that American households don't necessarily throw out more than our Roman or Mayan counterparts in their respective decadent eras. But we have an awful lot of households. Humankind in Dade -- homes, offices, small and big businesses, construction sites, industries -- produced a staggering 3.5 million tons of refuse last year.

Through the early Nineties, the Department of Solid Waste Management handled the vast majority of this cargo. It landfilled as much of 68 percent of it -- more than one million tons per year at Trashmore, smaller portions at the county's other major dump, the North Dade Landfill. Now, as noted above, Mount Trashmore is nearly shut down. While the tonnage of garbage produced here in Paradise has never been heftier, the "waste stream" handled by county workers has dropped to a paltry 1.3 million tons per annum, roughly half of what it used to be. The garbage that once went south to Trashmore now goes north -- 950,000 tons of solid waste quietly crossed the Broward County line last year, vanishing from our midst. This is a new phenomenon in local history.

The impetus for it was twofold. In May 1994 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that metropolitan governments such as Dade's could no longer dictate what individual cities do with their garbage. Sweetwater, Hialeah Gardens, Key Biscayne, Coral Gables, and other Dade municipalities were suddenly free to stop participating in the county collection-and-disposal network and to explore other options. And they did, with a vengeance.

"I've been with the county twenty years and never seen anything like it," says Debbie Higer, chief of service development for the solid waste department. "We went overnight from having the authority to direct the flow, to a pure market system. This was a huge problem. And Dade County was the hardest hit of any in the United States."

The hardest hit because, while county planners reeled from the implications of the Supreme Court decision, a subsidiary of WMX Inc., the largest private garbage-hauling firm on Earth (cofounded, and still partly owned, by H. Wayne Huizenga) had already opened two gargantuan mass-burn incinerators in West Broward. Dade had been charging its cities $95 per ton to dump refuse at Trashmore. Beginning in 1991, the owners of the new incinerators offered short-term contracts to Dade cities with "tipping fees" as low as $38 per ton. The garbage exodus began.

On the one hand, pollution-conscious residents of Dade can now rejoice that we are palming off on Broward the equivalent of an aircraft-carrierful of old hot dogs, wilted lettuce, cinder blocks, and Miami Heralds. Like banking, garbage management is becoming a regional rather than strictly a local industry. But there are losers as well as winners -- among them Surrendra Dial's 69 ex-coworkers. Another 202 employees of the solid waste department were laid off at midyear. Since 1994 the department has suffered an average annual shortfall of $30 million. If it were a private firm, it might have chosen by now to file for bankruptcy.

That, however, is not an option. Though the department's revenues have plummeted, its fixed costs haven't. Florida's Growth Management Act of 1985 mandates that Dade County provide a garbage-collection and -disposal system sufficient to take care of the entire county population -- not just the communities it now actually serves. Mount Trashmore isn't making much money burying new solid waste, yet the expense of building interceptor trenches, pumping leachate, closing old cells and preparing new ones hasn't decreased. State law also holds that fees collected for curbside garbage pickup can't blithely be increased and used to offset vanished landfill revenues.

But if the Department of Solid Waste Management is still handling 1.3 million tons of garbage, why isn't Mount Trashmore a boom town? Because Dade County has its own incinerator, to whose fiery doors it is contractually obligated to deliver 936,000 tons of refuse each year. Should the county fall short, the private firm that operates the incinerator still gets paid the same amount. The contract extends into the 21st Century. Though no public policy decision ever took place, Dade County now disposes of almost all of its solid waste in a markedly different way from the methods of the early Nineties -- by burning rather than burying. It is garbage economics that dictated the shift.

Incinerators are famously expensive, by the way, and ours is no exception. County engineers are about to begin retrofitting the plant with newfangled pollution-control devices required by the 1990 Clean Air Act. They estimate the cost for this chore will be $60 million.

Dade's dethroned kings of the mountain have been scrambling hard to make ends meet. Besides the layoffs, in October garbage department strategists were able to tack on to citizens' water and sewer bills a 3.5 percent surcharge to help mitigate problems associated with runoff. A new program rescues trash just before it enters the county incinerator, grinds it up, and sells it to a sugar mill in Okeelanta for use as fuel. The county is also lobbying Congress to legislatively reverse the effects of the 1994 Supreme Court decision regarding garbage control.

But more than anything else, the solid waste department has put its back into recapturing its wayward trash. To compete with Broward, Dade has dropped its per-ton tipping fee from $95 to $45. Debbie Higer, one of the top lieutenants in the Garbage War, believes the county will ultimately regain half a million tons of lost business. Already a few renegade municipalities have returned to the herd, opting for the reassuring stability of long-term contracts with Dade County. The department could break even as early as next year, Higer says.

She notes that things will never be the same. And the department's most recent strategic plan waxes somber in spots: "Presently, the County continues to lose more waste to other waste disposal providers and faces the grim task of dismantling its recycling programs due to lack of both waste and money."

I shot my first rat twenty minutes before dawn. Or thought I did. When I clomped across the top of the garbage mound and bent to examine my trophy, it turned out to be a Russian-language newspaper flapping in the breeze behind a car bumper. One hundred and forty-seven feet above sea level, your eyes play tricks on you.

After hiking over to the sludge pile and leaving some snowshoe tracks for the night watchman, there wasn't much left to do. I put the pellet gun away. The exposed garbage on top of cell three is pretty minuscule A a few tons of yard waste and magazines, the odd metal chair, a patio grill. It didn't even smell that bad. In the past year, the keepers of the dump have spent $16,000 on aromatherapy. A company called Odor Control Inc. shows up periodically and delivers Odkio Avast 3, a neutralizing chemical. In an unintentional assist, the U.S. Customs Service recently dumped several cases of smuggled cologne.

It was more fun to contemplate the world directly beneath me. Under the hard-packed crust was the ultimate nonabstraction -- a mountain of clues to the mystery of everyday life. Walking here was like sailing above the ocean floor where there's known to be treasure.

To the west suburbia rose like a lost continent, a carpet of bronze sprawling for miles. A cigarette would have been nice, but I knew that in 1986, at a Steve Winwood concert, a woman had accidentally set her hair on fire. The flame from the cigarette lighter she was using had shot upward to a height of some four feet. The concert venue, in Mountain View, California, was built on an old landfill that was leaking methane. Trashmore is similarly full of methane (some benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and chlorinated hydrocarbons, too) and the county is exploring the complicated question of whether to simply vent the gas or attempt to capture it for use or sale.

Then I found a spot on the eastern slope and sat down to wait for sunrise. I've seen this old rerun on three continents and in thirty countries, from freighters, trawlers, catboats, and luxury liners. But when it came, I thought sunrise from Mount Trashmore was the best yet. Old landfills are sometimes turned into parks, and I propose we do the same to Mount Trashmore. I see a broad green field against a blue bay, picnickers and badminton -- and me, with the tiki bar concession. For the record, county officials say that while a park or other public-access area on top of Trashmore isn't out of the question, they have no plans at the moment to create one.

When I got home, I cleaned out my vehicle. There were Heineken bottles and Marlboro boxes, plus a hundred or so candy wrappers -- the archaeology of my wife's chocolate addiction. I threw everything into a plastic bag and dumped it in the trash can. Tomorrow, you see, was garbage day.

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