Landfills vs. Dumps — Is there a Difference?

            The Greensboro News & Record has been full of front page articles this week about an alleged cancer cluster near its White Street Landfill.  The landfill was closed to household waste a few years ago due to political pressure, but has continued to accept construction and demolition debris.

            As claims of a cancer cluster circulated, another interesting fact recently surfaced.  Adjacent to the landfill is the site of former E.H. Glass Dump.

             If you oppose burial of household waste, all landfills are “dumps.”  When local media want to sensationalize a proposal to expand or create a burial option, they tend to refer to landfills as “dumps” for “trash.”  But, in fact, there is a huge difference between modern sanitary landfills and dumps.

            Humans for centuries have dug holes to dump waste.  They did it in ancient Pompeii.  Indigenous tribes have done it for eons.  This practice followed Americans well into the 20th century as cities merely dug larger and deeper holes to dump everything that was tossed from homes, offices, demolition sites and factories. 

            In the 1960s and 1970s, we began to wake up. Dumping refuse into open holes was little different than allowing factories to pipe their liquid waste directly into nearby creeks and rivers.  In fact, when it came to dumps, some of them were intentionally placed near waterways because, as many claimed, “dilution is the solution.”

            Although there were many health risks associated with open, unlined, dumps, the main problem stemmed from dumps lying between groundwater below and rainwater coming from above.  Generally described, as rain fell onto a dump, it would pass through tons and tons of leftover pizza, oil cans, paper, mom’s meatloaf, Clorox bottles, and anything and everything that found its way into the dump.  Rain water passing over and through these items absorbed what it could and carried much of it into the groundwater and nearby streams.

            In 1976, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) that, among other things, established new and stringent comprehensive standards for managing hazardous and non-hazardous waste.  Household waste would be handled by federally mandated standards implemented at the state and local government levels.

            The section of RCRA that governs modern landfill design is “Subtitle D.”  Thus, modern landfills are typically called “Subtitle D landfills.” Subtitle D requires landfills to be designed to contain all rainfall, remove the resulting “leachate,” extract the methane gases that naturally build up, monitor surrounding ground water and “cap” filled landfills so that rain water can no longer get in.

            Subtitle D landfills are simply engineered, but they work. At the bottom of the landfill is at least two feet of impermeable clay with various layers above that, including an impermeable High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) membrane. Piping structures for removing leachate are installed.  After each cell (section) of a landfill is full, the owner/operator must, essentially, create a top layer of impermeable materials that is similar to the bottom liner.

            Subtitle D opponents will focus on the drops per million gallons of water that over centuries can pass through the liner. “Perfection,” however,  is a topic for theologians.  By all strict yet reasonable standards and measures, these landfills work.  

            Yes, we should reduce the amount of waste we generate.  Yes, we should recycle more and better.  Yes, we should use existing landfills as alternative sources of energy. Yes, we should explore alternative ways to dispose of waste, especially if we can convert it to sources of energy.  But we need not fear modern, well-constructed landfills.

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