Washington Post - 12 Nov 98

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305

(Copied 25 Oct 09)

As Garbage Piles Up, So Do Worries

Virginia has become the nation's second biggest importer of trash

By Eric Lipton
Thursday, November 12, 1998

Twenty tons of D.C. trash and an equal amount of New York City trash will come to rest at a landfill in Gloucester County. (Jay Paul - For The Washington Post)

New York City assembles its special delivery for Virginia fresh each morning starting at about 10 a.m., when a lone dump truck rumbles into a gritty lot in the South Bronx.

Within minutes, the damp air is flavored with rotting garbage and exhaust: A dozen, then two dozen, 50, finally nearly 200 jampacked trash trucks stretch six blocks long.

Every scrap of Bronx trash the city has collected since dawn is there. And before sunset, all but a small share of the 1,750 tons will be headed to the lush rural lands of central Virginia. The garbage will come by train and truck, rolling through the crowded Washington corridor and lumbering along Interstate 95, the Capital Beltway and feeder highways throughout the region.

To waste industry executives, this ritual serves all parties well: New York has an affordable place to send its garbage while the cash-strapped communities where seven massive landfills have opened since 1990 get much-needed revenue from dumping fees.

"This industry is bringing state-of-the-art waste management to Virginia," replacing old, open dumps with landfills with better safeguards, said Timothy G. Hayes, a Richmond attorney for a trash industry trade association. "It's been good for Virginia's environment and economy."

Virginia is ideally situated from the industry's view: close to the urban centers of the Eastern seaboard but with plenty of cheap, open land.

But as Virginia residents, environmentalists and an increasing number of politicians take a closer look at the booming business, there is fear the state will become the nation's trash pit and that the environmental and road safety problems already surfacing will grow. Moreover, the communities where the landfills sit are largely poor and African American, raising complaints from some that they have been targeted.

The 3 million tons of trash a year coming into Virginia put it behind only Pennsylvania as an importer.

"If trash is such a great deal, why aren't other states clamoring to import it?" asked Conway Moy, 49, a federal worker from King George County, home of one of the "mega-fills" that handle mostly out-of-state waste. "We just weren't sophisticated enough to realize we were being taken as fools."

The fears range from what is in the waste to how it is transported:

Medical waste and other hazardous goods have arrived in Virginia repeatedly and illegally, shipped within loads of routine trash, according to state and county records.

Tractor-trailers carrying garbage from out of state now make more than 100,000 trips a year into Virginia, according to one state legislator, and federal safety records show that several of the most frequent haulers have histories that include serious accidents in the Washington area, overtired drivers or badly maintained trucks.

Barges and rail cars, the secondary means of hauling trash, raise complaints about smells and leakage, causing one company to be fined for barge leaks into the James River in March.

Putrid odors and litter disturb some communities; in others, silt inundates streams, residents say, and in King and Queen County, the landfill is regarded as a threat to a neighboring century-old Baptist church.

At two mega-fills, preliminary groundwater tests recently found elevated levels of metals, raising questions about the reliability of high-tech liners installed to stop such leaks.

The mega-fills are so large they challenge the imagination. Picture a mountain of garbage as tall as the Washington Monument and 994 football fields wide. That's how big the Sussex County mega-fill alone would be if built out as planned.

Collectively, Virginia's seven massive landfills can handle as much as 34,000 tons a day, more municipal waste than the entire state produces. Yet Virginia also has 62 other municipal landfills and eight trash-burning incinerators.

But it's not only Virginia's big landfills that generate debate about the state's standing as a trash magnet. Tons of industrial waste from as far away as Iowa and Puerto Rico have been shipped to financially strapped incinerators in Fairfax County and Alexandria. Those deliveries help the incinerators pay their bills, but at times they have brought with them risks, state records show, including the illegal burning of a hazardous pesticide in Alexandria.

The trash industry rose as a political force in Virginia only after building a network of key allies in local governments and later in Richmond, including Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R). But Republican and Democratic members of the General Assembly, and Gilmore, in recent months have joined the chorus calling for stricter regulation, promising that when the legislative session opens in January, trash will be front and center.

"If we don't stop it now ... we won't have any space left but one big dump," said House Speaker Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk).

In the last two years, imports to Virginia jumped by an estimated 86 percent, largely because of the Bronx loads. The imports will increase again when Brooklyn begins exporting its trash, under a deal signed in September. A sizable portion of that 2,400-ton-a-day load will arrive in Virginia through a $15 million, newly renovated port on the James River, near one of the mega-fills.

And although the state has decades' worth of untapped capacity, several landfill operators already are looking to expand.

Becoming a Trash Importer

Geography helps explain Virginia's appeal as a trash hub: While close to big, mid-Atlantic cities, it still has plenty of available rural land. Those traits became assets after federal and state laws in the late 1980s and early 1990s forced many localities to abandon their community dumps.

The requirements gave communities deadlines for bringing landfills up to standard or shutting them. To stay open, they needed to go high-tech and to post insurance guaranteeing that an operator could pay for cleanups, even if they arose 30 years after a dump's closing.

Faced with that investment, most municipal dumps closed: Nearly 6,000, or 72 percent of the national total, have shut since 1984. But trash still had to go somewhere, and cities great and small sent it to Virginia.

Trash from sanitation trucks is dumped into a pit at Waste Management of N.Y. City in the South Bronx.(Helayne Seidman - For The Washington Post)

New York City had relied on one of the world's largest dumps - the 3,000-acre Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island. The city first sought to keep it open and also considered building an incinerator. But in 1996, it chose a simpler plan: Close Fresh Kills by December 2001 and ship out its trash.

Durham, N.C., a city of 150,000 just south of the Virginia border, faced state orders to close its dump by December 1997. It considered putting $61 million into a new landfill. But that plan drew protests.

In Virginia, 150 municipal landfills closed. But at the same time, private companies were building landfills so large they could not survive on Virginia trash alone. When the major population center – Northern Virginia – opened two large incinerators, Virginia's own need for landfills fell even more.

The landfill glut drove down dumping fees. So, while Durham officials had expected to pay $35 a ton to get rid of the city's trash, they were delighted by a bid of $24.05 a ton from a Virginia mega-fill owner. By turning to Virginia rather than building a landfill, Durham saved its taxpayers an estimated $16.5 million. Its 200,000 tons a year of trash started flowing to the mega-fill in Brunswick County in January. Meanwhile, New York City now sends Virginia about 1.6 million tons a year, including about 136,000 tons of dried human waste and other sludge.

Then-Durham Mayor Sylvia Kerckhoff called Virginia "the silver lining I have been looking for," while New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani called its acceptance of out-of-state trash a "major victory."

Delaware, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Tennessee also realized Virginia was a bargain, adding to the loads of trash that have come to the state in the last year, according to a state audit. So, too, have the District and Montgomery, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, each of which sends trash or incinerator ash to Virginia.

For some communities, the trash brought bounty.

Charles City, a county of 7,000 where the state's first mega-fill opened in 1990, collected $4.5 million in tipping fees and other trash revenue last year, enough to cover the cost of debt on an elementary, a middle and a high school, and to cut its tax rate 44 percent, County Administrator Kenneth Chandler said.

"It has definitely made a big difference to improve the quality of life," Chandler said.

But elsewhere, the trade-offs are less attractive, particularly when it comes to the trucks that carry most waste.

Safety Problems on Roads

George and Patricia Fritz were heading home to Florida, a visit with grandchildren in New Jersey just behind them. They'd planned a retirement full of travel.

But on a rainy March night in 1997, driving along the Capital Beltway, a tractor-trailer hauling trash from New York City skidded, jackknifed and plowed into rush-hour traffic, killing the Fritzes and injuring seven others, including the Fritzes' adult daughter.

By the time the investigation concluded, police had compiled a terrifying list of trash-truck hazards. The truck driver had been behind the wheel more than the 10 hours allowed by federal law, Maryland State Police contend. Five of the truck's 10 brakes were faulty, according to the investigation's findings. The Richmond company that owned the truck was charged with failing to register and maintain it properly. The driver was indicted on 11 charges, including manslaughter, and is scheduled to go to trial Jan. 19 in Prince George's County.

There always have been dump trucks and some larger tractor-trailers hauling loads of waste locally. But when Virginia's first giant landfill opened in 1990, a new traffic pattern appeared: trash trucks headed to Virginia from along the East Coast, according to Virginia State Police Sgt. David Feather.

As more mega-fills opened each year – in Amelia and King and Queen counties in 1993, Sussex County in 1994, Gloucester County in 1995, King George County in 1996 and Brunswick County in 1997 – the flow of heavy, trash-carrying tractor-trailers grew until "now it is just 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Feather, who works highways in Northern Virginia.

Many trucks stick to the major highways – Interstate 95 and the Capital Beltway. But they also take secondary highways, such as Route 301 through Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Charles counties in Maryland, and at times even smaller rural roads such as Route 3 in Stafford County, where Supervisor Alvin Y. Bandy (R-George Washington) said he has noticed a doubling of trash-truck traffic in recent years.

Trucks trying to make time are "frightening to the normal driver on our rural roads," Bandy said.

State and federal records show that more than a dozen trucking companies that haul from out of state have safety records far worse than the national average.

Trucks operated by KC Transport Inc., a hauler based in Edison, N.J., that carries waste to Gloucester County mega-fill, have been ordered off the road 57 percent of the time they've been inspected during the last two years, records show. The national average for a firm's trucks being "out of service" is 27 percent. Inspectors discovered KC Transport drivers on highways in New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia with falsified or incomplete log books. Trucks owned by the company - which did not respond to requests for comment - also have been found with bad tires and brakes, according to federal records.

Other trucking companies bringing waste to the mega-fills have been involved in multiple accidents, again at rates exceeding the national average.

GDC Inc., for example, a Woodbridge-based hauler that carries most of its trash from the District to King George and King and Queen counties, received an "unsatisfactory" rating from the U.S. Department of Transportation in May after 20 traffic accidents in the last four years, nine resulting in injuries. A federal investigation found 64 separate violations and has proposed fining the company $35,280.

The accidents occurred largely along the I-95 corridor between Washington and the mega-fills: in Alexandria in July, in Prince William County in April, in Fairfax, Fauquier and Stafford counties last year and in Prince George's in May. On at least one occasion, GDC also was cited for allowing a driver to return to the road after failing a drug test.

Ronald Cooper, GDC's vice president, concurred with most of the charges against his company, although he said his drivers were not at fault in all accidents. He is disputing the fine. "We found out we weren't as good as we thought we were," said Cooper, whose company operates 128 trucks that run about 5 million miles a year.

Trash truck drivers and even some trucking company owners say they are not surprised by the poor conditions.

Dale Allen, 44, of Stafford, who hauled trash for a year from Baltimore and the District to central Virginia, said he routinely would exceed weight limits and drive 20 hours without time off. Evading the law was simple: He exited the highway before state police road checks and looped back after he had passed the inspection stations. The tactic would not have been necessary in the last three months because the lone Northern Virginia weigh station, on I-95 at Dumfries, has been closed southbound due to highway construction.

For Allen, the real trouble was staying awake.

"Sometimes you have to pull over and take small naps while leaning on the steering wheel," said Allen, who quit his job as a trash hauler early this year. "But running like that, I could clear $500 in a week."

Pennsylvania experienced similar problems with trash trucks, leading officials to establish a special inspection program. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) recently doubled the number of surprise inspections and called for a law banning waste-truck companies from traveling on Pennsylvania roads if they consistently failed the inspections.

Virginia officials say they are considering such a move.

Seagulls scavenge at the Middle Peninsula Landfill & Recycling Facility in Gloucester County. (Jay Paul - For The Washington Post)

As truck after truck of waste comes to the Gloucester mega-fill, hundreds of sea gulls circle, hundreds more line up in rows.

They gather on the football-field-size area atop a landfill where trucks eject their loads and massive machines resembling moon buggies compact and bulldoze trash: household discards from grapefruit peels to tires; trash from businesses; tanks of sewage sludge; incinerator ash.

But there are limits to what can be added. Banned are substances defined under federal law as hazardous waste - such as radioactive materials or poisonous or cancer-causing chemicals. A hauler needs a special permit to carry and dump those loads, and the law requires that it be incinerated or sterilized before it is buried.

The safeguards are in place to protect landfill workers from being exposed to contagious diseases such as hepatitis or cuts from objects such as scalpels, said Steve Frazier, a hazardous-waste technical adviser with the state Department of Environmental Quality. For the general public, Frazier said, the risks arise when medical waste is shipped in an unapproved truck that could allow the waste to tumble out and land where someone could come in contact with it.

Officials at three companies that operate Virginia's mega-fills - Waste Management Inc. and Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., both of Houston, and Allied Waste Industries Inc., based in Scottsdale, Ariz. - say they are committed to keeping hazardous waste out of their landfills. And they have urged customers to keep it out of trash.

But they don't always succeed.

State records show that untreated syringes, tubes with blood, even red bags with biohazard symbols repeatedly have arrived from New York City at the Gloucester and Sussex mega-fills, and at Brunswick from Durham. At other sites, state records show, a low-level radioactive device was buried, as were more than 10 tons of hazardous lead paint waste.

At Gloucester alone, state DEQ records show, biohazard bags were spotted at least 50 times in the last year. At Sussex, three sightings of medical waste occurred in one day last fall. Medical waste also turned up, although less often, in Amelia, Charles City and King and Queen counties, records show.

When a bag is noticed among the tons of trash, it is set aside until a hazardous-waste firm arrives to remove it. The problem, landfill workers and management acknowledge, is spotting them.

"If you find four red bags in a day, how many others are you covering up? At least five or six," said Lee Rust, 48, who worked at the Gloucester landfill for three years before resigning last year with a stellar written recommendation from the landfill manager. "I would swear to it on my heart that there is a lot of medical waste buried there."

State inspectors visit sites at least once every three months, but Virginia does not require constant monitoring. Brunswick, Sussex and Amelia have hired county inspectors, but only Brunswick and King George have enough staff to ensure that one is on duty whenever the landfill is open.

Tips that illegal medical waste was coming to Virginia surfaced years ago.

During a 1996 FBI investigation of a Browning-Ferris Industries medical-waste treatment plant in the District, three employees told an FBI investigator that human and animal body parts, blood, radioactive waste and chemotherapy chemicals were "inadvertently processed" and sent to Browning-Ferris's King and Queen County mega-fill, according to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington.

The Fairview Avenue site since has closed, and Browning-Ferris pleaded guilty in June to violations of the Clean Water Act that stemmed from the federal investigation, agreeing to pay a $1.5 million fine.

In May 1992, William W. Hill, chief of enforcement for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, notified Virginia that during roadside inspections, his staff noticed that a "large number" of haulers en route from Philadelphia to Charles City carried asbestos and medical waste, according to a letter on file in Richmond.

"They are cocktailing the stuff," Hill said, referring to the practice of mixing hazardous medical waste with routine trash. Hill said he was disappointed when Virginia officials failed to get back to him.

Dennis H. Treacy, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said he could not explain the lack of response by his predecessors. But he noted that the state spent more than a year investigating Waste Management after medical waste sent through its New York depots repeatedly turned up in Virginia. "There appears to be a problem that needs to be addressed," he said.

Waste Management officials say they are committed to stopping the flow of medical waste. They have agreed to spend $55,000 to produce training videos about medical-waste laws for hospitals and trash haulers, in addition to paying a $70,000 state fine for three violations. And in the spring, the company opened a special site in New York to hand-sort and separate waste from health care facilities.

Yet as recently as this summer, medical waste turned up occasionally at Virginia's landfills, according to state and local records. And as long as some is arriving, at least a portion likely is being buried, company officials acknowledged.

"Something can slip through," acknowledged Christine Meket, a Waste Management regional manager. "Maybe there is a little tiny bit in all these tons."

Environmental Threats

Regardless of what is buried in the mega-fills, they have been designed to try to ensure that nothing harmful escapes into the environment.

Each has a several-foot-thick lining of clay and an impervious synthetic fabric to prevent rain or other liquids from draining into the ground. Pipes and pumps collect water that accumulates above the liner for treatment. Systems monitor methane gas, an explosive byproduct of rotting garbage.

Building these high-tech landfills costs as much as $400,000 an acre, a cost, the industry notes, that it - not local governments - covered.

"We go in and replace landfills with no groundwater protection with exactly what the environmentalists want. Only by [importing waste] could you generate enough tonnage to justify the expense of building these new landfills," said Lowell C. Spires Jr., a Waste Management employee who helped oversee development of two Virginia mega-fills.

DEQ inspectors have been impressed generally with mega-fill operations, giving them "satisfactory" ratings during most quarterly inspections. But some Virginia officials - such as Del. Harvey B. Morgan (R-Gloucester) - still question how good a deal Virginia is getting.

Even state-of-the-art systems "will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration," Morgan said. "And when the chemical stew in the big tub overflows or when the weight of several hundred feet [of trash] causes the stuff to ooze or stream though the liner and find its way to the aquifer or other tributary of the Chesapeake - who's responsible?"

At the two oldest mega-fills, there already are hints of possible flaws. In Amelia County, groundwater tests last year found elevated levels of lead, chromium and other substances, while another contaminant, antimony, showed up in groundwater near the Charles City landfill. Additional samples are being collected to determine whether the landfills caused the problem due to leaks in their liners.

If there is something wrong at the sites, "we will immediately find the source and correct it," said Meket, the Waste Management spokesman.

Some residents near the mega-fills share Morgan's fears and suspect their home towns were chosen as trash sites in part because they lack clout.

In the counties with mega-fills, residents are on average much poorer, less well educated and more likely to be African American than the average Virginian, according to the U.S. Census.

"Landfill companies target us because we are land-rich and dollar-poor," said Bonnie Ware, 46, a landfill opponent and 20-year resident of Charles City who runs a kennel. Supervisors are enticed by the payments the landfills offer, "but because the residents are dollar-poor, we can't fight them."

Meket adamantly challenges the suggestion that the companies targeted poor minority communities for landfills. "We were responding to the needs of these communities as outlined by their elected officials."

Once the landfills are running - and bringing in jobs and revenue - opposition tends to die down.

But others say the silence stems from powerlessness. "Those of us against it when it started are still against it. But there ain't much we can do," said John V. Bohatec, 77, a retired Navy gunner who lives near the Sussex landfill, which has so far contributed $12.7 million to county coffers.

The most intense conflict has been in King and Queen County between a Baptist church and its next-door neighbor, a Browning-Ferris Industries landfill. Members of the 128-year-old church stopped holding picnics because so many buzzards and sea gulls assemble and noise from the landfill is oppressive. "This church is an historic church, built by former slaves," said Pernell Byrd, 59, a logger and the deacon at Second Mount Olive Baptist Church, who lives less than a mile from the landfill. "Yet today it is threatened."

The church's battle intensified this year when Browning-Ferris received state permission to expand the dump.

Neighbors of several other mega-fills say detailed tests aren't necessary to prove what they already know: The arrival of the landfill changed their lives.

Diann Richards, 53, has lived near Amelia for 15 years.

"We keep right up with the New York news," said Richards, because New York newspapers regularly blow into her yard.