BlogIt’s Time To Defuse The Ticking Time Bomb Of US Landfills

June 6, 20240

It’s Time To Defuse The Ticking Time Bomb Of US Landfills

It's Time To Defuse The Ticking Time Bomb Of US Landfills


By Vineet Dubey (June 5, 2024)


Last year, a landfill in St. Clair County, Alabama, burned underground for more than four months, polluting the air for miles.[1] Instead of working to stop the inferno, state and local authorities spent weeks pointing fingers at each other, while humans and animals in the surrounding area were sickened by the toxic fumes.


The state ultimately turned to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for assistance. The fire was put out, but little has changed since then. Another large fire could spell years of health and environmental damage to the local community.


The Alabama site, which was created to collect grass clippings, tree branches and similar waste, had been a problem for years. State inspectors had urged the landfill’s private management company to close down the site, but it remained in use as a dumping ground for unsanctioned and flammable materials.


This year, a similar scenario is taking place in the Los Angeles area. Toxic fumes have been escaping the Chiquita Canyon Landfill, where a smoldering fire endangers the health of neighboring communities.[2]


Air and water samples show elevated levels of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, and a preliminary root cause analysis shows that levels of hydrogen sulfide have been overwhelming the facility’s containment systems for about a year.


A chemical release in February left one person at Chiquita Canyon injured and others being evaluated.[3] That same month, the EPA found that the landfill presented “imminent and substantial endangerment to nearby communities” and ordered its operators to mitigate noxious odors and hazardous waste at the site.[4]


Unfortunately, shutting down the active portion of the landfill will not stop the fire, according to officials, because it is occurring in an area of the dump that has been closed for decades. And nobody knows whether similar infernos could erupt at other aging landfills in the region.


In March, California state legislators asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency at Chiquita Canyon.[5] Waste Connections, the landfill’s owner, announced that it was offering nearby residents financial help to temporarily relocate or to cover increased utility bills.


The Alabama and California incidents demonstrate that the time is ripe for policymakers at all levels to enact major changes to the way we manage solid waste. But how did things get so bad in the first place?


Landfill History


Long before landfills pervaded our country, trash was typically burned or buried in dumps on the outskirts of towns. Early in the 20th century, waste disposal practices were identified Vineet Dubey as a possible cause of disease, and new methods of waste disposal were sought.


The first “sanitary” landfill — now a Superfund site — was built in Fresno, California, in 1937.[6] Landfills soon became entrenched parts of our landscape.


A “temporary” landfill opened on New York’s Staten Island in 1948 became the world’s largest by 1955. Fresh Kills Landfill took in 29,000 short tons of trash every day; when it closed in 2001, mounds on the site made up an estimated 150 million tons of garbage.[7]


Today there are more than 2,600 landfills across the country handling a variety of waste.[8] Every state has landfills, but — as the recent inferno stories demonstrate — few are fully prepared to deal with their consequences.


Heavily populated areas, such as New York City, now export their waste to places like Ohio and Pennsylvania. They thus protect their own residents, while subjecting out-of-state communities to toxic emanations and other hazards.[9]


As states and municipalities struggle to monitor and regulate landfills, the composition of municipal solid waste has changed drastically. Plastics and other synthetic materials comprise a much larger share of landfill waste than in decades past.


Meanwhile, the amount of biogenic and compostable materials — paper, yard trimmings, etc. — has gone way down. But electronic waste, intended for separate landfills, commonly finds its way into solid waste depositories.


Landfill Science


Municipal solid waste landfills emit huge amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas and climate pollutant that is created when organic waste starts breaking down.[10] Twentythree times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, it poses a serious global warming problem.


Methane emissions from landfills, dairies and livestock, oil and natural gas extraction and pipelines, wastewater, agriculture, and a range of other sources account for almost 20% of the warming now driving climate change.


Plastics, which comprise a rapidly growing segment of municipal waste, present an environmental nightmare. They are petroleum-based and nonbiogenic, so they do not readily decompose in landfills.[11] But when they are incinerated, plastics release harmful pollutants such as dioxins and heavy metals into the atmosphere.


Electronics — also abundant in landfills — release heavy metals into water pools, including mercury, arsenic, and lead, all known to damage the central nervous system.[12] Unless separately contained and carefully disposed of, these totems of the future could end up destroying the worlds they have built.


Landfill Laws


Federal Laws


The Solid Waste Disposal Act was enacted in 1965 to protect human and environmental health from the impacts of waste disposal. In 1976, the law was significantly amended to create the first set of comprehensive federal solid waste regulations in the country.


The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA, was designed to protect against potential hazards of waste disposal, but also to conserve energy and natural resources, as well as to reduce the amount of waste generated.[13] Other laws affecting landfill design included the Clean Air Act[14] and the Clean Water Act.[15]


RCRA Subtitle D regulates solid waste such as household garbage and nonhazardous industrial solid waste. Subtitle D landfills include municipal solid waste landfills, bioreactor landfills, industrial waste landfills, construction and demolition waste landfills, and coal combustion residual landfills.


The RCRA sets minimum design and operating criteria for municipal solid waste landfills and other solid waste disposal facilities.[16] The EPA sets national emission standards for hazardous air pollutants at municipal solid waste landfills.[17]


RCRA Subtitle C focuses on hazardous waste landfills. It creates a federal program to manage such wastes, at all stages, in a manner that protects human health and the environment.


The regulations apply to the generation, transportation, treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous wastes. Landfills handling polychlorinated biphenyl products are regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act.[18]


State Laws


RCRA Subtitle D delegates to the states the job of developing comprehensive plans to manage nonhazardous industrial solid waste and municipal solid waste.


The state plans must be at least as stringent as the RCRA requirements, including complex compliance and reporting obligations. Today, every state has a comprehensive plan for managing solid waste, but plans vary from state to state.


Although the EPA provides oversight to ensure that landfill facilities are properly inspected, most of the compliance monitoring responsibility under the RCRA is delegated to state and local authorities.


Such monitoring and compliance efforts are intended to help identify a site’s environmental impact, differentiate between a release from a site and from other sources, determine the magnitude and extent of any releases and assess the effectiveness of ongoing cleanup activities.


Twenty-five states, as well as the District of Columbia, have enacted electronic waste recycling laws.[19] A number of these states have completely banned the disposal of waste in landfills, while others require manufacturers to establish e-waste collection centers and systems.




Because responsibility for landfill operations resides at the state and local levels, it can take years to address environmental hazards. In the meantime, nearby communities deal with polluted air and contaminated groundwater.


In 2017 the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against a municipality in Puerto Rico, alleging that the Toa Alta landfill posed serious threats to human health and the environment due to poor operation of the landfill, lack of controls, steep slopes, uncovered waste and inadequate management of the chemical leachate.


In February of this year, the government announced settlement of the final part of that lawsuit.[20] The Toa Alta municipality will be required to deal with leachate in the southeast portion of the landfill, and pay a $50,000 civil penalty for its past violations.


Earlier actions will presumably address other aspects of the landfill hazards. But these are likely cold comfort to local residents who have been living in harm’s way for more than a decade.


In both Toa Alta and Chiquita Canyon, penalties against landfill operators and any relief the operators offer to local residents will do little to mitigate harms already done. Compared with the huge environmental and health costs of the landfills, they are merely slaps on the



California’s Experience


How to explain the recent inferno outside of Los Angeles? California was an early and strong proponent of landfill management. It was one of the first states to regulate e-waste, with a ban on e-waste disposal in 2006. That same year, it passed a law designed to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.


The state’s Air Resources Board approved a landfill methane regulation that went into effect in 2010, requiring owners and operators of certain landfills to install and optimally operate gas collection and control systems, monitor surface methane concentration, repair emission

overages and other performance issues, source test, keep records of these actions and data, and report certain information to the board or the air districts.[21]


Today, 22 local air districts are implementing and enforcing the landfill methane regulation.


In 2016, the state passed a law requiring residents to divert 50% of organic waste from landfills by 2020, and 75% by 2025.[22] It required homes and businesses in most communities to have green bins for organic waste by 2022.


The reality, however, has been far different. California achieved only a 10% cut in annual tonnage of organic waste — from 21 million to 19 million — since the law was enacted, according to the state agency overseeing waste disposal and recycling. Many communities

never deployed green containers, due to lack of funding and interruptions from the pandemic.


Now residents of the Castaic area near Chiquita Canyon are being forced to relocate, keep windows closed or breathe noxious air for months. Local officials say it may just be a matter of time before underground fires erupt at other local landfills.


Landfill Solutions


Landfills are ticking time bombs. Even with the best oversight and management, there is no way to reverse or mitigate the hazards posed by waste in aging inactive facilities. With the right combination of heat and toxicity, there will be many more disasters. The solution must

lie elsewhere.


State and federal policymakers should now focus on ways to increase recycling, and they should also consider creating resources and incentives for businesses and individuals to convert organic waste into compost for farming and gardening.


Much of the waste in landfills could easily be recycled or eliminated, even if municipal systems were never improved. Plastic water bottles are recyclable, but only about 30% are recycled in this country, compared to 55% in Taiwan and 63% in Austria. And Americans

throw out almost three times more food than they did in the 1960s.


In addition to promoting agriculture, composting would promote public health by reducing the lung-irritating hydrogen sulfide and planet-warming methane produced by organic waste

decomposing in landfills.


Will landfills ever go away? Not likely, but they can become safer, and back-of-mind, rather than front-page material.


Vineet Dubey is a partner and co-founder at Custodio & Dubey LLP.


The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employer, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective

affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.



























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[13] Public Law 94-580, 94th Congress, Oct. 20,


[14] 42 U.S.C. 7401 et seq.

[15] Public Law 92-500, 86 Stat. 816, 33 U.S.C. ch. 23 § 1151.






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