Trash Talk

From the top of Mount Milam to the depths of the Pit with the people who take out St. Louis' garbage

What won't you see in the landfill? Hazardous waste, tires and batteries. Illinois law also prohibits the dumping of appliances such as refrigerators, stoves and washing machines at the landfill. They will have to go somewhere else -- recycling stations, specialized landfills and scrapyards. In fact, the landfill is required by law to screen out unauthorized refuse. The measures used, says Durako, include securing a permit from the state to haul waste; filling out a load manifest for each trip; a camera system at the gate to record the load; and a scale clerk who asks questions and checks paperwork for accuracy. "And what I consider the best check," says Durako, "are the operators up on the site who've been there a long time and are very familiar with what those trucks bring in and what should be on them."

However highly regulated the landfill and scrupulous its managers, it still stands to reason that some unauthorized materials will inadvertently make their way into the mix. "You got people that want to sneak something in," admits Durako. "They put a bunch of innocent-looking stuff over a load, trying to hide a barrel of something in the middle. I can't say that hasn't happened on occasion, but one barrel of some product mixed in with 5,000 tons of other garbage that day, that would be pretty darn dilute in terms of the whole picture. And that's what our groundwater-monitoring wells and leachate-collection systems are for -- to catch these things and keep them from becoming a public-health issue."


City refuse commissioner Nick Yung oversees a fiefdom of 165 employees, 120 refuse trucks, 20,000 roll-out carts and 30,000 trash containers.
Jennifer Silverberg
City refuse commissioner Nick Yung oversees a fiefdom of 165 employees, 120 refuse trucks, 20,000 roll-out carts and 30,000 trash containers.

On the side of a convenience store in East St. Louis is a door marked Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center. The office is a nexus for several community organizations whose collective hope it is to make the beleaguered city a healthy, livable place. Inside at a desk sits Kathy Andria, studying some official documents that have just arrived. It is mid-October, and the news is good for Andria and the others who are trying through legal means to thwart Waste Management in its current bid to expand Milam. Andria, 59, wears two hats: She is director of the American Bottom Conservancy and environmental-committee chair of the East St. Louis Community Action Network, a coalition of 26 neighborhood and community organizations that represent a lot of folks who have a vested interest in the fate of the Milam Landfill. Some want the landfill to close for health reasons: They believe that it is both an immediate and future threat to the environment. Others object to Milam for aesthetic reasons: They believe that no amount of mulch and grass can disguise its unsightly blemishes and warts. But they all want the dumping to end.

Perhaps their biggest worry is one of health, specifically that the landfill cannot effectively contain some of the more insidious materials. "They take in special wastes there," says Andria, "industrial sludges, which come from places like Olin, Mallinckrodt, the Granite City treatment plant, and those sludges contain heavy metals that when combined may even form new chemicals. That waste may not be hazardous technically, but when all that sludge mixes and makes this giant soup, it's every bit as toxic as a hazardous-waste landfill."

Andria pulls out old copies of Rachel's Hazardous Waste News, a periodical of the Environmental Research Foundation in Annapolis, Md. -- a watchdog group founded by Rachel Carson, who penned Silent Spring, the work that helped galvanize the environmental movement so many years ago. This edition, from 1987, offers the disturbing conclusion of the EPA that all landfills will eventually leak, even those using the best-available liners: "A liner is a barrier technology that prevents or greatly restricts migration of liquids into the ground. No liner, however, can keep all liquids out of the ground for all time."

Durako counters that there are elaborate prophylactic measures in place against leakage and contamination: "Milam uses the Composite Liner System, consisting of, from base level up, 3 feet of compacted clay followed by a continuous field of plastic known as high-density polyethylene. Over that is 1 foot of sand, followed by another liner of nonwoven fabric over the sand." In addition, says Durako, there are 30 groundwater wells around the landfill, each continually monitored, and Durako and his engineers have pagers tied to that monitoring system.

Andria pulls out another edition of the Rachel's newsletter, dated April 1988. She has highlighted an excerpt stating that "a careful study of 50 landfills in 1977 concluded that 43 out of 50 had contaminated underground water supplies beyond the boundaries of the landfill." In all 43 cases, "the landfill was confirmed as the source of contamination."

Andria and her confederates in the neighborhood organizations aren't buying Waste Management's assurances that all is well. She says that Cahokia Creek, near the Milam Landfill, was tested by the Illinois Department of Transportation as part of an environmental-impact statement (EIS) prepared for the proposed I-70 Missouri-Illinois bridge and that contamination has been registered. There is no evidence, however, that the landfill is responsible for the contamination. "We're not claiming that it comes from the landfill," says John McCarthy of Sverdrup Civil Inc., which prepared the EIS. "We don't know where it comes from. All we did is take a soil sample near the landfill, and the sample determined that there were some problems."

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