Trash Talk

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

Maggie Carson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, says that in recent years there have been no serious issues involving Milam. "The last report of a problem with groundwater contamination was in 1992, which they took care of with corrective action." Carson says. "There have been a few, very few, citizen complaints about Milam Landfill." She notes that more stringent regulations for landfills were instituted in 1990, and, "since those have been in place, it has improved landfills and reduced problems significantly. Most of the landfill problems are from old landfills."

Which, of course, Milam is -- specifically, a 40-year-old landfill. That's another issue raised by Andria et al.: The landfill is grandfathered in. All those layers of sand, plastic and fabric are resting on a previous barrier, perhaps state-of-the-art for the '60s or '70s when it was put in but possibly inadequate today. Milam's critics worry about that barrier leaking like a mother of five worries about her diaphragm failing. Andria's group also contends the base of the landfill is below grade compared with the surrounding land. In other words, she says, "It's sitting in water part of the year. It's just not good to locate landfills in the floodplain."

The EPA's Carson concedes that "it is certainly not likely that they [Milam] would achieve siting if they would apply [for a new landfill permit] today." Siting involves receiving the OK of the local community, and landfills must secure that approval not only to start a new operation but also to renew an existing permit, and Waste Management Inc. just went through that process with Fairmont City. Milam last expanded horizontally in the mid-'90s, encroaching into the wetlands surrounding it on the north and south. Now the landfill would like to grow again -- upward.

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.

In November 1999, Waste Management applied to the state of Illinois to renew Milam's permit for five more years after the current permit expires in 2003. The process to renew a landfill permit is carefully proscribed. The Illinois Pollution Control Board and the EPA scrutinize such factors as how many tons are being added in what period of time, mounting elevation and slope stability. But these agencies won't even look at an application until the siting is approved. For that, Waste Management Inc. courted Fairmont City, which had recently annexed the landfill and logically hoped to enrich the town coffers through the landfill's continuance. There was a hearing in March of this year, and the city readily approved the siting. But Andria and others contend that they, as citizens, were not allowed to participate fully in the hearing process. Both the American Bottom Conservancy and the East St. Louis Community Action Network sprang into action, appealing what they perceived as a slam-dunk approval to the state pollution-control board.

This is the document that Andria is reading. The appeal had done its job: "The pollution-control board ruled that the two concerned citizen groups didn't have a fair process at the local level," she says. "The board said the siting will be done again and done fairly."

Landscape aesthetics pose another level of concern. "If they [Waste Management] do get that permit to expand," says Andria, "Milam will become the tallest landfill in Illinois. The fact that it's already higher than Monk's Mound, which is a World Heritage Site, is just disrespectful. It's ridiculous that one of the first things people driving into the state see is this massive landfill. Not only that, but most of the trash is St. Louis trash, and that's continuing the perception that the East Side is the dumping ground for St. Louis. So it needs to close. It needs to close at the end of its legal life, with no more permits to expand."

So what's the solution? We the people produce the trash without much thought to where it goes or what happens to it once it gets there. Companies such as Waste Management do the dirty work. They profit from it in the process, but it's up to them to find a safe and unobtrusive repository for our collective refuse. Durako says Milam is "filling up way too fast," but, given permit renewals, he and his cadre of engineers are confident that at the current rate of intake Milam can function until at least 2010. The Illinois EPA is less optimistic: It estimates that capacity will be reached by 2005.

To relieve some of the pressure on Milam, Waste Management has readied a new facility in Marissa, Ill., which opened in November 2000. Located on Route 13 in Randolph County, Marissa sits in coal-mining country, and the landfill is an old strip mine excavated to function as a giant wastebasket. It is expected to have a 50-year lifespan. Maybe by then our society will have found some solution to curb or better dispose of the burgeoning amounts of trash we generate.

In a second-floor office with an unattractive view westward toward South First Street, Nick Yung, glasses down on the bridge of his nose, pores over a stack of reports, the sort of thankless bureaucratic task his job requires. But there are times when he's called to action. It may be helping a woman root through fresh trash in the Pit, looking for a lost wedding ring -- good luck! -- or it may be helping the police root through the day's garbage in search of a weapon or even a body. An affable fellow who likes his job, Yung is known around City Hall as "the trashman."

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