Rachel's Democracy & Health News #996, January 29, 2009


[Rachel's introduction: Since the earliest days of Rachel's News, we have covered the creation and management of toxic wastes of all kinds. Here for the first time we describe the current U.S. strategy for managing all such wastes.]

By Peter Montague

As we approach Feb. 26, the date when Rachel's News will cease publication, I will reflect on some of the major changes of the past 2 decades.

One of the most important changes has been the adoption by state and federal agencies of a consistent strategy for managing toxic wastes. The strategy is now being applied to municipal solid waste, legally- hazardous chemical wastes, sewage sludge laced with industrial poisons, toxic coal combustion wastes, and many kinds of radioactive wastes.

The strategy is to allow these wastes to disperse slowly into the natural environment, leaving no fingerprints behind. This approach has proven to be a politically robust -- if ethically reprehensible -- solution to a massive problem that would otherwise be exceedingly nettlesome and expensive.

The strategy is reprehensible because, as we all know, after pollutants disperse into the natural world, they have a way of re- concentrating and entering food chains where they can exert a poisonous influence. Mercury provides an excellent example. When mercury -- the familiar silvery liquid metal -- is released from underground by mining (or by burning coal), it eventually enters air and then water. In water, bacteria convert mercury into methyl mercury, which is far more toxic than elemental mercury. Methyl mercury is water-soluble, it enters food webs, and it slowly concentrates upward into the top predators -- big fish, big cats (the endangered Florida Panther comes to mind), large birds, and big mammals such as whales, bears, and humans. Therefore releasing mercury into the natural world is a surefire recipe for harming animals and people. So it is with many other wastes -- arsenic, cadmium, thallium, toxic lead, soluble forms of nitrogen, pesticides, certain solvents, many pharmaceutical preparations, and so on. The rule of thumb can be stated simply -- Toxics: release them and they will maim and kill, somewhere, some time.

I first described this emerging waste-dispersal strategy in 1997 (Rachel's #560). Since that time, the strategy has been universally embraced and adopted at all levels of government, by Republicans and Democrats, by the corporate elite who are chiefly responsible for creating most of the waste, and even by many Big Green environmental advocates.

Of course humans have been dispersing their wastes into the natural environment forever. But our wastes used to be fairly harmless. Our great grandparents threw away mostly food scraps and their own excrement, plus wood, cotton, flax, wool, stone, clay, glass, and iron. Nature recycles these things handily. Then starting about 1900, the chemical industry developed all manner of exotic (and highly useful) molecules that nature had never encountered before, and so a new breed of trouble appeared. The world was surprised -- and perhaps somewhat amused -- when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire in 1969. Nine years later, in 1978, the discovery of serious harm to children living near Love Canal (outside Buffalo, N.Y.) frightened anyone who was paying attention because we recognized our dispersed wastes coming back to bite us.

Lined landfills created the modern garbage industry

After Love Canal, we enjoyed 20 years of furrowed brows, mea culpas, a new federal law ("Superfund" -- a law and program now defunded and defunct), along with many solemn promises. Solemnity and a new law were sufficient to convince the public that the problem was under control. But it wasn't. Among available alternatives, government agencies chose double-lined landfills as the preferred way to handle toxic waste. A landfill is a bathtub in the ground and a double-lined landfill is a bathtub within a bathtub. A bathtub can leak two ways: out the bottom if a pinhole develops, or over its sides if rain gets in.

The garbage industry loved this double-bathtub solution because only big firms could afford to build double-lined landfills. The new regulations forced mom-and-pop waste haulers to accept merger offers they couldn't refuse from the big operators, who quickly consolidated into a nationwide garbage industry. With their new size and wealth (and therefore political power), garbage corporations got cozy with government officials at all levels and made sure that waste avoidance never rose to the level of government policy. In his book, Getting to Zero Waste, Paul Palmer gives us a glimpse of how this has worked.

In 1981, in the Federal Register, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged what most scientists already knew -- that all landfills inevitably leak, even those with the most high-tech double liners of clay and plastic. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that the disorder in a system spontaneously increases. Drop a teacup onto an unyielding surface and it shatters. You never see a shattered teacup spontaneously put itself back together. This is the second law at work. So long as humans will repair a landfill, applying energy to the problem (like glue to a shattered cup), they can perhaps prevent major leakage (though it remains unclear how to repair a leak when one develops beneath a million tons of garbage). But the moment human efforts cease, nature takes over and disintegration begins: nature has many agents that work to dismantle a landfill: small mammals (mice, moles, voles, woodchucks, prairie dogs, etc.), birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, worms, bacteria, the roots of trees, bushes, and shrubs, plus wind, rain, lightning, freeze-thaw cycles, and soil erosion -- all combine to take apart even the most carefully- engineered landfill. Eventually a landfill's contents disperse into the local environment and then move outward from there, often into local water supplies. It may take a decade or it may take 50 years or more before a landfill spills its contents, but nature doesn't care. Nature's got all the time in the world. Sooner or later wastes buried in a shallow hole in the ground will escape and disperse.

Our federal laws make a distinction between municipal solid waste and hazardous waste, but in reality they are all dangerous. Municipal waste contains pesticides, paint, shoe polish, alcohol, lubricating oil, oven cleaner, liquid plumber, plastic exudates, dog poop, rat poison, bug repellent, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, you name it. After rainwater seeps through a mountain of household garbage, the "leachate" seeping out the bottom is toxic.

Despite these facts, almost all municipal and legally-hazardous wastes are today being "disposed of" by burial in engineered holes in the ground. (Some are being incinerated first, dispersing large quantities of poisonous gases into the natural environment, leaving behind a huge mass of concentrated toxic ash, which then gets buried in the ground.) With modern lined landfills, yes, the present generation is somewhat protected but in future these wastes will enter the natural environment and contaminate the planet more than it already is. No doubt about it, our modern waste policies are committing the future to serious trouble. We are spending down the future before it arrives.

Of course a hole in the ground provides one unbeatable advantage: underground is out of sight and out of mind. In all 50 states, landfills are being "capped" with a plastic tarp or a layer of asphalt which is then overlain with parking lots, shopping malls, commercial complexes, parks, schools, ball fields, playgrounds, sports complexes, golf courses, residential dwellings, daycare centers, or other human projects.

In this "capping," my home state of New Jersey has been leading the way -- you name it and we're building it on top of buried toxic waste. In recent years this reprehensible activity has accelerated under the watchful eye of Lisa Jackson, former head of our N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, now head of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Such "capping" just makes it harder -- I want to say, impossible -- to monitor for leakage. It makes it harder for the next generation to even remember that there's a pot of poison lurking beneath the surface, waiting to be released by natural forces. But release will come, sooner or later. You can bet money on it because the second law guarantees it.

Coal combustion wastes

Of course not all toxic wastes are being dumped into carefully- engineered high-tech double-lined landfills. After municipal solid waste, the second-largest category of harmful waste produced each year in the U.S. is the 131 million tons of toxic coal combustion wastes. These are mostly just dumped into "holding ponds," which by design only "hold" temporarily. As the New York Times wrote Jan. 7, 2009,

"The coal ash pond that ruptured and sent a billion gallons of toxic sludge across 300 acres of East Tennessee last month was only one of more than 1,300 similar dumps across the United States -- most of them unregulated and unmonitored -- that contain billions more gallons of fly ash and other byproducts of burning coal.

"Like the one in Tennessee, most of these dumps, which reach up to 1,500 acres [in area], contain heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium, which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be a threat to water supplies and human health. Yet they are not subject to any federal regulation, which experts say could have prevented the spill, and there is little monitoring of their effects on the surrounding environment."

The Times went on, "Numerous studies have shown that the ash can leach toxic substances that can cause cancer, birth defects and other health problems in humans, and can decimate fish, bird and frog populations in and around ash dumps, causing developmental problems like tadpoles born without teeth, or fish with severe spinal deformities."

The Times points out that EPA "has been studying [coal ash disposal] for 28 years" without taking any regulatory action. If they did take action, it would be to require double liners -- delaying but not preventing the release of these highly-toxic wastes into nature.

The 131 million tons of coal combustion wastes released into the environment each year in the U.S. contain roughly 2.7 million tons of arsenic, 2.9 million tons of toxic lead, and 5.4 million tons of chromium,[1] among many other nasties. So much for "clean coal." These metals are toxic in micrograms quantities -- so releasing millions of tons of them from the deep earth each year could be considered a kind of toxic tsunami.

Some of these toxic coal combustion wastes are being assigned new "beneficial uses" -- a term of art meaning "dispersed directly into the environment." Large quantities of toxic coal wastes are being plowed into agricultural soils, some are being packed inside wall board, which is then sold to an unsuspecting public, and some is being hidden beneath a thin layer of asphalt in road construction. The common objective is low-cost dispersal of unwanted toxicants into the environment, leaving nary a fingerprint to mark these crimes against the future.

Sewage Sludge

Most modern sewage treatment plants combine human excrement (which is good fertilizer) with toxic industrial discharges, thus producing huge unmanageable masses of toxic fertilizer.

Science Magazine reported recently that sewage sludge -- the solid residues from cleaning up wastewater -- "contains a wide variety of toxic metals, pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, and other compounds, including some antibiotics in surprisingly high concentrations. That's significant because every year more than half of the roughly 7 million metric tons of these so-called biosolids produced in the United States are applied as fertilizer to farm fields."

No subtlety here. Got a mountain of excrement laced with industrial poisons? Just plow it into the soil and then grow crops. The crops will help disperse the toxicants further.

Writing in Environmental Health News, Matthew Cimitile reported Jan. 6, 2009 that antibiotics are now measurable in crops like corn, potatoes and lettuce -- presumably because cows were given antibiotics to stave off disease in the crowded-prison conditions of cattle feedlots, and their manure was then spread onto crops.

Sewage sludge is contributing additional antibiotics to crops. A recent EPA study of sludge from 74 large sewage treatment plants revealed the presence of 12 antibiotics in all samples. Science Magazine wrote, "Two of the most common drugs were the antibiotics triclocarban and ciprofloxacin. Although the average concentrations were similar to those in previous small-scale studies, several samples harbored up to 440 parts per million of triclocarban, which is added to antimicrobial soap and other personal care products. That's almost 10 times higher than ever reported in biosolids [sewage sludge] and "astonishingly high," says Rolf Halden, an environmental scientist at Arizona State University, Tempe.

Just a few days ago researchers reported finding toxic mercury in high-fructose corn syrup. High-fructose corn syrup is a cheaper sweetener than sugar, so it is now a major ingredient of salad dressings, soft drinks, candy, and commercial baked goods. In the U.S. we reportedly each eat 63 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup each year.

U.S. EPA had previously reported that each year 600,000 babies in the U.S. are exposed to mercury in the womb at levels that exceed what EPA considers a "safe" dose. In babies, mercury causes permanent brain damage. EPA said in 2000, "Almost everyone agrees that the fetus is particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of methylmercury."

Who popularized the practice of plowing toxic sludge into farmer's fields? U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the leadership of Carol Browner, now a top environmental adviser to President Obama.

In 2004, the New York Times wrote, "The popularity of the practice is in part due to the environmental agency's enthusiastic promotion, which started after Congress prohibited the ocean dumping of sewage sludge in 1992. The agency spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a public relations campaign for recycling sludge as fertilizer, which at that time accounted for less than a third of the sewage waste disposal. The agency even created a brochure in 1994 that said that processed sewage sludge may 'protect child health.' The brochure cited a study showing animals that ingested biosolid-treated soil and dust may have a decreased absorption of lead into the bloodstream, thus lessening the potential for lead-induced nerve and brain damage," the Times said. Yes, indeedy, toxic sludge is good for you, even Carol Browner's EPA said so.

To this day, EPA insists that plowing toxic sludge into soil for crops is "safe," -- and has fired employees who published scientific articles showing otherwise. However, the Times reported in 2004, that "...hundreds of complaints have been documented over the last decade, including accusations that the toxic chemicals and pathogens have caused sickness and death in animals and humans."

Radioactive waste

Starting early in the 20th century, radioactive medical wastes have steadily grown. Most of these are short-lived (meaning they are highly radioactive) so within a few months to a few years their radioactivity subsides. However, many medical devices have relied on cobalt-60 and cesium-137 which are very radioactive but still have dangerously-long half-lives. (The half-life of a radioactive isotope of the time it takes for half of its mass to change into something else by radioactive decay.)

Besides medical diagnosis and therapy, there are two other major sources of radioactive wastes: Since 1941, radioactive materials have been produced in enormous quantities by the atomic weapons industry, much of which has been buried in unlined, unmarked trenches in the ground or dumped directly into mountain canyons and the oceans. zens And starting about 1950, commercial nuclear power plants began making their own contributions. These include radioactive liquids, gases, and solid wastes such as metals, clothing, gloves, boots, tools, containers, reinforced concrete, pipes, worn out machine parts, and so on.

In coming decades, the "decommissioning" of more than 100 nuclear reactors will hugely increase this source of radioactive debris of every description. And of course at this moment the nuclear industry is bucking for federal subsidies to build a new generation of nuclear plants with their attendant unmanageable wastes.

As a rule of thumb, these radioactive materials must all be sequestered for at least 10 half-lives, at which time only one one- thousandth of their original mass remains. But this can be a long time. Cobalt-60 has a half-life of 5.7 years, so it's a 60-year problem. Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, so it's a 300-year problem. Plutonium-239 -- deadliest of them all -- has a half-life of 24,000 years, so it's a 240,000-year problem. (Is 240,000 years a long time? Consider that our species, homo sapiens, has only stalked the Earth for 100,000 years.)

Of course capturing, transporting, and burying all these wastes in shallow holes in the ground (landfills) proved to be exceedingly costly as well as ineffective. Leakage within just a few years has been common. So starting in the early 1960s, the federal government began selling radioactive metals to commercial scrap dealers -- thus dispersing the problem directly into the environment leaving no telltale fingerprints.

In 1990, we reported (Rachel's #183) that the federal government was planning to release one-third of all so-called "low-level" radioactive waste into the environment. Since then the government has legalized and institutionalized such releases -- some of it gets dumped in municipal landfills, some of if gets sent to "recyclers" who blend it into products, which are then radioactive. When a radioactive cheese grater (Ekco brand) was accidentally discovered in Michigan late last year, China got blamed. But the original source of China's radioactivity was very likely the U.S. Officials at the time assured us that housewives need not keep a geiger counter in their shopping basket, ha, ha. But the humor fell flat.

This government "solution" to the problem of radioactive waste -- releasing it into public realms -- has been understood and opposed by citizens for decades. For example, anti-nuclear activist Key Drey in St. Louis (burial site of the nation's first uranium wastes) described these problems clearly in the early 1990s (see here and here). More recently, the problem has been studied thoroughly and documented in great detail by the Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS) in its 2007 report, Out of Control -- On Purpose, by the redoubtable team of Dianne D'Arrigo, Mary Olson, Marvin Resnikoff, and others.

This 120-page NIRS report documents a 20-year campaign by the U.S. Department of Energy to change the rules for radioactive materials -- a successful campaign whose goal was to "enable manmade radioactivity to get out into the open marketplace, landfills, commercial recycling and into everyday consumer products, construction supplies and equipment, roads, piping, buildings, vehicles, playgrounds, basements, furniture, toys, zippers, [and] personal items, without warning, notification, or consent," as the report puts it.

Never mind that the government's own BEIR VII report concluded definitively in 2005 that any amount of radioactivity is harmful to living things. Once released, no one keeps track of where the radioactive materials end up, or who may be exposed. So government officials can honestly say, "We have no knowledge of any harm resulting from release of these radioactive wastes into the environment."

So there you have it -- the outlines of our current national waste strategy, which has never before been written down but is fully operational in every part of the economy, understood and embraced (though never formally endorsed) by every government agency.

What could be done?

There seem to be only two possible solutions to our toxic waste addiction: (1) secure above-ground waste-storage in concrete buildings, or (2) detoxifying the economy.

Secure waste storage could occur in multi-story steel-reinforced concrete buildings, with wastes placed only in the upper stories. The first floor would be left empty so regular inspections could examine for leakage or other signs of structural deterioration. Prompt repairs could sequester wastes for as long as humans were able to pay attention and react. When buildings deteriorated (after perhaps 100 years), they could be replaced.

Such buildings were designed and described by engineers at the Universities of Alabama and Florida in 1988 and again in 1989. They calculated that such buildings would cost less than equivalent storage capacity in double-lined landfills.

So why are we still using landfills, guaranteed to leak, instead of the cheaper solution, concrete buildings guaranteed to prevent leakage? The answer must be that underground storage is out of sight and out of mind. We can cover it with a high school, a daycare center, or a housing development and wash our hands of the whole sordid mess. Clusters of huge concrete buildings, on the other hand, would stand as perpetual monuments to our foolish, toxic civilization, permanent headstones memorializing cupidity, stupidity, and failure of imagination.

The other solution, far preferable but even less likely to happen, would be to embrace serious green principles -- say, the four system conditions embodied in the Natural Step (see Rachel's #667, #668, #676, and #878) -- and get the toxics out of our economy. Is this doable? Of course it is. Will it be done? That depends on how riled the citizenry becomes. The corporate monarchy is not going to make such fundamental changes spontaneously. We're surely not there yet, but the unfolding catastrophe of global warming could provide a series of wake-up calls, the likes of which humans has never heard before. We can only hope that, when such calls begin, there's someone left to hear them who has sufficient capacity to respond.


[1] I calculated these amounts using data that appeared in the New York Times Jan. 7, 2009. The Times says 2.2 million pounds of coal combustion wastes contain 45,000 pounds of arsenic, 49,000 pounds of lead, and 91,000 pounds of chromium. If this is true, then 131 million tons of such wastes will contain the amounts of metals given in the text.