and EPA proposal
Bill Sheehan is executive director of GrassRoots Recycling Network in Athens, Georgia. Jim McNelly is president of Renewable Carbon Management, LLC in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
EPA's proposed rule represents a direct challenge to composting's economic future. Composters need to seize upon this attack as an opportunity to build support from the public and environmental groups.
A new proposal from EPA to deregulate most national standards for municipal landfills would make the present unacceptable situation even worse. The proposed rule would perpetuate landfilling and drive a stake in the heart of composting as a resource conservation practice, except in limited markets. Many in the environmental community have been lulled into thinking that landfills were safe and also were being increasingly deemphasized as a disposal option. Without a wake-up call, Americans may find their children and grandchildren opening their eyes to environmental clean-up costs far greater than the current Superfund program.
Failure Of "Dry
Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way. In a deliberate political decision to keep tipping fees low, the final landfill rules were fatally flawed. Consequently, the increase in composting has been small relative to the increase in waste production (especially in the last half of the 1990s), and it has had no substantial effect in reducing the amount of compostable organics still entering landfills (comprising more than 60 percent of landfill tonnage).
This outcome, however, did not result from a lack of practical alternatives. EPA could have required keeping biodegradable materials out of landfills, as is being done in Europe, parts of Canada, in San Francisco and several other cities in the U.S., where it is recognized that we are simply unable to safely manage decomposable material in the ground. Promoting source separation of food scraps, unrecyclable paper and yard trimmings for composting -just as the public was already successfully separating bottles, cans and newspaper for recycling - would have dramatically reduced multiple problems, including discharge of toxic leachate and generation of climate-changing and hazardous gases by landfills.
The reason the original flawed rule went into effect is because the practice of deferring liability for these discharges into the future made it appear that landfilling was less expensive than it actually is. The rule conveniently terminated liability for groundwater contamination 30 years after the landfill is closed, just when the elaborate system of barriers are expected to fail, thus saddling our grandchildren with the prospect of dealing with contaminated drinking water supplies at many locations. Had the EPA required incoming wastes to be treated and stabilized before burial, landfill tip fees would be $65/ton, instead of the $20/ton at many of today's megafills. This amounts to a subsidy of $45/ton.
"Even the best liner and leachate collection systems will ultimately fail," EPA's own technical staff noted in the Federal Register in 1988. Furthermore, insulating trash companies from competition and liability places the ultimate cost of clean-up on the public in what may become a "Super-Superfund" program costing hundreds of billions of dollars. EPA's own Inspector General wrote in the 2001 report, RCRA Financial Assurance for Closure and Post-Closure: "EPA officials acknowledge the lack of criteria or scientific basis for establishing the 30-year post-closure time frame. ... EPA made the decision to establish the time frame at 30 years, seemingly based on a compromise of these competing interests." (emphasis added)
A Risky Techno-Fix
Especially when done "on the cheap," however, efforts to accelerate decomposition will be only partially successful at resolving the longterm problems, and will create a whole new set of major short-term problems as well. For example, under proposed bioreactor designs, moisture levels would be increased from 20 percent to a range of 45 percent to 70 percent. By liquefying the waste load, this practice creates enormous engineering challenges that do not currently exist. Landfills would need to be engineered as reservoirs, not just dry fill. This has the effect of making soluble the complement of hazardous constituents that are a part of the trash. Accelerated decomposition also results in a rapid differential settlement of a heterogeneous landfill mass, thus destabilizing the support of the cover, and further increasing ingress of precipitation.
Moreover, the landfill structures that are supposed to contain this toxic slurry are not dug into the ground but are usually manmade mountains as much as 300 or more feet high. This mass and weight is contained by fragile sidewalk that are little more than a two-foot wide clay berm and plastic tarp. As one might expect, containing an unstable mass of tens of millions of tons of liquefied garbage high in the air behind such a frail barrier creates monumental management problems. There have already been several catastrophic landslides at test bioreactor sites attempting to reclaim and recirculate liquids.
This risky approach to landfill design is little more than a desperate attempt to maintain low landfill prices. The organic fraction of our waste stream ought to be treated as a valuable resource and composted, rather than mixed with toxics in garbage and buried, creating an insoluble problem. Tens of millions of dollars have already been committed by the EPA to advance the concept of landfill bioreactors. Not one penny, by contrast, has been invested in research on composting where methane generation can be controlled and a valuable product produced to boot.
EPA claims that the purpose of the proposed rule ("State Research, Development and Demonstration Permits for MSW Landfills") is to encourage innovation. However, in view of the fact that EPA already has federally supervised experimentation procedures in place and functioning, this claim can be seen for what it really is: a thinly disguised ruse to deregulate most of the minimum national standards for landfill permitting and open the flood gates to the most ill-considered bioreactor designs built on the cheap to insure that composting will not be able to compete in the 21st century. Instead of taking the common sense approach of preventing the problem by banning biodegradable material from landfills and investing in composting, EPA is bowing to the landfill industry which stands to profit from continuing to bury organics, because tight landfill supplies are the key strategy to acquire market power.
EPA's proposed rule
represents a direct challenge to composting's economic future. Composters
need to seize upon this attack as an opportunity to build support from
the public and environmental groups. Our position is not only that the
proposed, poorly conceived bioreactor loophole program be abandoned, but
that EPA get serious about waste reduction and climate change by banning
biodegradable material from landfills. Everyone of us is terribly busy,
but few turning points are as critical for the long-term prospects of
composters as this one. Please, before settling in to figuring how to
make payroll this Friday, go to http:
//www.GRRN.org/landfill/epa_background.html for directions on how
to submit your comments to EPA.