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  • Tom Roepke

Down in the Dumps: Lurking Landfill Dangers - Part I




Introduction 

We usually don’t think about what happens to trash after it’s picked up from our curbside bins. There may be a general understanding that it’s dumped in a landfill and conveniently buried, out of sight and out of mind. While landfills are believed to be a safe way to dispose of our trash, this method of waste management can negatively impact the environmental quality of soil, air and water. Given the current concern about expanding the Vernon County Landfill, it is important to understand what happens to our trash when it arrives at its final resting place in a landfill. This article provides a basic understanding of landfills and the concerns associated with their operation.

 

Waste Management: A Relatively Recent Crisis 

For most of human history, global population could be measured in millions and waste management was not a threat to the environment. However, according to the United Nations Population Division, the number of people living on the planet has been increasing at an alarming rate for the past 200 years:

 

1800 - 1 billion

1927 - 2 billion

1960 - 3 billion

1998 - 6 billion

2022 - 8 billion

 

During the same time period, habits of wasteful consumption and the acceptance of disposability came to define the culture of “developed” nations. The US is currently estimated to have 3,000 active landfills and an additional 10,000 more that have been closed. Even with all our technological advances, we continue to simply bury our trash in the earth, hoping that sufficiently protective regulations are implemented, monitored and enforced.


 Brief History of Landfills 

The first modern sanitary landfill opened in 1937 in Fresno, CA. Unfortunately, until the 1960s small unregulated dumps remained the primary means of solid waste disposal in the US. Methods of improved landfill management were known long before they became standard practice in the industry. That said, the way we manage our garbage has remained essentially the same throughout human history – we bury it.

 

In the spring of 1970, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson created Earth Day to promote national awareness of the need to protect and care for the earth. By the end of that year, the US Congress had created the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal department responsible for designing a set of protective environmental regulations. Requirements for operating sanitary landfills began to be put into practice in the 1970s. In 1991, federal standards for landfills were enhanced and strengthened. However, the contamination of air, soil and water from landfills continues as an increasing environmental concern in 2024.

 

Problems to Address 

Even when well-managed, landfills present a number of inherent environmental hazards. These include their disruption of natural habitat, continuous production of methane gas, and the potential for leaking toxins into the water table.

 

Disruption of Natural Habit 

Simply looking at a landfill on Google Maps will provide convincing evidence of the extent to which a landfill site disturbs the natural habitat of all forms of life residing there. For example, the relatively small Vernon County Landfill removed all the plant life from its currently active ten-acre burial site. The active site is being filled horizontally and vertically with garbage. When full capacity has been reached, a final cap of soil is used to cover the active site and some form of ground cover will be planted. Yet even if native species are used, the topography of the site will bear the mark of a manmade land form for decades, even centuries to come. Landfills contribute to the ever-increasing use of rural land by humans, land used with little, if any, consideration for the impact our actions have on other living beings residing there.

 

Methane and Carbon Dioxide 

As our buried garbage decomposes in a landfill, the process produces carbon dioxide and methane. While both of these gases are major contributors to global warming, methane is by far the worse of the two. These gases may be inhibited from rising through the top of a landfill, but then they simply follow a path of least resistance. Eventually they are released into the atmosphere from the ground immediately surrounding the landfill.

 

Small landfills are often viewed as producing an insignificant amount of methane, an amount that is safe to release into the environment. However, any methane released into the atmosphere contributes to the rising level of atmospheric greenhouse gases and their consequent impact on global warming.

 

According to an EPA report, 36% of methane enters the atmosphere from natural sources and the remaining 64% is produced from human activity. Landfills are not the major source of methane gas, yet they are still included as contributors to the problem. Being green isn’t always easy, but sometimes it’s as simple as refusing to buy problematic products, reducing how much we do buy and reusing items we already possess.

 

Leachate or “Garbage Juice” 

Leachate (pronounced “lee-chayt”) is a liquid that forms as our buried garbage decomposes. It must be regularly drained from a landfill and transported to a facility where contaminants can be removed from the liquid. Liners are used in a landfill to prevent contaminants from entering the water table below. They may last as long as 30 years, but they eventually do begin to leak, some well before the end of their rated longevity. When landfill liners leak, contaminated leachate can enter the groundwater table below. Leaks in a liner can only be detected by testing water near the landfill site. However, water samples may fail to detect contaminants when a leak is not close enough to the sample wells being tested. Certain geological conditions increase the chance of this happening, particularly the presence of karst that is common in the Driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin.

 

Kelvin Rodolfo is an expert geologist living in Vernon County. He describes how, “the initial leakage from a lined landfill will be from point sources--holes, tears, imperfections--in the liner system, producing leachate-contaminated groundwater plumes that move as fairly narrow "fingers" with limited lateral spread in the distance between the landfill and the point of compliance for groundwater monitoring. Because of the limited zone of capture of conventional vertical monitoring wells (about 1 ft), their wide spacing, and the nature of incipient leakage, they can easily fail to detect the leaks.”

 

In addition to conventional contaminants, PFAS chemicals, commonly referred to as forever chemicals because they remain unchanged when released into the environment, are not adequately regulated. They can and do leak into the water table directly from a landfill. PFAS chemicals may also remain in leachate water after it has been processed.

 

PFAS contamination in local drinking water is currently a national problem, including here in Wisconsin. On October 12, 2021 Wisconsin Public Radio reported, 


Nearly half of Eau Claire’s city wells have been shut down due to concerns over PFAS contamination. In July, the city announced four of its 16 wells had been taken offline after testing showed PFAS levels exceeded the combined groundwater standard of 20 parts per trillion that’s recommended by state health officials. Now, the city has voluntarily stopped using three more wells after additional testing showed a mix of PFAS chemicals that are concerning to state health officials.”

 

Now, three years later, this situation continues as a rising concern for people who value the environment and public health, now and for generations to come.


Addressing any problem involves educating ourselves as fully as possible about its history and current status. Hopefully this post, along with the references included below, will support your individual exploration into why landfills are a problematic method of managing our garbage. The best place to begin this exploration is our local Vernon County Landfill. The Vernon County Landfill offers a free tour of the facility every Friday. It’s an educative experience to witness heavy equipment driving over layers of our local garbage, and also to see the mountains of material that have been collected to be recycled rather than buried in the landfill.


Be sure to watch for Part II of this blog which will continue with a deep dive into the history and current concerns about our local landfill.



REFERENCES

PFAS in Eau Claire city wells

A Brief History of Garbage and the Future of Waste Generation

The Hidden Damage of Landfills, University of Colorado- Boulder

All about landfills

Plastic, plastic…it’s everywhere - from Monroe County Landfill website

Provides a detailed description of the environmental sensitivity of karst and ways that disturbing it can negatively impact the environment

Landfill gas basics, good introduction to the problem

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