EATONVILLE, Wash. - Under a bright blue sky, 18-wheelers loaded with garbage groan along a county road near Mount Rainier National Park. The trucks head to a new landfill more than a decade in the making. To Pierce County officials, it is a beautiful sight: They overcame fierce citizen opposition to the dump and emerged victorious.

But to local opponents, the view is devastating. The new landfill is located on a wetland, square atop the aquifer that provides drinking water for 700,000 people.

"Five of my grandchildren drink water from that aquifer," says Don Olsen of the grassroots group Concerned Residents on Waste Disposal (CROWD). "If that landfill leaks, those kids will be drinking garbage juice."

Although the private company that owns the dump, Land Recovery Inc. (LRI), has already constructed two of eight planned waste "cells," activists are still trying to keep the dump from being completed. They say it is only a matter of time before their water is polluted.

A waste odyssey

When LRI proposed the landfill in 1989, Pierce County was getting desperate for a way to get rid of its garbage. For four years, the county had been hauling waste over 100 miles to a dump on the east side of the Cascades. Its previous dump site was designated a Superfund site after years of accepting heavy metal sludge and industrial waste. According to county solid-waste administrator Steve Wambach, building a new in-county landfill would limit costs, leaving more money for recycling and public education. And the county already had a company lined up to build a new dump - the same firm that had agreed to take over the former landfill and manage it as a Superfund site: LRI.

When area residents like Olsen heard the news, they quickly formed CROWD and began rallying to fight the dump. They soon had backing from the Eatonville city government, the local chamber of commerce, statewide environmental groups and a nearby wildlife park.

Both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency objected to the project on environmental grounds and refused to grant needed permits.

"We believe the landfill poses a more significant risk to the aquifer than they want the public to believe," says Tom Mueller, chief of the Corps' regulatory branch in Seattle. "Their information is based on a best-case scenario in which everything works the way it's supposed to."

But LRI and Pierce County refused to give up. LRI spent some $14 million to fight numerous court battles and lobby Congress to limit the Corps' jurisdiction on the case.

When dump opponents gained enough momentum by 1999 to convince Gov. Gary Locke to sign a narrowly written law aimed specifically at preventing the dump project from proceeding, they were stymied by LRI once again. Despite an emergency clause allowing the law to take effect immediately, Pierce County "grandfathered" the dump, arguing the law came too late: Construction at the site had already begun.

State Sen. Marilyn Rasmussen, a Pierce County Democrat who joined with local Republican legislators to oppose the dump, says the power and influence LRI exerted in the fight to build the landfill was impressive.

"They've run over the Legislature, the governor, the Army Corps, (U.S.) Sen. Norm Dicks," she says. "They've let nothing get in their way."

Quantifying harm

According to LRI spokeswoman Jody Snyder, the dump that now takes in some 520,000 tons of waste annually is harmless.

"We've addressed every concern and met all conditions. We've even created higher-quality wetlands than what was there to begin with," says Snyder. "The bar was raised high for us, and we've exceeded every requirement."

The real reason locals are "exploiting fears about pollution," she says, is that they don't want a landfill in their backyards.

But even the company admits there have been a few glitches so far. LRI recently discovered the landfill's leak-detection collection system is wasting thousands of gallons of water each week. In a year of epic drought in the Northwest, the first cell alone is pumping out more than one and a half times the amount of groundwater experts thought would be drawn from all eight cells together.

CROWD activists and local residents worry LRI can't accurately test for contamination if thousands of extra gallons of water dilute the samples, but Snyder says testing for pollutants in a large volume of water is not a problem.

"If you can't detect it, what harm can it cause?" she argues.

Because historic water-resource protection laws have focused on post-contamination cleanup, current federal law says that LRI is required to meet only minimal standards to prevent pollution. But under the 1996 amendments to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, states must inventory underground drinking-water sources, identify potential sources of pollution, then get the information to the public by the end of 2003. In Washington state, these "right to know" reports should be posted on the state Department of Health Web site by the middle of 2002.

David Jennings, director of Washington's source-water program, hopes communities will use the information when making land-use decisions that could affect their drinking water. It's a lot cheaper to protect a water source than it is to clean it up, he points out. And communities that want to promote economic development are more attractive to businesses if they can guarantee a source of clean drinking water.

Standing atop the grimy mountain of trash at the LRI landfill as trucks line up to dump their loads, Viki Steiner, president of CROWD, says she plans to be around to be sure her community does just that. She says CROWD will use the assessment information to stay informed about the safety of local drinking water and to continue the fight. In between fund-raising events, CROWD is working on another legal challenge to make LRI close the landfill.

"No way are we going to just stand by while this landfill poisons our water," says Steiner.

Kasia Pierzga writes about land use and the environment from Olympia, Washington.


YOU CAN ...

  • Learn more about efforts to strengthen federal laws governing drinking water protection at the Web site for the Campaign for Safe and Affordable Drinking Water at www.safe-drinking-water.org.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Kasia Pierzga