SALIDA , Colo. "Although the sun shines intensely and the sky is clear, the brutal wind ripping across the northern San Luis Valley makes the day anything but pleasant.
Ernie Dundridge grimaces for an instant as he zips his coat and
steps out of the heated gatehouse at the Saguache County Landfill
to greet a pickup that just stopped outside. The driver is a
regular customer who knows the drill, so he waves her
Before he can return to the comfort of the
tiny gatehouse, another pickup arrives. This driver is a rookie;
Dundridge follows him to the recycling bins and explains what goes
where. While they're tossing brown glass in one bin and clear glass
in another, a man pulls up to examine the collection of old
Tape measure and old washing machine
part in chilled hands, he's looking for a drive pulley to replace
the one that cracked. Another empty truck, a mud-splattered
five-ton stake-bed with stock racks, backs up to the pile of old
tires. It's a rancher from Villa Grove who's building a bull pen,
and he's figured out a way to do it with free materials, mostly
bald tires from the county dump.
So it goes on a
winter afternoon at a landfill which offers the traditional
challenge for rural scrounge artists: making a dump run and coming
back with less than you took.
It's fairly easy
to come home from the dump empty these days, what with all the "NO
SCAVENGING" signs that discourage voluntary informal recycling. But
there's another big challenge for rural residents - paying for the
trip to the dump. The pickup load of refuse that used to be a free
deposit at the local landfill can now eat up a $20 bill as the
rural West adapts to new federal regulations which take effect
Understanding the new federal regulations
means dealing with initials. There's RCRA, the Resource
Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, a federal law which has a
Subtitle D that allows the federal government to regulate the
handling of MSW - Municipal Solid Waste. Think of municipal waste
as the trash from households and small businesses, as opposed to
industrial residues or sewage sludge.
Subtitle D, the Environmental Protection Agency sets minimum
standards for landfills. States, in turn, adopt regulations so that
the standards are met by landfill operators, which can be either
private companies or public entities. Local government enters the
picture because, in the rural West, landfills are often run by
county governments. Low population density means trash is a
money-loser for private enterprise.
understanding of the new federal rules probably requires a law
degree, a civil engineer's license and a doctorate in hydrology.
But in essence, the EPA wants to keep regular landfills from
leaking and turning into Superfund sites. Toxic materials could
seep downward into the groundwater below the landfill, spread
through the aquifer and pollute wells and
To forestall that, any landfill
accepting trash after April 9, 1994, must be lined with plastic and
a layer of packed clay. Just above this liner, pipes are laid to
collect the liquid (leachate) that percolates down. The pipes are
part of a plumbing system that pumps up the leachate so that it can
go to a sewage treatment plant.
Since there's no
guarantee that a landfill liner will remain impermeable for
eternity, the operator is also required to drill monitoring wells
around the landfill. Water samples are brought up at regular
intervals and tested for the presence of various toxic organic and
metallic compounds. If these show up in the test wells, the
landfill operator has to take corrective action.
To meet these new regulations, rural counties are taking one of
1) Getting out of the waste
business entirely, and having private companies collect waste and
dispose of it.
2) Getting out of the dump
business, but staying in the trash business. In that case, local
rubbish goes to a transfer station operated by the county, and from
there to a distant landfill.
3) Closing the old
dump or dumps, meanwhile designing and operating a new dump for
locals that meets regulations while promoting, to varying degrees,
recycling and waste-stream reduction.
with nearby counties in a solid-waste disposal district to operate
one state-of-the-art landfill which collects from scattered
transfer stations in convenient locations.
Cooperating with a big city like Los Angeles or Seattle that needs
a dump, and turning it into a local industry that provides a few
jobs - often for lawyers, since such proposals can inspire spirited
In most cases, any of these responses
results in a big increase in trash-disposal fees. The refuse that I
once dumped free in Chaffee County, Colo., now costs $6.50 a cubic
yard - about $30 for a heaping pickup load.
Frank Thomas, the county administrator, says it used to cost about
$3 to handle a cubic yard of household waste. That meant, to run
over it a few times with a bulldozer to shred and compress it, and
then cover it with a layer of dirt at the end of the day. The money
came from the county's general fund and there were no "tip fees' at
Chaffee County couldn't raise
local taxes enough to recover the expense of building a new
landfill to meet the regulations, and of operating it with the
monitoring wells and the like. Thus the tip
Although the precise numbers vary, the
trend - an approximate doubling of the cost of handling a cubic
yard of trash - seems pretty typical throughout the West. Costs go
up even more if the trash has to be hauled any considerable
distance to the landfill. A lot more trash also ends up littering
Of approximately 600 landfills
operating in the West a few years ago, about half have closed
recently, or will close next month.
If the new EPA
regulations were designed to prevent groundwater contamination, and
there wasn't a problem with groundwater contamination from dumps
that handled only household waste, do the new rules represent
expensive regulatory overkill for sparsely populated counties in
The EPA thought so when it
issued the draft regulations in 1992. There was an exemption from
the monitoring requirement, and much of the West qualified: less
than 20 tons a day, less than 25 inches of rain a year, no other
disposal system nearby, and no evidence of earlier groundwater
For once, county officials were
almost pleased with the EPA. Its rules recognized that not all of
America was populated and humid with a high water table, and that a
landfill in Wyoming didn't have to be run the same way as one in
But in 1992, the Natural Resources Defense
Council (NRDC) took EPA to court, charging that the rural exemption
violated the intent of Congress when it passed the Resource
Conservation and Recovery Act.
The District of
Columbia Appeals Court agreed with the environmental group on that
charge. RCRA requires groundwater monitoring "as necessary to
detect groundwater contamination."
detect it unless you monitor it, explained Jim Simon, NRDC senior
attorney in New York, "and so the monitoring wells are necessary
unless you can prove that there's absolutely no chance that a
landfill could affect groundwater."
position, Simon said, is that small communities in arid areas
deserve the same level of protection as any other communities, and
that the proposed EPA exemptions were not based on good
Simon said there are many factors which
might determine whether a landfill will contaminate groundwater:
size, climate, geology, type of waste, topography, etc. "We asked
the EPA if it could identify any single factor, or combination of
factors, which will predict whether contamination will occur. The
EPA could not."
Nonetheless, he said, "the EPA
had an exemption based on two factors - size and aridity - even
though the EPA admitted that there is no way to predict, based on
those factors, whether a landfill will pollute. A small landfill in
an arid area can pollute, and the only way to be sure it does not
is with monitoring wells."
Thus the exemption
for rural counties in dry climates vanished in a federal court
decision. All they got out of it was a six-month extension on
compliance, from Oct. 9, 1993, to April 9, 1994.
EPA wasn't basing its exemption on good science, but when it comes
to trash, it's a lot easier to find guesswork and mythology than
Start with household waste, which
seems pretty benign in comparison to industrial waste. Kitchen
scraps, torn clothes and old newspapers certainly aren't toxic. But
common household substances like nail polish, oven cleaner and
paint thinner are toxic materials that can pollute groundwater.
According to the Garbage Project at the
University of Arizona, about 1 percent of all household garbage is
hazardous waste. That may not sound like much, but it adds up
quickly. The average American generates about four pounds of trash
a day. A county with 10,000 people produces 73 tons of toxic waste
every year, even if it doesn't boast a single
On the other hand, if there are
problems resulting from landfills in the West that handle only
household waste, they aren't big problems. State officials mention
a few suspicious places, but nothing catastrophic. That could be
because those toxic chemicals are basically harmless if they stay
in place and don't leak outside the landfill.
The Garbage Project found that most such chemicals do stay in
place. If they leave their container, they attach to nearby dirt or
debris, and aren't likely to even reach the leachate collection
system, let alone escape from the liner to be detected by the
monitoring wells, which will be in operation during the landfill's
active life and for 30 years thereafter.
groundwater monitoring sounds like a good way to catch little
problems before they turn into big problems, but in many respects
hydrology - the study of water in motion - is more an art than a
science, especially when it comes to subsurface
So says Gene Rush of Salida, who recently
retired from the U.S. Geological Survey after a career as a
"You can never be
sure of the lateral flow rate of groundwater," he explained.
"Assume that the liner was breached, and toxic compounds leached
down below the landfill. It might be years before that contaminated
water reached the nearest well and you knew you had a problem. But
then, it could be a big problem, and it would be too late to do
anything about it."
Rush recalled a big federal
study in the Phoenix area some years ago, "where they applied all
the formulas to predict the status of the region's groundwater in
20 years. And 20 years later, the predictions were off by an order
of magnitude. Often, that's as close as you can get in hydrology."
So there's a question whether expensive
monitoring wells can detect leakage in time to make any difference.
There's no scientific analysis which can tell us whether a county
might better protect its environment by putting scarce tax money
into a recycling program rather than into monitoring wells for
substances that might never reach the water
If monitoring wells are indeed necessary,
why only on landfills operating after April 9, 1994? The West has
thousands of potentially toxic dumps, many dating to the days when
dead mules, empty cans, mercury amalgamates and cyanide residues
were casually tossed into the nearest gulch - and most of those
sites won't be monitored.
Trash is less a
scientific issue than a political, financial and legal question.
There isn't much good science, and what there is doesn't provide
sufficient answers for most of the questions society needs to
For the past year or two, as counties
complied with the new regulations, trash dumping fees have been on
the rise. Given the traditional culture of the rural West - rugged
individualism and minimal social responsibility - this could mean a
big increase in illegal dumping, either along roads or on public
Checking every county and every ranger
district from Idaho to New Mexico is an impossibility, but a local
survey revealed a pleasant surprise: Nobody's seen any substantial
increase in illegal dumping since landfill fees began
Ann Ewing, forestry technician in the
Salida Ranger District of southwestern Colorado, said the main
problem since local rates went up is that "people with summer homes
use the campground Dumpsters. We've found mattresses, tires, toilet
seats, grass clippings."
When they're caught,
usually by a campground host, "we explain the rules, and so far,
they've been cooperative."
The local Trout
Unlimited chapter has adopted 11 miles of highway for semi-annual
cleaning, and its volunteers report no perceptible increase in
roadside trash. Much the same was true in the Leadville and
Fairplay ranger districts of Colorado, although the rangers thought
there might be more dumping of trash down old mine
The Canon City BLM office administers
the entire eastern slope of Colorado, and there, Dave Hallock said
he was "kind of surprised there hasn't been more illegal dumping
after rates went up. I was real concerned that it would happen
along the back roads."
The BLM did increase
patrols. "We'd watch for people with truckloads of trash and then
follow them," Hallock said, "just to see where they were going.
That might have discouraged people who otherwise might have made a
habit of it."
Forest rangers say that dumping
cases are hard to prosecute; it isn't like Alice's
First the rangers must identify the
source of the trash, and then prove that a specific person dumped
it. Unless there's a witness, the usual excuse is that "we hired
this kid to clean the shed, and we told him to take the trash to
the dump. How were we to know he just kept the money and dumped the
trash out in the woods?"
One ranger, Chuck
Dunsee in Fairplay, carries rubber gloves, and when he finds a bag
of trash, he will sort through the used Pampers, looking for
something with an address. "Two or three times a year, I can nail
Although other ranger districts
generally just issue a warning, all of Dunsee's offenders go before
the U.S. magistrate. The maximum penalty is a $5,000 fine and six
months in prison; the usual penalty is a $75 fine and an order to
clean up the mess.
Some informal enforcement
also exists. When Trout Unlimited members were cleaning the
roadside a couple of years ago, they found a big pile of household
waste, complete with addressed material. One angry angler loaded
his pickup with the trash, hauled it to the offender's home, and
dumped it in the front yard.
That was before the
rates went up; by all accounts, the rising landfill fees haven't
caused any meaningful increase in dumping along highways or on
County landfills don't usually
inspire good feelings, but the Saguache facility, which sits eight
miles north of town in south-central Colorado, is an understandable
Nobody has figured out how to
recycle mattresses, slick magazines, and light bulbs, but Saguache
handles just about everything else: paper, cardboard, clear glass,
brown glass, green glass, aluminum, tin cans, batteries, motor oil.
Yard wastes go into a compost pile, and dead animals go to an
Re-use - that is, scrounging -
is encouraged just as much as recycling. There's a wood pile to
feed stoves. There's also a row of old appliances and bicycles to
provide spare parts to keep others running, and sometimes there are
even working machines.
Old tires are a major
problem at most landfills, but people haul them away from Saguache.
There was the Villa Grove rancher building a bull pen, and old
tires adorn the top of most mobile homes in the San Luis Valley
because their weight keeps the strong winds from ripping off
Old tires, as well as used
cinder blocks, bricks and the like, sometimes go into innovative
houses. Saguache County doesn't have a building code, and over by
the town of Crestone, a lot of modern pioneers seem willing to
experiment with offbeat building materials when the price is
To encourage people to use the landfill,
tip fees for county residents are low. A pickup load is $1.50, and
if you bring in anything ready for recycling, you get a 50ó
discount. If all your load can be recycled (that is, if it's all
sorted, cleaned, and bundled), there's no tip
Although there is some income from
recycling - about $100 a month - and from tip fees, the Saguache
Landfill is nowhere near self-supporting. Brad Jones, county
administrator, estimates the annual subsidy from general county
funds at about $5 a resident, in the neighborhood of $20,000 a
year. "And that doesn't include depreciation for capital
Ellen Cox, county recycling
coordinator, says that 1993 was the first year they kept good
records since the opening of the new landfill in 1990. The goal was
to divert 20 percent of the material that would normally get buried
in a landfill, "and we're well over that." In loads from Crestone,
she noted, more than 80 percent goes to recycling, rather than the
This doesn't just happen, she pointed
out. "We work with service clubs to place recycling bins in towns,
and we even run school field trips. We've got a lot of community
involvement, and we're always looking for ways to increase it."
So while Moab, Utah, might boast of having the
most scenic dump in America, "We're trying to run the best rural
landfill in America, and I think we're getting there," Cox said.
"It's a community institution, and people are starting to brag on
it a little."
As well they should. Saguache
County has been losing population and is one of the poorest
counties in Colorado, but it runs a landfill that both serves the
community in every possible way and meets all state and federal
regulations. Officials from other Colorado counties have toured the
Saguache Landfill, and one, Custer County, will use it as the model
for a new landfill that opens this spring.
Saguache be a model for the rest of the West? Only when people
start paying as much attention to their trash as to their food or
television reception. Most of us, alas, find it easier to fill the
Hefty bag and then complain about rising rates and tighter
writier Ed Quillen lives in Salida, Colorado, and is editor of
Colorado Central, a new regional monthly