MOUNT VERNON, Ala. - At a sprawling landfill some
50 miles from the oil-spotted coastline, trash bags brimming with tar
balls, oil-soaked boom, sand, and tangles of sea grass are dumped.
Though workers in the largest environmental
disaster in U.S. history wear protective gloves and coveralls as they
labor across the Gulf Coast clearing beaches of oil, the mounds of
debris they amass meet a pedestrian fate: burial in the same landfills
that take in diapers, coffee grounds, burnt toast, yogurt containers,
grass clippings and demolition debris.
Since the first trucks
began rolling in June, nearly 40,000 tons of "oily solids" and related
debris have been sent to municipal landfills from Louisiana to Florida,
sparking complaints - and in one case, enough consternation that BP
decided to stop dumping in a landfill.
"They tell us, 'It's not bad, it's not hazardous,'" said
Christopher Malloy, who borrowed a sign from his wife's tanning salon to
announce his opposition to using the Pecan Grove landfill in
Mississippi's Harrison County.
"Oil in Gulf - Bad. Oil in
landfill/wellwater not bad? What!," reads the sign in his front yard,
less than half a mile from the landfill where 1,300 tons had been
disposed before BP - facing community pressure - agreed to curtail
"What I worry about is when they come back and say,
'Ooops, we were wrong. So sorry,'" said Malloy, 39, a registered nurse
who said he feared that toxic chemicals from the oil-soaked material
could seep into his groundwater drinking supply. "Where does that leave
Under a 34-page waste management plan developed by the
federal government, oily solid waste that reaches Gulf Coast beaches is
bagged by BP contractors and transferred to area landfills by waste
management giants: Heritage Environmental Services in Louisiana; Waste
Management Inc., which is working from the Louisiana-Mississippi border
east to the Ecofina River, southeast of Tallahassee, Fla.; and Republic
Services, which covers Florida's west coast, the Keys and Miami.
Oily water is handled differently: mostly it's processed for recovery.
EPA and each state's environmental protection agency have signed off on
the plans for the oil-smeared bulky waste. And the operators of the
landfills insist that the BP garbage is not unprecedented and is
suitable for the type of landfills they've selected: disposal sites that
take household waste, as well as "special waste," like contaminated
soil. They note much of the waste is generated by the cleanup operation
itself: soiled cleanup coveralls, gloves, sandwich wrappers and drink
containers. Some 44 tons of waste materials have been recycled.
waste is not that much different from what we've been accepting here
every day," said Matt East, a district manager with Waste Management,
which runs the Pecan Grove site and the Mount Vernon landfill, Chastang.
The BP waste at Chastang averages about 20 tons a day - which sounds
staggering, East notes, until you realize it accounts for just 2 percent
of the landfill's daily intake. "The volume is minuscule, it really
is," East said.
Waste Management estimates that the BP waste at
Pecan Grove accounts for 6 percent of the landfill's waste per day. The
landfill, according to the state, accepts about 8,000 tons of trash a
What worries environmentalists and some residents is that
under EPA rules, waste from petroleum operations is exempt from
hazardous waste rules. But cleanup officials say they're taking the
precautionary measure of testing the BP waste shore-side for potential
carcinogenic volatile substances including benzene, toluene, polycyclic
aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals like nickel.
BP is required
to sample and test collected waste weekly, and the EPA is doing its own
sampling to confirm, said EPA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara. It has
yet to turn up a hazardous sample, she said.
"EPA is not making a
blanket assumption that all waste collected in the response is
non-hazardous," Alcantara said. "If the waste is determined to be
hazardous, it will be sent to a designated hazardous waste treatment,
storage or disposal facility."
Though what was spewing out of the
blown-out well in the Gulf was toxic, scientists say the light sweet
crude undergoes a sea change as it bobs in the water for 50 miles or
more before hitting shore.
"At least 50 percent of the oil
evaporates in the first week," said Ed Overton, an oil-chemical hazard
assessment expert at Louisiana State University. "And it's the most
volatile parts of the oil, the potentially carcinogenic benzenes and so
The weathered oil also gets chewed on by naturally occurring bacteria that eat the oil.
the time it gets to shore, it's more like road tar," Overton said. "The
average driver is exposed to more oil volatiles filling his gas tank
than being around oily waste."
The sites in use now are regular
municipal landfills, not designed for hazardous waste. Waste Management
officials, who offered a tour of the Chastang site last week, said its
three landfills boast important safety features, including a ring of
ground water monitoring wells that are tested twice a year and pipes
that collect rainfall and the "garbage juice" that percolates through
the waste. That sludge is then transported to a sewage treatment plant
The Coast Guard and the EPA in late June tightened
the government's oversight of the project and imposed more requirements
on BP, including developing a community outreach plan.
Management says its trucks carrying the waste are lined with plastic to
prevent waste from leaking and its landfills are lined with high-density
polyethylene membranes rated to last 1,000 years, atop an impermeable
G. Fred Lee, an environmental consultant in El Macero,
Calif., who has written several studies criticizing landfills, says
such thousand-year claims are written by consultants working for the
landfill companies and are "way out of line."
polyethylene liners can prevent oily waste from penetrating groundwater
... with high-quality construction," he says. "But you don't often get
that high-quality construction. It's kind of a crapshoot."
But he believes that the oily waste going into Gulf Coast landfills is too degraded to pose danger.
"What's going into these landfills is not likely to cause groundwater pollution," he said.
suspicion persists, particularly in Harrison County, which succeeded in
getting a halt to disposals at the Pecan Grove site.
responsible for polluting our beaches, our marshes, our estuaries and
now they're picking it up, hauling it not more than five miles away and
dumping it in our landfill," said Marlin Ladner, a supervisor whose
district includes the landfill and the nearly 300 groundwater-dependent
homes in a half-mile radius. "That's a slap in the face."
Florida, David Guest, an environmental attorney with Earthjustice, said
he's had calls from anguished residents asking about legal recourse to
stop oil spill debris from reaching the Springhill Landfill near
Campbellton in Jackson County. That site had accepted more than 14,000
tons - 13 percent of its landfill intake.
"There's a genuine
serious risk of poisoning the aquifer years from now," Guest said,
arguing that the landfills, once closed, are not monitored.
Springhill landfill takes in debris from Florida beaches and at least
one county - Escambia - is working to reduce the amount of beach sand
that lands there. County officials have devised a rake that cuts down on
how much sand is lifted, said Sandy Jennings, an engineer with the
county's environmental agency.
"It works something like a kitty
litter scoop," said Jennings, noting that county officials were worried
about losing sand, especially from the barrier islands. Since the
development of the rake, the county now scoops up about 98 percent
product and just 2 percent sand, Jennings said.
Robichaux, principal chief of Louisiana's United Houma Nation, told
Congress last month that the tribe is worried about the exemption for
"We do not want these materials disposed of in our
communities, and we would respectfully request that this law be changed
to protect all U.S. citizens from exposure to these harmful chemicals,"
she told lawmakers.
Still, not every community is opposed. In
Mount Vernon, town council member Verdell Dees said Waste Management,
which maintains habitat for wildlife at the Chastang landfill, is
considered a good neighbor, contributing to the local schools and senior
"They've been a big part of the community and go above and beyond keeping the landfill maintained," Dees said.