Imagine a river running yellow. Or red. Or chemical blue. Military experiments with biological warfare, using explosives, turned rivers red from cadmium, blue from cobalt, and yellow from sulfur during the First and Second World Wars. The rivers deposited the mineral waste along their banks, and the land sucked it in further, creating what is called a plume. Think of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil well. When it gushed, it created a plume of oil throughout much of the Gulf of Mexico. That plume drifted. When the oil reached coral reefs and shores that collected it from the water, the oil remained on the land, which absorbed it and thus began to create another plume.
Polluted land also results from acid rain, industrialization, body waste, and ecological imbalance. In the case of industrialization, whose production processes have emitted acids into the air, phosphates into the water, and liquid and solid chemicals into the land, a federal law was created in the 1970s to discourage industrial waste dumping. That law is commonly known as Superfund. More formally, it is called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA. It exists to create a legal process for finding the polluters responsible for contaminating the land and holding them financially accountable. The law was born out of a chemical waste dump in Love Canal, New York, that made the neighborhood a ghost town.
State, tribal, and local waste programs and policies also exist to prevent pollution by reducing the generation of wastes at their source and by emphasizing prevention over management and subsequent disposal. Preventing pollution before it is generated and poses harm is often less costly than cleanup and remediation. Source reduction and recycling programs often can increase resource and energy efficiencies and thereby reduce pressure on the environment. When wastes are generated, the EPA, state environmental programs, and local municipalities work to reduce the risk of exposures. If land is contaminated, cleanup programs address the sites to prevent human exposure and groundwater contamination. Increased recycling protects land resources and extends the life span of disposal facilities.
I. Kinds and Types of Waste
II. Extent of Land Used for Waste
III. Extent of Contaminated Land
IV. Human Health Effects and Contaminated Land
V. Ecological Effects
Kinds and Types of Waste
The types of waste generated range from yard clippings to highly concentrated hazardous waste. Only three types of waste—municipal solid waste (MSW), hazardous waste (as defined by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act [RCRA]), and radioactive waste—are tracked with any consistency on a national basis. Other types of waste are not, though they contribute a substantial amount to the total waste accumulated. This is a gaping hole is U.S. environmental policy. These other types of waste contribute a substantial amount to the total waste universe, although the exact percentage of the total that they represent is unknown.
Municipal solid waste, commonly known as trash or garbage, is one of the nation’s most prevalent waste types. The EPA has estimated that the U.S. generated 250 million tons of solid waste in 2008, with about 54 percent going to landfills. The new figure represents a nearly 8 percent increase during a 10-year period. In 2000, the United States generated approximately 232 million tons of MSW, primarily in homes and workplaces—an increase of nearly 160 percent since 1960. The EPA updates its statistics every two years. The next update will report 2010 figures.
Between 1960 and 2000, the U.S. population increased by 56 percent, and gross domestic production increased nearly 300 percent. In 1960, with a much smaller population than today, each person in the U.S. generated about 2.7 pounds of waste per day. In 2008, after accounting for recycling and composting, the EPA estimated each person in the United States generated 3 pounds of waste per day. The figures provide that individuals generated 4.5 pounds of waste per day, with 1.5 pounds per person recycled and composted. With that in mind, it can be argued that per-person waste generation today is down from the 2000 estimates of 4.5 pounds of waste per day.
In 2008, Americans recovered about 61 million tons of waste through recycling, with composting recovering 22.1 million tons of waste. About 32 million tons were incinerated for energy recovery. In June 2010, the EPA was seeking public comment on a proposed rule better defining what nonhazardous waste could be incinerated. Residue from waste combustion is emitted into the atmosphere and the remaining ash typically put into an ashfill on land.
The EPA reports that Americans recycled more than 7 million tons of metals (including aluminum, steel, and mixed metals) in 2008, which “eliminated greenhouse gas emissions totaling close to 25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2E). That is like removing more than 4.5 million cars from the road for one year.
Hazardous waste as defined by the EPA is anything containing a material or chemical capable of causing illness, death, or harm to humans and other life forms when mismanaged or released into the environment. The phrase RCRA hazardous waste applies to hazardous waste that is ignitable, corrosive, reactive, or toxic, which is regulated under the act. In 1999, the EPA estimated that 20,000 businesses generating large quantities (more than 2,200 pounds each per month) of hazardous waste collectively generated 40 million tons of RCRA hazardous waste. Comparisons of annual trends in hazardous waste generation are difficult because of changes in the types of data collected (e.g., exclusion of wastewater) over the past several years. But the amount of a specific set of priority toxic chemicals found in hazardous waste and tracked in the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) is declining. In 1999, approximately 69 percent of the RCRA hazardous waste was disposed of on land by one of four disposal methods: deep well/underground injection, landfill disposal, surface impoundment, or land treatment/ application/farming.
In 2000, approximately 600,000 cubic meters of different types of radioactive waste were generated, and approximately 700,000 cubic meters were in storage awaiting disposal. By volume, the most prevalent types of radioactive waste are contaminated environmental media (i.e., soil, sediment, water, and sludge requiring cleanup or further assessment) and low-level waste. Both of these waste types typically have the lowest levels of radioactivity when measured by volume. Additional radioactive wastes in the form of spent nuclear fuel (2,467 metric tons of heavy metal) and high-level waste glass logs (1,201 canisters of vitrified high-level waste) are in storage awaiting long-term disposal. EPA fact sheets are available that describe, on a state-by-state basis, the amount of hazardous waste in a state and where it is located.
Extent of Land Used for Waste
Nearly 3,500 acres per year in the U.S. store waste according to the EPA’s figures, a clarion call much like the movie WALL*E. Between 1989 and 2000, the number of municipal landfills in the United States decreased substantially to 2,216 from 8,000. Since then the number has increased slightly. According to the EPA, the United States currently has 3,091 active landfills and more than 10,000 old municipal landfills. However, it can be reasoned that there are many more based on U.S. Census figures. As far back as 1997, for example, data show that there are 39,044 general-purpose local governments in the United States.; 3, 043 county governments; and 36,001 subcounty general-purpose governments. Potentially, all of them could have garbage dumps.
Landfills today tend to accept only certain kinds of garbage. Some accept only a specific kind of solid waste, such as food products or fibers. In the past, any kind of waste could be tossed into the local garbage dump. However, as military bases including forts become decommissioned, environmental assessments find everything from typewriters to dead horses in a single landfill. That old landfill typically would not have any kind of liner to protect the land from contamination as the items decomposed. Today, because of products made of petroleum, carbon, synthetics, and other human-made items that leak toxic chemicals into the land as they decompose, landfills are lined. And a single landfill does not accept all kinds of waste. As necessary, some waste is separated out as too toxic for a municipal landfill; it must be sent to a special waste disposal site.
In terms of landfill capacity, in 2000, municipal landfills received approximately 128 million pounds of MSW, or about 55 percent of what was generated. In addition to municipal landfills, the nation had 18,000 surface impoundments—ponds used to treat, store, or dispose of liquid waste—for nonhazardous industrial waste in 2000. Excluding wastewater, nearly 70 percent of the RCRA hazardous waste generated in 1999 was disposed of at one of the nation’s RCRA treatment, storage, and land-disposal facilities. Of the 1,575 RCRA facilities, 1,049 are storage-only facilities. The remaining facilities perform one or more of several common management methods (e.g., deep-well/underground injection, metals recovery, incineration, landfill disposal).
The United States also uses other sites for waste management and disposal, but no comprehensive data sets are available. Before the 1970s, waste was not subjected to today’s legal requirements to reduce toxicity before disposal and was typically disposed of in open pits. Early land-disposal units that still pose threats to human health and the environment are considered contaminated lands and are subject to federal or state cleanup efforts.
Extent of Contaminated Land
Many contaminated sites must be managed and cleaned up today because of leaking underground storage tanks for gasoline (generally found under gas stations). These are located throughout the country, and their levels of contamination vary. Some sites involve small, nontoxic spills, such as a private garage where someone did an oil change. Others might involve large acreages of potential contamination, such as abandoned mine sites or a dry cleaning business tossing chemicals into the land behind the store. To address this contamination, federal and state programs use a variety of laws and regulations to initiate, implement, and enforce cleanup. The contaminated sites are generally classified according to applicable program authorities, such as RCRA Corrective Action, Superfund, and state cleanup programs.
The most toxic abandoned waste sites in the nation appear on the National Priorities List (NPL). Thus, examining the NPL data provides an indication of the extent of the most significantly contaminated sites. NPL sites are located in every state and several territories. As of May 2010, a total of 61 sites were proposed for listing; 1,279 sites had been finalized by then, and 341 had been deleted from the list. Sites are considered for deletion from the NPL list when cleanup is complete.
The EPA also estimates that approximately 3,700 hazardous waste management sites may be subject to RCRA corrective action, which would provide for investigation, cleanup, and remediation of releases of hazardous waste and constituents. Contamination at the sites ranges from small spills that require soil cleanup to extensive contamination of soil, sediment, and groundwater. Corrective action sites are given high priority and targeted for immediate action by federal, state, and local agencies.
Another type of contaminated land is a brownfield. Brownfields are areas with levels of contamination too low to qualify as Superfund sites. The soil may be highly polluted and carry an estimated cleanup cost of $6 million, while Superfund cleanup status generally starts at $20 million. Brownfields are often found in and around economically depressed neighborhoods. Cleanup and redevelopment puts these often abandoned properties back on the tax roles, benefitting a community financially and potentially providing jobs in the area. Brownfields cannot be redeveloped as community farms because of levels of contamination that the EPA finds acceptable for only redevelopment. The EPA bases its soil toxicity levels and their effect on human health on what would happen if a person ate a certain amount of soil. The EPA calculates “acceptable risk” based on how the property will be used in the future. That is typically determined by local zoning boards.
Human Health Effects and Contaminated Land
Determining the relationship between types of sites and human health is usually complicated. For many types of cancer, understanding is limited by science and the fact that people usually are exposed to many possible cancer-causing substances throughout their lives. Isolating the contributions of exposure to contaminants to incidence of respiratory illness, cancer, and birth defects is extremely difficult—impossible in many cases. Nonetheless, it is important to gain a more concrete understanding of how the hazardous materials associated with waste and contaminated lands affect human populations.
Although some types of potential contaminants and waste are not generally hazardous to humans, other types can pose dangers to health if people are exposed. The number of substances that exist that can or do affect human health is unknown; however, the TRI program requires reporting of more than 650 chemicals and chemical categories that are known to be toxic to humans.
The federal Superfund program identifies sources of common contaminants, including commercial solvents, dry-cleaning agents, and chemicals. With chronic exposure, commercial solvents such as benzene may suppress bone marrow function, causing blood changes. Dry-cleaning agents and degreasers contain trichloroethane and trichloroethylene, which can cause fatigue, depression of the central nervous system, kidney changes (e.g., swelling, anemia), and liver changes (e.g., enlargement). Chemicals used in commercial and industrial manufacturing processes—such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead, and mercury—may cause various health problems. Long-term exposure to lead may cause permanent kidney and brain damage. Cadmium can cause kidney and lung disease. Chromium, beryllium, arsenic, and cadmium have been implicated as human carcinogens.
Hazardous substances—whether present in waste, on lands used for waste management, or on contaminated land—can harm wildlife (e.g., cause major reproductive complications), destroy vegetation, contaminate air and water, and limit the ability of an ecosystem to survive. For example, if not properly managed, toxic residues from mining operations can be blown into nearby areas, affecting resident bird populations and the water on which they depend. Certain hazardous substances also have the potential to explode or cause fires, threatening both wildlife and human populations.
The negative effects of land contamination and occasionally of waste management on ecosystems occur after contaminants have been released on land (soil/sediment) or into the air or water.
The extent of land pollution is unknown at this time. Cleanup costs are enormous, which results in complex and expensive litigation to determine liability for these costs. In the United States, cities have only recently been included in the environmental protection policy umbrella. Controversies about land pollution generally focus on cleanup of the most serious wastes and/or relocation of the community.
Robert William Collin and Debra Ann Schwartz
- EPA, http://www.epa.gov/
- Genske, Dieter D., Investigation, Remediation, and Protection of Land Resources. Dunbeath, UK: Whittles, 2007.
- Macey, Gregg P., and Jonathan Z. Cannon, Reclaiming the Land: Rethinking Superfund Institutions, Methods, and Practices. New York: Springer, 2007.
- Nathanail, C. Paul, and R. Paul Bardos, Reclamation of Contaminated Land. New York: Wiley, 2004.
- Owens, Susan E., and Richard Cowell, Land and Limits: Interpreting Sustainability in the Planning Process. New York: Routledge, 2002.
- Randolph, John, Environmental Land Use Planning and Management. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2004.
- Sigman, Hillary, ed., The Economics of Hazardous Waste and Contaminated Land. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2008.