In our conversation with Dr G Fred Lee, he told us about a curious bit of make believe. The EPA’s statements on landfill liners have been a case of our problems will go away if we close our eyes and can’t see them.
Dr Lee explained that in the 1980s the EPA acknowledged that landfill liners will eventually fail, leading to leachate migration into groundwater. Citing the Federal Register in 1981 as found in Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News, Dr Lee quotes the EPA:
‘There is good theoretical and empirical evidence that the hazardous constituents that are placed in land disposal facilities very likely will migrate from the facility into the broader environment. This may occur several years, even many decades, after placement of the waste in the facility, but data and scientific prediction indicate that, in most cases, even with the application of best available land disposal technology, it will occur eventually.’
However, in the last decade the EPA has changed its opinion about the effectiveness of landfill liners without changing any of the liner construction regulations. According to Dr Lee: “The US EPA has been espousing on its website and in correspondence a different position, intimating that minimum Subtitle D landfill liner systems– which have not changed – now will be protective” (Lee, Flawed Technology, 8). You can read more here about Dr Lee’s perception the EPA’s change of opinion.
Margaret and I came away with the sense that our current attitude about leachate, like our attitude about garbage in general, is no more complex than pretending. We know that landfill liners can’t achieve 100% containment, but we aren’t willing to allow that our actions have consequences, so we say those liners really are perfect, and while we’re at it we might as well add that our farts don’t smell, either. It seems that we would be better off if we allowed (and expected) liners to fail and took account of this information when constructing landfills, rather than playing make believe.