Excerpt of Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte
(Page 9 of 13)
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Lee County, one of South Carolina's poorest, receives a fifth of its
annual budget from Allied Waste, which pays $1.2 million a year to dump
there. Sumpter Township, in Michigan, turns a fraction of Toronto's
waste into nearly half its annual income. In 2003, Waste Management paid
Michigan's Lenox Township nearly $1.8 million, which it used to improve
a park, buy two EKG machines, and acquire two thermal-imaging cameras
for the fire department. Charles City County, in Virginia, lacks a
supermarket, drugstore, and bank. But after the Chambers Development
Company built a supersized landfill there, the county cut property taxes
(Chambers pays 30 percent of the county's operating budget) and started
to build schools. In Canton Township, Michigan, the Auk Hills landfill
contributed $13 million to build the town's Summit on the Park community
center. (These deal sweeteners aren't unique to trash and tiny towns:
before New York City could build a sewage treatment plant on Manhattan's
far Upper West Side, it promised the community a twenty-eight-acre park,
complete with soccer field, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and an
ice-skating rinkall sitting smack-dab atop the settling tanks and
Giant waste companies don't mind paying host fees: they help smooth
over community opposition and legal hassles. Christopher White,
president of Mid-American Waste Systems, explained the historical
setting of host fees to a Forbes reporter: "It's something the
utility companies and the railroads have done for years." In the dozens
of tiny towns that were exploited, then polluted and abandoned by King
Coal before being forced to contemplate megadumps in their scarred
backyards, this type of justification, made by an absentee power lord,
probably isn't all that reassuring.
"People get very rich very fast if they're willing to impose on a
poor community that can't fight back," Al Wurth, a political scientist
at Lehigh College, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, told me. "There are
enormous incentives for certain groups to do this. They're not thinking
about the effect of stuff three generations from now. They'll be gone.
But the stuff lingers on." It is an especially raw deal for neighboring
towns that aren't getting new ball fields and Fourth of July fireworks.
They get all the truck traffic, the air and water pollution, the birds,
the stench, and the degraded property values, but all the host benefits
lie just over the county line.
A decade before Fresh Kills was slated to close, New York City
officials went shopping for a new place to dump. One destination under
consideration was West Virginia's McDowell County, near the state's
southern border. Facing acute unemployment and underdevelopment, the
town of Welch, the county seat, saw no better economic alternative than
to build a landfill in a bowl-shaped hollow at the end of Lower Shannon
Branch, a dirt road that winds for six miles through hill country.
In exchange for accepting 300,000 tons of waste a month, most of it
from New York City, Welch would receive an $8 million fee from the
development company, 367 jobs, and one wastewater treatment plant, a
novelty for a county that, by dumping raw sewage into its creeks, had
been in violation of the Clean Water Act since 1972. Only a handful of
people had questions about the project, but just as the contract was
about to be signed, a protest movement materialized. Much was made of
the waste's provenance: accepting garbage from New York and New Jersey,
the landfill would surely be tainted with AIDS and by medical waste, it
would be run by the mob, and "cocktailed" with toxic and nuclear dregs.
(Homegrown trash, presumably, didn't even smell.) The plan was
ultimately defeated by economics, despite a referendum in favor of the
dump. In 2004, the landfill's developers presented a reworked proposal
for McDowell to the state legislature. After all, the county was still
in desperate financial straits, its creeks still flowed with sewage, and
New York was still producing waste.
From Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte. Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Royte. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.