Excerpt from Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Garbage Land

On the Secret Trail of Trash

by Elizabeth Royte

Garbage Land
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2005, 320 pages
    Aug 2006, 336 pages

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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 rink—all sitting smack-dab atop the settling tanks and sludge thickeners.)

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.

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