Garbage Time

Something besides the dump stinks in Mobile

At the same time Waste Management is spending money to save Mobile from a competitor's dump, Butterfield is importing thousands of tons of garbage from across the nation -- and even Mexico -- that other states deem too dangerous to go into their own landfills.

Since 1996, Butterfield has accepted more than 255,000 tons of out-of-state waste, mostly from California, but also from as far away as Michigan and North Carolina. Nearly 10,200 tons have been imported from Mexico. Much of it, such as 60,000 tons of San Francisco Bay sludge laced with DDT and other toxins that was excavated to build Pac Bell Park, couldn't legally be sent to dumps closer to where the waste came from.

Ruby Parmar relaxes at home near the proposed dump.
Jackie Mercandetti
Ruby Parmar relaxes at home near the proposed dump.
Terry Hudson remembers when the local church was full.
Jackie Mercandetti
Terry Hudson remembers when the local church was full.

Waste Management officials avoid the words "hazardous waste." "We do take some waste into Butterfield from outside Arizona, especially special waste that can't find a home in the [originating] market," explains Woods, the company's general counsel. "We wouldn't take anything that didn't meet our permit requirements."

While Maricopa County requires Waste Management to report how much trash is imported to Butterfield, the state doesn't track how much out-of-state garbage, or precisely what kind, is deposited in Arizona landfills. That means that in many cases, no one in this state is keeping track of what kind of garbage comes into Arizona.

When the Department of Environmental Quality two years ago sent a survey to landfill operators asking how much and what type of waste they accepted from outside Arizona, only half of the entities surveyed returned questionnaires, says Cortland Coleman, DEQ spokesman.

"Any time you have a situation where you don't mandate an activity, you're only going to get a certain amount of response," Coleman observes. Coleman dodged questions as to whether DEQ is concerned about the amount and type of waste imported into Arizona landfills. Although he initially said DEQ director Steve Owens would respond to questions, Coleman subsequently said the director was too busy.

According to a report in the March issue of Waste Age, a solid-waste industry magazine, chances to profit from long-hauling garbage by rail will likely mushroom nationwide over the next dozen years as dumps near large metropolitan areas reach capacity. Waste Management officials downplay the possibility that out-of-state shipments to Mobile will increase. While there's nothing to prevent Southpoint from importing garbage from outside Arizona, Jason Barney insists such a scheme wouldn't pencil out.

"The farther away you get from a landfill, the more expensive it gets," he explains. "The ability for us to be able to take out-of-state waste, or even waste from other than Maricopa and Pinal County, just economically isn't going to work out."

Nonetheless, there would be plenty of space available.

The Butterfield landfill won't reach capacity for 110 years. The Sierra Estrella landfill in Pinal County, also owned by Waste Management, is 10 minutes away and has an estimated 40 years of life, but it isn't being used because there's sufficient space at Butterfield. According to a study released last year by the Maricopa Association of Governments, there's plenty of room for local garbage in existing dumps through the year 2050.

"It's real obvious that Southpoint is going to bring in waste from California," says Steve Brittle, president of Don't Waste Arizona. "There's no need for this dump. When we looked at this project to begin with, we were really kind of stunned."

Brittle is also concerned about what kind of waste would go into the proposed dump. He points out that no one can guarantee that dangerous waste won't be sent to Southpoint.

That's already happened at Butterfield, where TRW, a Mesa company that manufactures automotive air bags, dumped millions of gallons of wastewater contaminated with sodium azide, a toxic chemical that is supposed to go to licensed hazardous-waste sites. Waste Management wasn't punished, but TRW in 2001 agreed to pay the state and federal government more than $22 million in civil and criminal penalties. But the dumping didn't stop. Federal records show that TRW dumped more than four tons of sodium azide at Butterfield since a whistle-blower alerted authorities to the illegal dumping in 1997.

Coleman, the DEQ spokesman, says the federal records are misleading. He explains that sodium azide dumped at Butterfield since 1997 came in the form of residue attached to more than four tons of clothing, containers and various trash, but he can't pinpoint exactly how much of the chemical was on the garbage.

"When it comes to trash that's contaminated with sodium azide, there are some conditions that allow for that to be dumped there," he says.

Sandy Bahr, conservation director for the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, says Arizona has become a dumping ground for other states, and lawmakers haven't done enough to keep track of what's going into landfills and prevent illegal dumping. She suggests that the state raise disposal fees and use the money to hire more landfill inspectors. "Solid-waste disposal is really cheap in Arizona," she says. "As long as the over-arching policies, whether at the state or county level, are weak, we're going to continue being a dumping ground. What we really need are some leaders in this state who understand it doesn't make sense, economically or environmentally, to continue with these kinds of policies."

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