Imagine a garbage dump the size of a small lake. Into its great belly would tumble not only common household waste, but asbestos, petroleum-contaminated soils, pesticide containers and the sludge from sewage-treatment plants. By the time its useful life was over, this landfill would contain enough refuse to fill 93 stadiums the size of Sun Devil Stadium.

Now imagine that it is located on the bank of the Valley's second-largest river, where record-setting floods have burst out of the channel twice in the past 15 years. Imagine further that this monumental waste cemetery sits astride a vast underground salt dome made unstable by years of salt mining and other industrial uses.

Between these two structures--the gigantic landfill and the fractured salt deposit--is an aquifer from which most of the west Valley draws its drinking water.

Finally, imagine as operator of the landfill a company that has been listed among the nation's worst environmental stewards by publications as diverse as Fortune magazine and Newswatch, a pro-environment periodical.

Now you know why Linda Timberlake is so upset.
Timberlake lives across the Agua Fria River from Browning-Ferris Industries' proposed landfill on the bank of the river 550 yards west of her suburban Peoria neighborhood. "I think it's an insane idea," Timberlake says. "It would be 130 feet above our drinking-water source, for heaven's sake. They can talk all they want about putting in liners and dikes, but nothing is going to stop Mother Nature."

BFI claims it can vanquish any and all of the natural hazards associated with this northwest Valley site with technology and the know-how that comes from being the nation's second-largest waste handler.

But Timberlake, an office worker turned activist, is not alone in doubting this claim. Like the tip of an iceberg on a collision course with an oil tanker, Timberlake's anger is only the most recognizable sign of the opposition to BFI's so-called Cholla landfill. The proposal scares many experts as well, including county flood-prevention officials, Maricopa County supervisor Carole Carpenter and a host of other community leaders experienced in the drawbacks of building garbage dumps next to rivers.

The conduct of state environmental officials evaluating the proposal causes as much concern as the landfill itself. Two weeks ago, more than 200 individuals and groups demanded the postponement of a public hearing scheduled for August 28. Not only has the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) granted preliminary approval to the dump, the critics complained, but DEQ has also withheld or failed to identify key technical documents on which its decision is based.

The history of riverside landfills in this area is not a pretty one. From one end of the Valley to the other, embankments are periodically littered with decaying garbage after washouts. Groundwater beneath existing landfills has been contaminated by chemicals that somehow made their way into the trash dumped into overlying pits.

The history of BFI is even less reassuring.

WHEN IT COMES to the environment, a company's standing on the United Way thermometer isn't a terribly reliable guide. A more effective approach might be to look at a company's compliance with environmental or business-ethics laws, for instance, as DEQ is required to do when considering a permit application. You can examine cases in which a firm has been the target of criminal charges or civil suits, or look for it on the federal roster of Superfund sites.

Apply any of these standards to BFI, and the answer is eye-popping: BFI's rap sheet is so long that not even the company itself seems capable of compiling a complete list. The record it has submitted to DEQ is as easily described by weight as by number of violations. Nor is BFI's list, its third effort to comply with the state law requiring full disclosure by environmental applicants, complete.

BFI claims to have made "significant efforts" to round up information from its 400 operating districts. But the company makes no mention of its most recent legal battle, a nationwide class-action suit brought by customers alleging price-fixing and antitrust conspiracy, which BFI will pay $30.5 million--the most expensive legal settlement in its history--to end.

Accusations that BFI engages in antitrust and price-fixing activities are nothing new--the company has been hauled into court at least ten times over these issues in the past decade, including five cases in which authorities won criminal convictions.

In a 1984 civil suit brought by Vermont garbage hauler Joe Kelly, BFI salesman Richard Rudolph testified that after Kelly refused a buy-out offer, Rudolph was ordered to "put him out of business. Do whatever it takes. Squish him like a bug." The jury convicted BFI and awarded Kelly more than $6 million in damages, a decision BFI fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the verdict.

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Kathleen Stanton