Coastal Landfills Are No Match for Rising Seas

Coastal Landfills Are No Match for Rising Seas

Coastal Landfills Are No Match for Rising Seas

As sea levels rise, the landfills along the US coasts have become a ticking environmental time bomb. So why does the federal government have no plan to avoid this looming catastrophe?

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Fae Saulenas knows that before long she’ll have to abandon the place she’s called home for decades. Nestled by a coastal wetland north of Boston called the Rumney Marsh Reservation, her house is a short walk from the Atlantic Ocean. In recent years, thanks in part to the climate emergency, king tides and storm surges have flooded her property. Saulenas has made peace with the fact that one day the floods will force her to leave.

But across the marsh from her sits the Wheelabrator landfill, an ever-growing pile of ash created by the landfill’s incinerator, which burns all the waste collected from the town of Saugus and its surrounding communities. For Saulenas, the knowledge that the same rising sea that will swallow her home will begin eroding that half-million-ton, 140-acre toxic ash stew disturbs the peace she’s made. Not only will she be forced to move inland, but the wetland that she loves—and that, since 1988, has been classified by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as an “area of critical environmental concern”—will be poisoned.

The landfill “was supposed to close 25 years ago,” she says, “but last November 1, they were granted another provisional five-year permit to keep dumping another 500,000 tons of incinerator trash—100,000 tons a year!”

Wheelabrator has no plan to remove what will end up being 1 million tons of ash, according to Chris Kilian, vice president of strategic litigation with the New England–based Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), which unsuccessfully fought the permit extension. “When its incinerator finally is shut down, the landfill will remain,” he says, “and will inevitably be breached by rising seas.” Wheelabrator did not respond to requests for comment.

As the toxic ash pollutes the marshes near Saulenas’s home, it will destroy an important habitat for migratory and breeding birds and other terrestrial wildlife and will damage an important nursery for commercial and ecologically important fish.

Leaking landfills that pollute wetlands, whether they hold incinerator ash known to be contaminated with the highly toxic chemical dioxin or rotting garbage and miscellaneous wastes, are the last thing that already-stressed sea life needs as it confronts a host of other environmental stressors and crises, including rising water temperatures, depleted oxygen levels, ocean acidification, and a withering food chain. In this way, the story of the Wheelabrator landfill and the Rumney Marsh it abuts is sadly not unique.

“There are maybe 100,000 landfills across the US, half of them along the coasts and typically located in places which couldn’t be used for anything else, because they are low-lying, water-soaked, or flood-prone,” says Noah Sachs, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia, where he heads its Center for Environmental Studies. “When the water comes in, it will uncover and release all that waste and the industrial wastes of whatever companies were around during the life of the local landfill.”

One hint at the scale of the looming crisis facing US coastal waters and communities comes from a multiyear study of UK coastlines published in 2019. Researchers at the University of Southampton and several other British universities located around 10,000 landfills along the portion of coast they studied, according to researcher Ivan Haigh, an associate professor of coastal oceanography at Southampton whose specialty is sea-level rise. “Some of the sites we found are right on the water,” he says, “and already, their sea-facing edges have been opened and they are spilling their contents—everything from lead, asbestos, and toxic chemicals—into the water.”

No comparable study has been conducted in the United States, but the UK findings make it clear that such an analysis of US coastal landfills is desperately needed.

The Environmental Protection Agency would be the most logical place to start with questions about the risks of rising seas to coastal landfills and whether the federal government is aware of the problem. But the EPA ignored requests for information until the Biden administration replaced Donald Trump’s climate-change-denying agency leadership in March. In April 2021, the EPA gave me access to several of the researchers who had published a paper in 2019 titled “Vulnerability of Waste Infrastructure to Climate Induced Impacts in Coastal Communities.” Though the study looked at operating landfills in only one municipality, Norfolk, Va., it provided insight into the scale of the threat to the entire US coastline—and offered some assurance that the federal government was at least aware of the problem.

Based on the assumption that the sea level will rise almost four feet by 2100—the worst-case prediction of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the time of the study—the EPA researchers concluded that Norfolk’s landfills would remain above sea level. But, they wrote, sea-level rise, “coupled with other climate-induced impacts such as more frequent and intense heavy precipitation events, hurricanes and resulting storm surges, and [an] increase in [the] number of tidal floods (nuisance floods), may increase recurring damage to municipal infrastructure, including waste management facilities.” The researchers noted that some of Norfolk’s larger landfills, like other coastal sites, have underground trenches that extend below the water table, and they warned of damage from below. If salt water intruded into the aquifer and replaced the fresh water that currently fills it, the EPA researchers wrote, it could penetrate the trenches’ clay liners and break through, causing the contents to become buoyant and burst out aboveground.

In April, I spoke with three authors of the EPA report, and they agreed that the threat that rising seas pose to landfills is “largely overlooked and ignored.” “A study of US coastal landfills is clearly needed,” says Susan Julius, one of the authors. But just locating and assessing all the landfills in coastal regions “would require political backing, and funding such a survey would be hugely expensive.” Under the Trump administration, the term “climate change” was virtually banned at the EPA and other agencies. It’s back in use now, but Republicans in the Senate aren’t exactly enthusiastic backers of climate action, making expensive climate projects a hard sell.

And beyond Republican obstruction, there’s an additional complicating factor: Since landfills are primarily overseen by states, an EPA spokesperson told The Nation in April, the agency has no centralized list of them—open and closed; federal, state, and municipal. The spokesperson added:

EPA researchers are aware of the need for a broad study on the impact of rising sea level on landfills in coastal areas, and areas prone to flooding…. A significant amount of study is necessary to understand all potential risks to human health and the environment associated with possible impacts from rising sea levels on operating and closed landfills and possible ways of assessing those risks…. Currently EPA is not planning any studies of this kind.

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The federal government began paying attention to the environmental hazards of toxic waste in the 1970s. In 1976, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, establishing federal authority over the disposal of hazardous waste in industrial and municipal landfills. In general, the regulation of landfills under the RCRA was left to state and local governments. In 1997, the federal government went a step further and determined that local and state governments would be fully responsible for regulating landfills that received less than 20 tons of municipal waste per day.

In the 1980s, the EPA, as well as many state departments of environmental protection, began requiring that new landfills have liners of clay, plastic, or both to keep waste from contaminating the surrounding earth. Before that, most municipal landfills were unlined, meaning there was no barrier between the ground and the waste. And while some legacy dumps that have ceased operation were covered with plastic and topped with earth, countless others that were closed before the ’80s were simply bulldozed over with dirt and abandoned.

The UK study framed the situation simply. “The nature of the problem is long-term as erosion will increase with sea level rise and it is likely that the landfill sites contain some of the early plastics,” the researchers wrote. “Given that these can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, it will be necessary to continue to contain the sites for the foreseeable future, as removal is unlikely to be a feasible option.”

Early plastics are just one concern. Any landfill, closed or still operating, that received waste prior to when regulations were established could contain toxic products. The Norfolk study’s authors confirmed this point.

For example, New Jersey’s Middlesex Municipal Landfill, which was established in the early 1940s and closed in 1974, received significant amounts of soil waste from other sites in the state that contained pitchblende (a radioactive, uranium-rich ore) used in the Manhattan Project during World War II. A Department of Energy report stated that remediation of that material was considered complete as of 1986 but that in 2008, New Jersey authorities reported finding radium and uranium contamination.

Also, it takes a lot less than radioactive waste to do substantial environmental damage, which makes these coastal landfills ticking time bombs that threaten their surrounding ecosystems and, in turn, the climate itself. A recent op-ed in The Hill warned that wetlands, besides being important for all the flora and fauna that rely on them for part of their life cycles, are a significant carbon sink; the wetlands surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, for example, sequester over 2.2 million tons of carbon per year. The op-ed’s author, Rodrigo Vargas, is a professor in the University of Delaware’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. “If these ecosystems are degraded or damaged,” he warns, “their capacity to capture and store carbon can be reduced—or even lost—resulting in CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) being released back to the atmosphere and contributing to global environmental change.”

Harold Wanless, a professor of geology at the University of Miami who specializes in sea-level rise, says the failure to address the “colossal” problem of coastal landfills is systemic. “Because people still think sea-level rise will be limited to just a few feet over almost a century—which just isn’t true—it’s not perceived as an urgent problem. Besides, politically, these sites are the responsibility of local government—towns and counties—and the political leaders at that level tend to just kick the can down the road. They won’t be in charge when water reaches the landfill, and so why should they raise taxes to fix it now?” Twenty years from now, Wanless adds, when the reality of sea-level rise is impossible to ignore, the property values that provide the local tax base needed to pay for dealing with the crisis will have plummeted.

The concerns about long-term landfill management expressed by experts across scientific disciplines like Wanless and Sachs are shared by Nick Lapis, the director of advocacy at Californians Against Waste. “The problem with landfills is that they never go away. You have to manage them in perpetuity, and there isn’t a liner or cap that is warrantied to last for that long,” he says. “And they’re not stable. They move and shrink as their contents decay, and the plastic liners will get brittle and crack as the pressures cause them to fold over on themselves. Sooner or later they will fail, as will the clay liners, and the effects of any failure can be absolutely devastating on the environment.” He adds, “From a financial standpoint the original owner, if [the landfills] were privately owned, is often long gone by the time they fail, so taxpayers will be left on the hook.”

Some communities are beginning to test whether they can sue the industries—the oil, gas, coal, electric, and perhaps automotive companies—that created, accelerated, and then denied the existence of the climate emergency. The city of Imperial Beach, Calif., near San Diego, filed a lawsuit in 2017 against ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, and others, alleging that they created a public nuisance by intensifying climate change. Dozens of other cities and states, including Baltimore and New Jersey, are suing major fossil fuel companies over the damage to their infrastructure that’s resulted from extreme weather events, including fires and storms.

Getting redress in the courts is difficult without a clear and accurate assessment of the scale of the problem. Besides the lack of hard data about the number and location of coastal landfills, the IPCC has consistently low-balled its projections of sea-level rise. Released every four years, these projections have routinely been outpaced by subsequent predictions that take into account, for example, new evidence of faster ice melt and actual sea-level rise.

Wanless predicts that seas will have risen dramatically by 2100—by 10 or even 15 feet. Therefore, he says, dealing with the coastal landfills, which he thinks may mean moving their fetid contents inland, “should be done now, when it will be a lot cheaper, and not when they’re already underwater or, if they are mounds or hills built above ground level, islands surrounded by seawater.”

The South Dade landfill in Florida offers a less than hopeful picture of what can be done to protect landfills from sea-level rise and storm surges. The monstrous man-made mound of garbage was established in 1978 less than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean along a sea-level canal. South Dade’s dump rises 150 feet above ground level, making it the second-highest point on the southern Florida peninsula (neighboring Broward County’s 200-foot landfill is the highest). It receives garbage and solid waste from all over Miami.

“When the last cell is done, we’ll have to close the operation,” says Achaya Kelapanda, an assistant director in the Miami-Dade County Department of Solid Waste Management. He says that will happen in 10 to 13 years, during which time the landfill will have grown significantly. And what then? “We’ll put a cap on it,” he says. “What else can we do? You can’t move a mountain.”

There are mining companies in West Virginia and several other coal states that might contest Kelapanda on that, but in any event, the prospect of having to move mountains of garbage away from coastal areas is staggering. And it leaves the Sierra Club’s New Jersey director, Jeff Tittel, dismayed about the future for the northeast part of the state. “Eight of the landfills in the New Jersey Meadowlands are huge—one’s a mile long and 300 feet high! Even the smaller ones would cost a fortune to move, and the guilty parties are local counties, which don’t have the funds to remediate them.”

He sighed. “They’ll try to protect them with dikes and by capping them, but none of that is going to work. We’re talking about at least an eight-foot sea rise by 2100—and we already saw that much water as a storm surge during Hurricane Sandy [in 2012], and a lot of landfills and Superfund sites got overtopped by that. It’s just a stopgap solution.”

Down in Virginia Beach, Va., stands a 60-foot-tall, 800-foot-long grassy ridge. One would never guess that six feet beneath the groomed sod lies a thick plastic liner that covers 640,000 tons of municipal waste. In the mid-1960s, city leaders greenlighted a project that would turn that mountain of waste sitting just a dozen feet above sea level and two miles from the Atlantic Ocean in two directions into a park, officially called Mount Trashmore Park.

If the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s current worst-case scenario of an eight-foot rise in sea level comes to pass, Mount Trashmore will have to be renamed Trashmore Island, at least during storms. And as Virginia Beach, with an average elevation of 12 feet above sea level, gets swallowed by the Atlantic Ocean—perhaps before the end of the century, as Wanless and others predict—wave action and storm surges will inevitably eat away at the mountain.

Virginia Beach is “looking into solutions, like perhaps floodgates,” to block storm surges, says Ben McFarlane, a senior planner at the Hampton Roads Regional Planning District Commission, which includes the city in its jurisdiction. But he admits the initial concept, which takes “fiscal constraints” into consideration, is based on a projected sea-level rise of just 4.5 feet by century’s end.

Unless an epic national campaign is mounted soon to start relocating landfills, or unless the world takes drastic action to significantly reduce atmospheric carbon and slow climate change, Mount Trashmore and the thousands of other landfills dotting the US coastline are on track to be overcome by rising seas—toxic waste and all.

In the process of reporting this article, I was reminded of an interview I did in 2016 with three scientists from the Netherlands. They were part of a team tasked by the Dutch government to come up with a plan to save the below-sea-level country from inundation for two more centuries. The scientists described an ambitious, multibillion-euro scheme to design barriers to withstand two meters of sea rise. I asked what would happen if the seas rose more than that in less than 200 years. They looked at each other. “Well, then we’ll have to give most of the country up and move inland, becoming climate refugees.”

In the United States, when it comes to coastal landfills, nobody is thinking so apocalyptically. There is talk from some US experts about the need to plan for managed retreats from low-lying coastal cities, but landfills so far aren’t part of that calculus. “My fear,” says the University of Richmond’s Sachs, “is that the local municipal landfills will be the last thing left behind as the cities and suburbs migrate away from the coast.”

For Fae Saulenas, the time is coming to leave her house on the edge of Rumney Marsh and the mammoth ash pile growing in that tidal wetland. Unlike the town leaders and state regulators—who, it bears repeating, recently granted the Wheelabrator company and its incinerator another five-year permit to double the size of its ash dump to 1 million tons—Saulenas knows that reality cannot be put off any longer. “For the last 10 years, I’ve been trying to develop an exit strategy for leaving this house that my daughter and I have lived in for almost half a century,” she says. “I’ve learned long ago that denial gets you nowhere.”

CLF attorney Kilian agrees. “Instead of adding to the problem through continued operation, [Wheelabrator’s] focus should be on dealing with the present and entirely foreseeable risks of sea-level rise, flooding, and extreme storms and precipitation,” he says. “As the facility is inevitably flooded and eroded and these risks further manifest, the environmental harm will be catastrophic.”

“Every window on my house has a sign in it saying, ‘This is a flood area!’” Saulenas says. “I know that annoys some of my neighbors, but eventually the water in the marsh will rise and they’ll all be refugees.”

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