The Weight of a Word

Feletia Lee is graduating with a Master's of Science in Coastal and Ocean Policy in May. She works at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort as the environmental coordinator and will be spending three weeks with the National Park Service in Yellowstone helping collect data for the Cutthroat trout conservation program. 

When I began my internship at the New Hanover County landfill, I didn't really understand what a landfill was. For some reason, I had a mental picture of mountains of trash teeming with rats. Liquid sludge pooled up and swarming with flies. And a stench so horrid it singed my nostril hairs. I had no idea it was so clean and orderly. Sure, there's a smell (not all that bad really), and it has its own version of rats (we call them seagulls), but on the whole, the county landfill is, well, sanitary. But those pools of liquid sludge I envisioned? They do actually have that, but not like I imagined.

Leachate (the liquid sludge) is something every landfill generates. The amount produced is a function of rainfall and whether or not the cell is capped. It's a by-product of decomposition within the landfill. Precipitation falls onto the solid waste, trickles through the layers, and mixes with any disposed liquids already in the landfill cell. By the time the liquid gets to the bottom of the landfill cell, it's chock full of caustic chemicals such as mercury, acids, and ammonia. Leachate is some pretty wicked stuff. Untreated, it could render an aquifer undrinkable or destroy a river ecosystem.

Funny, given how dangerous it is, it's a wonder I've never really heard of it before.

Often when people think about toxic, hazardous waste, they visualize mysterious, ethically challenged super-conglomerate burying rusted vats of fluorescent green bubbling sludge along riverbanks. Mom and Dad scraping leftover food scraps into the trash couldn’t possibly be creating TOXIC WASTE!!

But Mom and Dad are creating toxic sludge, as we all are every time we put carbonaceous materials into the trash. The more organic, or carbon based, material decomposing in a landfill; the more lethal the leachate.

Prior to the 90’s, raw leachate seeped into the ground slowly making its poisonous journey into our aquifers. Since then, we've recognized the dangers involved with leachate and changed how we handle it in order to mitigate the environmental hazards it presents. Today, the federal government heavily regulates leachate to protect public health; however, as regulations become more and more stringent, taxpayers have to invest more and more money into treating leachate.

Even though leachate is toxic, produced in massive quantities, and is difficult and expensive to treat, the public rarely hears about it. Indeed, trusted authorities generally downplay leachate toxicity and connection to everyday household behavior. The EPA explains the process and creation of leachate to the public using the metaphor of percolating coffee. How simple and easy to understand. But also, how NOT dangerous. Coffee is the nectar of the gods in my mind! This innocuous metaphor may aid in the public's understanding of how water moves through a landfill but hinders the appreciation of public and environmental impacts.

What we throw away matters. The danger of leachate is directly related to the content of a landfill. The more carbonaceous material a landfill receives, the higher the ammonia concentrations in the leachate. And that carbon based material is generated by every day folks like me and you.

We all pay for leachate treatment through our garbage and disposal fees and taxes. If leachate continues to increase in potency and federal regulations continue to be more stringent, more money will be needed for better treatment facilities. Those costs will be picked up by taxpayers. By being proactive about controlling the waste stream upfront enables less reactive measures on the back end. In order for policy makers to develop proactive waste stream control, the public needs to understand the dangers associated with leachate.

The language of leachate matters. Discussing threats to public health using misleading imagery conflicts with the public’s right to know. For communities to truly move toward, and participate in, zero-waste measures and reduce taxpayer burdens, it is essential to frame leachate dangers in language that is true and accurate.


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