The Cumberland Landfill: Another Case of Risk Illiteracy

by James A. Bacon

Last year the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors approved a conditional use permit for construction of a 500-acre mega-landfill. Some county residents welcome the facility, which would generate between $1.4 million and $2.8 million a year in host fees and provide a huge revenue boost to a county budget of roughly $15 million a year. But others oppose the project.

Irène Mathieu, a Charlottesville pediatrician, raises all sorts of phantasmagorical concerns in an op-ed today appearing in The Virginia Mercury. In her clinic, she says, she encounters children suffering from asthma or complications from premature births. “The scientific evidence tells us that air and water pollution are contributing factors to these children’s problems, and that the burden from pollution is disproportionately borne by children of color and those living in poverty.”

Threats to Cumberland County families and children — nearly one-third of whom are African-American, she points out — include groundwater contamination, dust, methane, and “dramatic surges in traffic.” The landfill, she adds, would close off a road in front of a historic African-American school, rendering community access nearly impossible. Further, she writes, “I worry about the self-worth of children who grown up with no access to their local history, the graves of their ancestors now a repository for trash.”

Wow! Where does one begin to dissect this kind of logic?

Just for starters, perhaps one could start with the observation that the air pollution that contributes to asthma among the urban children treated by Dr. Mathieu comes from ozone, or nitrogen oxide… a result of fossil fuel combustion… which does not occur at a landfill.

As for methane, last I heard, the chemical might be a greenhouse gas, but it’s lighter than air and poses no threat to people on the ground. Methane emissions might be problematic for balloonists flying over the landfill, but not to anyone else. Actually, even balloonists need not worry. The Cumberland landfill plan calls for capturing the methane as a fuel source.

While we’re talking about “the scientific evidence,” perhaps we could request Dr. Mathieu to actually provide some. She suggests that the landfill poses a threat to drinking water from wells. What toxic materials are likely to leak from the landfill, which is sealed by synthetic liners, and at what rate? How does that rate of leakage compare to the migration of groundwater past the landfill? How contaminated is that groundwater likely to get — will concentrations of chemicals exceed safety levels established by the Environmental Protection Agency? How many households’ water wells are likely to be contaminated? What are the odds that someone drinking well water might actually suffer an adverse health effect? One in a thousand? One in a million? One in a billion?

Not only does Dr. Mathieu fail to impress me with her command of “the scientific evidence,” she shows no awareness whatsoever of economic principles.

First point: If the landfill is not built in Cumberland County, where will the trash be disposed of? The 5,000 tons per day of trash won’t disappear. It has to be put somewhere. In other words, preventing construction of the Cumberland landfill would displace the disposal of trash to some other location so it becomes someone else’s problem. Will those other locations be built to the same design and engineering standards? Will they be as safe as the Cumberland project — or less safe?

Just wondering: Does Dr. Mathieu know where her trash goes? How does the City of Charlottesville dispose of its garbage? Does it wind up in landfills? Are those landfills state-of-the-art? Do they pose health threats to nearby residents?

Second point: The landfill will generate a revenue stream of between $1.4 million and $2.8 million per year for Cumberland County. What could the Board of Supervisors do with that money? Well, perhaps it could build a new road to improve access to the historic school Dr. Mathieu seems so worried about. Perhaps it could double, triple, or quadruple funding for the local health department — which stood at a mere $92,000 in fiscal 2019. How many lives could such a funding increase save? Alternatively, perhaps the board could bolster the $3.9 million it dishes off to the county’s public school system. Might a 50% increase in local funding improve the educational outcomes and “self-worth” of the county’s African-American children?

Although landfill technology has improved in recent years, Dr. Mathieu concedes, “no landfill can completely eliminate the environmental risks that come with such massive collections of waste.” So, that’s the new standard — zero risk.

News flash: Zero risk is a mirage. You can manage risk and reduce it to levels you can live with. Otherwise, you just displace risk to where you can’t see it and don’t worry about it while creating new risks in the process. Chemophobia and environmental hysteria lead to worse outcomes, not better ones. Zero risk is madness.

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22 responses to “The Cumberland Landfill: Another Case of Risk Illiteracy

  1. Shouldn’t whatever risk is involved be the shared responsibility of those who are putting trash into the landfill?

    Landfills are only one “externality” of urban areas. The other is sewage sludge from wastewater treatment plants.

    All around urban places like NoVa and Richmond, Hampton, Charlottesville are landfills and sewage sludge sites… whois responsible to ensure they do not damage the water table and air quality of the folks who live around those sites?

    We’ve been down this road before – where the polluters lobby for less regulation.. because it makes landfilling and sewage sludge disposal more expensive right?

    Is that essentially a rural subsidy of the urban areas?

  2. I like to think of myself as the retired Obi-Wan Kenobi of trash wars of the past era. I have not yet used my light saber in Virginia even though I am not happy with the Mount Trashmore attitude of southern Virginia. And I was not happy with the Trash Train coming in from New York and New Jersey.

    New Jersey solved it historic trash importation problems by adopting a policy of state control of trash within state boundaries (no out-of-state trash), and then each County had responsibility to control trash with its own boundaries.

    The general public suffers from what I call the Kinsley Landfill syndrome, also known as the PITBY – Put it in Their Backyard
    – syndrome. Basically I favor smaller, more decentralized handling if trash, inlcuding recycling, treatment by advanced incinertation and disposal of the small amount of remaining residual.

    My County in New Jersey implemented a County-wide program – in part due to my pressure as a concerned citizen- and it worked well. But later the US Supreme Court struck down NJ’s program, saying we could not stop out-of-state trash from coming in. Also some bigger NJ counties preferred to outhaul their trash to Virginia, who happily accepted it.

    Still I feel NJ approach in principle works, perhaps we need to tell the US Supreme Court, if nobody cannot stop trash-in-hauls, we will take all the trash to the US Supreme court’s backyards.

    • P.S.- By way of definition, Kinsley Landfill was essentially the last of the big monster landfills in NJ, in my backyard as it turns out. We got it closed, big news, even national TV, at the time.

    • PITBY – Put it in Their Backyard.

      Good phrase.

      Once you’ve recycled all you can recycle, you’ve got to put the trash somewhere…. unless you want it to pile up in the streets, which, needless to say, would not be conducive public health. So, the questions become, where do you put it, and how tightly do you regulate it?

      I can’t repeat this often enough: The trash has to go somewhere!

      It makes no economic sense to put landfills in urban areas where the real estate is expensive. It makes far more sense to dispose of it in lightly populated rural areas where (a) land is cheaper, (b) fewer people will be negatively impacted, and (c) hosting fees can make a big difference to local government budgets. Once you’ve made that decision, the only issue that remains is to ensure that the landfills don’t leak and do harm to local water supplies.

      • The trash has to go somewhere, but it does not have to be a monster landfill. if you are recycling and incinerating, there is not much to deal with if your boundaries are reasonable.

        Implementing County-wide approach is NJ was not easy, because the county powers liked in-hauling trash, and they did not want to build new incinerators and landfills for the County. It was hard work and much planning to make the Counties follow new NJ state policy, and some did follow, and some did not want to. As a concerned citizen at least I had state policy and state-wide support for what I was fighting for.

        You cannot fight City Hall, so if the state is not trying to improve the situation, you are hosed as a locality.

        • Ah, the incineration option. When you burn the waste, you super-concentrate the toxic elements in the ash — like the coal ash problem on steroids. Then you have to dispose of the ash. … I suppose it does reduce the volume of material that must be landfilled, but I can’t imagine that solution reducing the fears of the chemophobics.

  3. Appropos of nothing, a few years ago i was in fredericksburg waiting for an Amtrak in raw, biting cold. My train was late but i saw several garbage trains from Up North trundle south. That really annoyed me.

    • When I see garbage trains, I see $$$$ for some rural Virginia locality because people in New Jersey (friends of TBill) don’t like the idea of burying their trash anywhere near them.

    • When I first saw/smelled the Trash Train here, it was a close encounter at L’Enfant Plaza in DC near the Whitehouse, coming home from July 4th on the VRE platform for the Fireworks Express.

      This inspired me to write an unpublished book: “Oh Say, Does that Trash Train Still Runneth?”

      I tried to recreate this scenario for some book cover photos, but the Fireworks Express has been intermittent and has changed to Union Station when it does run (wonder why?).

  4. So you me as trash, too? Thanks a lot, pal!

  5. The problem with the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to dumping urban trash in rural areas is that it does not force urbanites to confront the reality of their own impact on the planet. If we required ALL trash (even the hazardous stuff) to be dumped within 5 miles of its source, you can bet more humans would figure out a way to reduce, reuse, and recycle real quick. The problem with the rural economics is that the revenue drops off once a dump fills. Making things worse, the dump scares away other types of investors in the community. You can see it in coal towns that became landfill towns that are now ghost towns. Rural communities need to think long-term, as tempting as it is to jump on a quick buck.

  6. This issue is bigger than a single landfill in Cumberland County.

    “After a spill by Duke Energy filled the Dan River with coal ash, North Carolina dug up its coal ash ponds and sent nearly 750,000 tons of excavated material to Georgia and Virginia in the 2015-16 fiscal year.”

    So, how dangerous is the coal ash North Carolina exports into Virginia (presumably with our General Assembly’s blessing)? A story from Tennessee and Alabama is instructive ….

    “In many cases, that “elsewhere” looks a lot like rural, small-town Jesup. A power plant in Harriman, Tennessee, sent 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge into a nearby river in 2008. Hundreds of workers responsible for cleaning up the mess have since come down with lung diseases, cancers, skin conditions and “other ailments linked in medical research to the toxic stew of chemicals and metals in coal ash,” according to a USA Today investigation last year. Dozens of those workers have already died. Once the sludge was cleaned up and dried later in 2008, it was a landfill in the poor, majority-Black city of Uniontown, Alabama, that ended up taking 4 million tons (the majority) of the recovered ash.”

    • This was one of the concerns I raised earlier this year during some of our discussions on Dominon’s coal ash dumps and the decision to move them–where are we going to put the stuff? The answer, of course: in some poor, rural community.

  7. I seem to remember a big fight in Virginia many years ago about bringing in trash (garbage) from other states. There was much offense at the idea of rural Virginia becoming the dumping ground for New York. I assume it was the Supreme Court decision that TBill referred to that ended that discussion.

    It is my impression that the Va. DEQ has fairly strict regulations on solid waste facilities. The largest one near Richmond, I think, is in Charles City County (another poor, rural, largely black locality) and I haven’t heard of any problems with leakage into ground water or any other issue.

    I agree with TBill–smaller, decentalized landfills and more recycling. The problem is that the economics don’t seem to support this. Now that China is now longer accepting US recycling, the market is drying up for this material. Chesterfield County is even seriously considering stopping its recycling program due to the increasing costs. (I wonder if the landfill tipping fees would be less.) Henrico County closed its landfill a few years ago and now hauls its solid waste to somewhere else, presumably to Charles City County, rather than develop a new one. The area of the county in which the now-closed landfill is located has been developing very fast recently (I can remember when it seemed to be in the boondocks) and I assume it would have been too expensive, not to say politically objectionable, to expand that landfill.

    I realize that these landfills can bring needed revenue to these rural counties, such as Charles City and Cumberland. But it is somehow discomfiting to me that the urban areas foist our unwanted land uses–prisons, landfills, solar farms, coal ash–onto the rural areas.

    • Recycling does not have to mean recycling everything. Yard debris should be segregated. Also China’s only complaint is too much trash blent in with the plastics (not that I favor sending to China). Recycling hurdles can often be overcome with a little effort: new facilities with better separation etc.

      The Supreme Court ruling disallowing states to control trash in their own boundaries is, first of all, probably ethically wrong, but not insurmountable. If you have a humongous landfill that is allowed to take anything, that landfill is allowed to do whatever they want. But you can close the landfill when it reaches it’s permittted volume limit, and reopen a new smaller landfill, and only for example allow that landfill to take incinerator ash, and such treasted waste. Now then out-of-staters can still use it but they have to pay the price and pre-treat their garbage via incineration or whatever rules.

  8. Found this:

    “In the 1980’s, Arlington and Alexandria realized they were running out of landfill space for disposal of solid waste, and the costs to meet te new state regulations was going to be high. Arlington and Alexandria chose to abandon disposal in landfills and joined together to build a joint waste-to-energy facility, implementing a new technology to solve an old problem.”

    “Fairfax also built a waste-to-energy facility at Lorton. In Fairfax County, trucks haul solid waste between waste transfer stations (including one at the old I-66 landfill) and the waste-to-energy facility (incinerator) at Lorton or the Prince William County landfill. The trailers of those trucks are a distinctive tan color.The county has closed all of its municipal solid waste landfills except the I-95 Landfill. Municipal solid waste is directed to the incinerator at Lorton.”

    Not sure why Henrico couldn’t have gone the waste-to-energy route.

  9. I don’t know, other than there is not one in the Richmond region. I had forgotten about the waste-to-energy facilities. I did not know there was one in Northern Virginia and I just ran across a reference to one in Southeast Virginia that I had known about and forgotten. To me, that seems the most responsible way to go.

  10. Recylcing – as in domestic – in your own county – recycling is an issue now that China and others refuse to take our “recycling” and now we have to do something with it – and the bottom line is that it costs more to recycle it than landfill it.

    Also -none of the discussion above addressed what we do with sewage sludge. All that rural-grown food that is imported into urban areas turns into POOP. What do we do with it? Again – if urban areas had to actuall do something with it – as opposed to sending into rural farms – what would happen?

    • Like everything else there is wide range of readily available technology such as sludge incenation and anerobic disgestion to manage sewage sludge. Unfort that technology costs about 5 cents, so it is better to spread on the ground somewhere, right? And of course liberals feel incineration destroys life on planet Earth so we cannot take a civilized approach if said approach is politically incorrect.

  11. Another problem with the Cumberland landfill is that is it right against Powhatan. Those landowners are stuck with all the negatives and risk but their county will not benefit from the earnings. We need to find appropriate ways to identify early people who are affected by such decisions and ways to address their concerns and make sure benefit gets shared fairly.

    Further, if you trust that the toxins will be kept in the landfill, you’re not like most of us. Today we put too much trust in the polluters to do the right thing. Our system does not adequately identify and address the risks to human health from such infrastructure. Costs to truly protect the environment and health have never been faced and too many are OK with the way things are. When you don’t measure human health you can’t show problems. That’s our standard solution. It needs to change.

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