Ever since the Industrial Revolution began more than 100 years ago, America has assumed that to dispose of its foulest industrial wastes all it had to do was to dig a hole in the ground, dump it, and forget it.Skip to next paragraph
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To such dreamers, the patient earth has finally sent a mailgram: "The party is over."
Toxic wastes, especially chemicals, it now appears, don't stay put. They take their time -- sometimes decades. But eventually they ooze, give off evil smells, bubble up in noxious fumes as they did at Love Canal in New York, even explode and burn.
Most alarming of all, they seep down into ground water, migrating slowly, silently, and unseen in plumes of contamination that enter and poison wells on which half the nation depends for its drinking water.
The exact scope of the problem, which has surfaced only in the last two or three years in communities all over the nation, is unknown but obviously immense. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that this year 57 million metric tons of America's total waste can be classified as hazardous. The agency says it "has on file hundreds of documented cases of damage to life and the environment resulting from the indiscriminate or improper management of hazardous wastes."
Nearly all these cases, it reports, involve groundwater pollution stemming from improperly sited or operated landfills, pits, ponds, and lagoons.
Besides the millions of tons of waste being piped or plopped into these leaky depositories from on-going industrial operations, untold volumes of waste are moldering in abandoned dumps, the locations of which are unknown in many cases. The owners have either disappeared, gone bankrupt, or lack the enormous amount of money needed to clean up the mess.
Hence the "Hunt the Dump" program recently launched by the Sierra Club and Environmental Action. This joint nationwide program to turn hikers into hunters -- dump hunters in their own communities -- was inspired by the actions of a group of Sierra Club members in Acton, Massachusetts.
In 1978, the Acton citizens were alarmed when their noses were assaulted by a dreadful formaldehyde-like odor. It came from the direction of the Acton plant of W. R. Grace & Co., America's fifth largest chemical firm.
It was autumn, one of those brilliant Sunday afternoons that lure even the most sedentary out into the New England sunshine.
Alexandra Dawson of Weston hopped onto her new bike and pedaled over to the home of her friends, the Richard A. MacCrackens. Both she and Mr. MacCracken are members of the Sierra Club's Thoreau Group west of Boston. Where should they go for a ride?
Why not, Dick suggested, do a little sleuthing over by the Grace Company? The firm had applied to the Board of Selectmen for a permit to expand its six-building operation to include on its tract of about 250 acres a new plant for manufacturing battery separators. It would be using a process different from the one it was then employing. The application had become a town issue.
"We thought any expansion of the plant should be stopped until the air pollution problem was cleared up," Mr. MacCracken explains.
When the Sierrans arrived at the back side of the property, they found no fence, no signs forbidding trespassing, just a tempting railroad spur. They decided to walk along it. Suddenly they stopped short.
"What we saw," says Mrs. Dawson, "was the first of two lagoons. This larger one had steaming vapor coming off it. We could see a pipe feeding into it from the plant a liquid that looked like diluted milk."
"The lagoon had a ghostly appearance on the surface," Mr. MacCracken recalls. "Leaves on the trees around it were all wilting. Pine trees had lost their needles. The odor from it was just deadening."