GARBAGE trucks burdened with 90 cubic yards of trash are etched like Tonka Toys against a gray smudge of sky as they clamber up the 135-foot slopes of garbage dominating Staten Island's western shore. Mounds of refuse shake underfoot as compactors squash and spread assorted debris from a throwaway society across 2,930 acres: mattresses, beer cans, tires, rugs, milk cartons. Sea gulls swarm like black flies over the rotting waste. This is Fresh Kills landfill, the largest municipal garbage dump on the planet, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Solid-waste engineers and environmentalists alike call these towers of trash a permanent monument to a culture of instant disposability. And the hills of Fresh Kills are still growing, even as they pollute underground streams and surrounding waterways.
Fresh Kills is the final resting place for more than 90 percent of New York City's garbage and almost half of the state's. Twenty-four hours a day, six days a week (sometimes seven), this vast trashscape absorbs more than 40 million pounds of refuse from the city's households and businesses. Every man, woman, and child in New York City contributes about 1 ton of garbage to Fresh Kills annually.
In 1951, Robert Moses, New York's construction coordinator and parks commissioner, belittled the ecologically sensitive salt marshes and meadows of this corner of Staten Island as a ``fallow and useless area.'' He and others proposed in a report to the city's mayor that it be filled in with garbage and transformed into a beltway of parks.
As the years passed and the city failed to come up with other plans for disposing of its waste, the park proposal was forgotten, and the landfill grew larger and larger.
At its present growth rate, Fresh Kills will evolve into a 505-foot-high mountain of trash by the year 2005, the landfill's estimated life span. If the city continues to bring most of its garbage to Fresh Kills, it will eventually surpass the Great Wall of China as the world's largest man-made structure.
The approximately 100 million tons of slop piled onto Fresh Kills is now truly polluting the ``unsanitary swamp'' once derided by Moses.
The high-rise garbage repository daily leaks more than 2 million gallons of untreated ``leachate'' - highly contaminated sludge that oozes from the landfill into the ground water beneath it - violating the federal Clean Water Act, according to the state's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
Even as the landfill leaks heavy metals into underground waterways that eventually empty into the ocean, the city has failed to construct a leachate collection and drainage system, according to the DEC.
Environmental groups charge that in the last two decades, Fresh Kills has been widely contaminated with toxic chemicals, including PCBs and waste oils. The New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) has called for comprehensive investigations of the landfill's ambient air, ground water, and soil.
Recently the state filed a $76 million civil complaint against New York, threatening to close Fresh Kills if the city doesn't clean it up. The landfill has been operating without a state-issued permit since 1978. An administrative law judge will hold a hearing on the state's charges March 30 on Staten Island.
The Sanitation Department counters that it has been working to bring the Staten Island landfill into compliance with state regulations, and that negotiations between the city and state over a new consent order to operate the landfill stalled only when neither side could reach agreement on when Fresh Kills should be closed. City officials say they will keep it open at least until the turn of the century.
``It's a case of the state trying to flex its muscles and show who's boss,'' says the sanitation commissioner, Brendan Sexton. ``Fresh Kills is part of the city's life system. If the state tries to close it, we'll send our garbage to the DEC.''
New Yorkers have one of the highest garbage output rates in the country, and the city's large population and density make safe and economic waste disposal a mammoth challenge.
Even as the mounds of garbage at Fresh Kills grow into alps, the city's plan to build five trash-burning incinerators has been put on hold. And its recycling efforts lag far behind the more comprehensive programs already under way in such other major cities as Seattle, Philadelphia, and San Diego.
``For years, the city has ignored the consequences to the environment and taken the easy way out in disposing its solid waste,'' says Arthur Kell, NYPIRG's regional toxics coordinator. ``Only when the city recognized that Fresh Kills couldn't be engineered any higher, and that it would have nowhere else to put its garbage, did it begin to consider alternatives.''
With New York choking on its own refuse, the city in 1981 proposed to build a major incinerator in each of it's five boroughs. The network of five plants will cost the city $2.5 billion and burn about 40 percent of its garbage. Many say that if New York succeeds in erecting the first trash-burning plant - the Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator - others will follow.
But as plans to build the Navy Yard plant were bogged down by major environmental concerns and bitter community opposition, the estimated construction cost for the project ballooned from $170 million in 1981 to $500 million today. Mayor David Dinkins has proposed that construction of the incinerator be postponed even longer while options like recycling are studied.
Critics say that the city has only reluctantly come to view recycling as part of the solution to its garbage woes. Last spring the City Council passed a law requiring the city to recycle 25 percent of its household garbage by 1994. But it defeated a far bolder proposal calling for a 10-year, 60 percent recycling program.
Recently, the number of households taking part in city recycling programs passed the 1 million mark. The Department of Sanitation reports that it is recycling about 6 percent of all the waste it collects, about 4 percent below the national average. Environmentalists say New York is doing too little, too late.
``The city has been dragged kicking and screaming into these promises that they've made,'' says NYPIRG's Mr. Kell. ``But New York has a luxury that other cities don't have - it has Fresh Kills. And even if the city does nothing with recycling, it can still send its garbage to Fresh Kills for at least another 14 years.''