Historic Landfill Controversy

August 16, 2007

The history of landfills in American life received national attention in 2001, when then Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton announced that she would be placing one on the National Register of Historic Places. “The Fresno Sanitary Landfill was opened in 1937 and closed in 1987. It is the oldest “true? sanitary landfill in the untied states,?(1) stated the National Park Service press release announcing its designation. “At the Fresno site, [sanitation engineers first practiced] the layering of refuse and dirt in trenches, compacting the dirt and refuse, and then covering the filled areas daily to minimize rodent and debris problems.?
The appointment was not without controversy. Many were outraged that the government would accord a landfill, “the same historic-landmark status as George Washington’s home.? The Seattle Times described the landfill somewhat less flatteringly than had the NPS release, calling it “a 140 acre mound of crankcase oil and paint solvents,? and reporting that Norton had “revoked the honor yesterday after she found out what a dump it really is.?(2) Actually its status was not withdrawn and it is still on the register (National Register Number 01001050) (3) Perhaps more offensive to many than the fact of its being a “dump?, was the site’s previous designation as a Superfund Toxic waste site, not to mention the 38 million dollars it had cost the government to clean up the methane emissions into the air and VOC leachate in the ground water around it from 1989 to 2001. The superfund status was vilified by environmentalists, including Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, who derided the Historic status as being just another slap in the face of the environmental movement from the Bush government.(4)
This seems unnecessarily pessimistic to me. As the National Park Service put it, “the Fresno Sanitary Landfill possesses those exceptional qualities that help us as a nation illuminate and understand trends in emerging and developing technology.? (1) From that perspective perhaps an early landfill, even, or especially, with its problems and cleanup, is as useful a Landmark as the preserved homes of the Founding Fathers. National Historic Landmarks “guide us in comprehending the trends and patterns in American History.? Those trends are that sometimes (often) we get technology wrong. Hopefully the Fresno Sanitary Landfill also illustrates a trend of learning from our mistakes and improving on the past.
(1) NPS press release, 2001
(2) Borenstein, 2001, A1
(3) National Historic Landmarks Program at http://www.nps.gov
(4) White, 2001, A19

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