Waste Sites and their Damage to Local Communities

Landfills still serve as the predominant method of managing and storing our country’s waste. Despite increases in the reuse and recycling many materials and the practice of using waste to create energy, landfills still populate an increasing amount of land in the US. Everyday items such as leftover food, kitchen supplies and paper products are dumped into specially constructed areas designed to limit the contamination of the surrounding environment and the release of toxic gases into the atmosphere. However, lax regulations and increased waste production have allowed waste management sites to slowly poison local communities’ water supplies, release dangerous amounts of harmful gases into the air and ultimately cause potentially life-threatening diseases and public health issues.

An abundance of waste facilities and landfills in an area can cause numerous problems for locals and their families. First, and most importantly, the toxins and runoff from waste management facilities can infect surrounding water supplies and introduce dangerous chemicals into peoples’ bodies. Various cancers and other diseases have been reported in several cases around the country where local landfills had proven to contaminate drinking water. In addition to these health consequences, landfills also prove to be incredibly damaging to the global environment, releasing 20% of the world’s methane emissions and high levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, both of which are major greenhouse gases that hasten the effects of global warming. Finally, Waste sites and landfills typically prove to be major nuisances to locals, attracting flies and emitting constant noise and odors. These factors often can cause plummeting property values, and by extension, the slowdown of local economies that unfairly impact families.

Compounding these direct consequences of local landfills, waste management sites are unevenly distributed in areas with high minority populations. Often, waste management corporations view these groups as less likely to have access to the political and economic resources necessary to oppose massive land use projects that infringe on their health and environmental rights. A key example of this practice occurred in the county of  Dickson, TN, where less than 5% of the population are African Americans yet the large majority of the county’s landfills are located in a minority-majority area. Several waste sites have existed for decades around Eno Road, the home of the county’s minority population. In 2002, residents Sheila Holt and several members of her family were diagnosed with various types of cancers, leading to the eventual death of her father Harry. In fact, Sheila found that most of her friends and family living near Eno Road and the landfills knew at least one person suffering from cancer. After becoming frustrated with government and industry inaction, Sheila led an investigation that concluded the community’s water supplies had been contaminated by a dangerous toxin called TCE for several decades. Despite continuous efforts to demand safe drinking water and protection from landfill chemicals, the Eno Road community was repeatedly ignored by state and federal officials while their white neighbors were often able to secure better protections despite lower levels of risk.

As a whole, landfills pose several serious and potentially life-threatening consequences for surrounding communities. Dangerous chemicals can leak into water supplies, toxic gases are emitted into the air and economic effects can damage families and their wellbeing. In addition, landfills are often positioned near minority communities that are systematically underrepresented with protective structures, disabling their capacity to protect themselves and their loved ones from health hazards. Obviously, as long as Americans continue our high levels of consumption, waste management will be necessary to keep our streets and homes clean. However, more effort should be made to increase our rates or recycling and reuse to combat the necessity of expanding landfills. Additionally, existing landfills should undergo intensive and regular examinations to deter harmful consequences for surrounding communities. Finally, landfills should only be built in conjunction with active community participation and with increased distance from homes to ensure all people impacted have a say in the decision-making process.