You know your town or community is small when acting as a trash dump is considered a viable source of revenue. You know you're fighting a losing battle when the desert landscape where you live in relative isolation is viewed as an appropriate place to dump such toxic trash as asbestos.
This is the situation in Winnemucca, Nevada lately, where California waste disposal company Recology is seeking a contract to dump 20 tons of garbage for the next 95 years.
Tiny Winnemucca, 320 miles northeast of San Francisco as the crow flies, is scarcely more than a pit stop on Highway 80 between Salt Lake City and the Bay area. Its population, 7,726, barely qualifies it for the 11 schools within its district. In fact, the town boasts twice as many hotels and motels as schools, not only because it is on a major east-west artery but because Nevada's gambling laws make even the smallest town a tourist hotspot.
The proposed one-square mile dump, or landfill, is reportedly in a seismic zone; that is, subject to possible earthquakes, and landfill plans don't include engineered barriers or liners to protect the area's delicate aquifer.
Nevada's Democratic Senator, Harry Reid, is urging Gov. Jim Gibbons to block the proposal. Residents of Winnemucca are equally incensed, not merely by the idea that their desert is seen (by Californians) as a prime dumping ground, but by the fact that the waste may include asbestos.
Asbestos, a fibrous mineral widely used in construction and automotive products for most of the last century, is most dangerous when broken - as it would be when sent to a landfill. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandates that it be properly sealed, or wrapped, not everything arrives at a landfill in the condition in which is was packaged, and residents are concerned that eventually asbestos would disperse into the air, or migrate into the water table.
Other ingredients planned for the landfill include household waste, rubber tires and dried sewage sludge. At a rate of 20,000 tons per week, the pile could eventually stand 20 stories high - an eyesore visible for miles. But it is the asbestos that truly worries some residents, because once it gets into the water, or the air, the potential for a number of diseases like asbestosis, lung and digestive system cancers, and peritoneal mesothelioma, rises exponentially.
Asbestosis is the result of long exposure, and would not be expected to show up for several generations. Unfortunately, the same is true for mesothelioma, which has a dormancy period of up to 50 years before the symptoms become disconcerting enough that sufferers feel compelled to seek medical care. Thus, by the time most mesothelial cancers are diagnosed, they have invaded so much vital tissue that the prognosis is quite poor. In fact, most mesothelioma sufferers are given between a year and 18 months to live, with less than 10 percent (those diagnosed early) surviving up to five years with aggressive treatment.
Recology argues that the revenue stream, about $1 million per year, more than makes up for the dangers. Clearly, a majority of the Humboldt County Board of Commissioners agree, with only Commissioner Tom Fransway dissenting.
Recology spokesman Adam Alberti assures that the landfill will be double-lined, but Jim French, of Nevadans Against Garbage, has described the proposal as flying so far under the radar (in terms of actual plans submitted) that nothing guarantees the plan is safe.