6 Huge American Landfills and the People Who Live Nearby

Photo: D'Arcy Norman/Flickr.

Landfills are one of the downsides to having a society that values consumption over conservation and that has a raging addiction to sweet, sweet plastic. Generally Americans are terrible when it comes to waste: We throw out too many things that we shouldn't — metals, papers, and plastics that could be recycled and food scraps that could be composted. We're getting better but still have a long way to go.

Landfills are also a collective problem for which we all, to varying degrees, can take the blame. Almost all of us contribute to the mountain of waste that gets collected and dumped into landfills every day. Even those who are fanatic about recycling, composting and avoiding plastics and unnecessary packaging are responsible for peripheral waste — the industrial waste we don't see, the plastic wrap holding together the cases of food on the pallet between the warehouse and the grocery store, or the cardboard boxes being held firm by the plastic wrap. If you function at all in modern society, you contribute something to the problem of waste.

Living near a landfill is no picnic. If the smell doesn't get to you, there's a good chance the chemicals leaching into the soil and water table will. Modern landfill operators have gotten a lot better at containing some of the pollution that can creep out of a massive pile of trash, but garbage can be a dirty business.

Here are six cities, towns and communities that have to live with the consequences of our wasteful ways.

Whittier, Calif. — Home of the Puente Hills landfill

The Puente Hills landfill in Los Angeles County, California, has the unfortunate distinction of being the largest landfill in the U.S. It's located in Whittier, a small city with a population of 83,680 (according to the 2000 census). The landfill took in about 10,300 tons per day in 2007, and abuts the campus of the Rio Hondo College. It's also not too far from a few stripes of typical suburban developments. See it on a map here.

Okeechobee, Fla. — Home of the Okeechobee landfill

Okeechobee is a small Florida town (5,376 residents in the 2000 census) a couple hours north of Miami and just north of Lake Okeechobee. In 2007, it ranked fifth on Waste & Recycling News' list of largest American landfills and took in 2.64 million tons of trash that year. The landfill is located on the outskirts of town but is surrounded by a fair number of homes — most of which I would wager get their water from wells. Given that this part of Florida has a really high water table, any leaching problems can quickly spread. See it on a map here.

Waverly, Va. — Home of the Atlantic Waste landfill

Waverly, Va., is another small town and had 2,309 residents at the time of the 2000 census. It's home to the Atlantic Waste facility which is owned by Waste Management (subtle sponsor of the green blog Greenopolis). The landfill is the largest in the state at more than 1,300 acres. Atlantic Waste was fined $14,250 after a sleepy driver let 8,000 gallons of leachate, aka garbage juice, spill out into wetlands. As part of the settlement, Atlantic Waste agreed to better monitor ammonia and other pollutants washing out of the landfill and into surrounding lands and waters. See it on a map here.

Colerain Township, Ohio — Home of Rumpke Sanitary landfill

The Rumpke Sanitary Landfill is better known to locals as Mount Rumpke or Rumpke Mountain. The top of the "mountain" sits more than 1,000 feet above sea level and is the highest point in Hamilton County. The landfill takes in 2 million tons of waste a year and is spread out across 230 acres. It's located close to neighborhoods in Colerain Township and is literally across the street from a shipping center. In 1996, lightning struck Mount Rumpke and caused a huge landslide that uncovered 15 acres of previously buried waste. Rumpke Consolidated Cos., the company that operates the facility, had to pay a fine of $1 million as well as covering up the exposed trash. See it on a map here.

Lenox, Mich. — Home of Pine Tree Acres Landfill

The Pine Tree Acres Landfill in Lenox, Mich., is a 755-acre facility operated by Waste Management (a really big company with more than 300 active landfill disposal sites and transfer stations under its belt). A class-action lawsuit was filed against the company by residents of Lenox and nearby Casco townships in response to odors from the methane gas that the facility produces as a byproduct. Last year a settlement was reached that required the company to spend millions on improving its gas and odor control and collection systems. See it on a map here.

Aurora, Colo. — Home of Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site

The Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site in Aurora, Colo., is easily that state's largest landfill and takes in around 12,000 tons of waste each day. One thing that Denver had plenty of when the landfill was built was open land — it was originally far from development, but the ever-growing exurbs of the Denver metro area have crept out to meet it. There are now sizable neighborhoods just across the highway from the landfill and across a field on another side. See it on a map here.