Monday map time: When a landfill lacks a liner, it’s just a dump

All of the reported pre-regulatory landfills in North Carolina (Map: NC DEQ)

All of the reported pre-regulatory landfills in North Carolina (Map: NC DEQ)

True story: Back in the late 1950s or early ’60s, my grandad went to Canada for his annual summer fishing trip. On his way back to the U.S., customs officials stopped him for trying to bring in too many fish. However, those same officials overlooked the small jar of yellow cake uranium he was carrying.

Now, uranium mining was and still is a huge industry in Canada, but where he got the material, I don’t know. It was likely depleted uranium, which generally doesn’t cause major health problems unless you eat or drink it.

For several years, my grandmother kept the jar of low-level radioactivity above her stove. This was, after all, an era when the atom was considered to be our friend. When my grandparents moved to their retirement house in the 1960s, they simply threw the jar away. Off to the landfill — an unlined landfill, since at the time, there were few, if any federal or state regulations on how and where to build them, or what could be tossed in these gaping holes in the ground.

So somewhere in an old landfill in Indiana, lies a (likely) broken jar of uranium. Again, not weapons grade, but not a material that should leach into groundwater or drinking water.

Such is the problem with pre-regulatory landfills. They have no bottom liner to keep materials from leaking into the groundwater. And they have no cap to keep vapors from off-gassing into the environment.

These dumps, at least in North Carolina, are defined as any land area, whether publicly or privately owned, “on which municipal solid waste disposal occurred prior to January 1, 1983, but not thereafter, and does not include any landfill used primarily for the disposal of industrial solid waste.”

The above map shows the extent of these landfills. There are 673 known pre-regulatory dumps, although it’s likely that even more accepted waste from other sources besides cities or counties, and thus aren’t counted.. (The map is also interactive so viewers can zoom in. If you prefer a list, DEQ has provided one; it starts on page 159 of this document from 2015.

What it doesn’t show is what’s brewing in, or escaping from, them. Municipal waste, especially back in the day, contained all sorts of material that we now consider hazardous: Lead from TVs, radios and paint, even PCBs from electrical equipment. And much like modern times, these dumps were located in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

So these pre-regulatory landfills, while defunct, are not inert. DEQ is required to monitor them for soil and groundwater contamination. Yet the dumps continue to leave their toxic legacy behind. In the case of Uranium 235, that’s a half-life of 704 million years.


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