Americans generate 14-billion tons of waste each year. Most of that trash winds up in landfills, some of it is recycled. But some of it slips through the cracks, winding up in illegal trash dumps throughout the country. Environmental officials are cleaning up a 7-acre pile of waste that was overlooked for so long that it caught fire a few years ago – and kept burning. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder reports:
Americans generate 14-billion tons of waste each year. Most of that trash winds up
some of it is recycled. But some of it slips through the cracks, winding up in
illegal trash dumps
throughout the country. Environmental officials are cleaning up a 7-acre pile of
waste that was
overlooked for so long that it caught fire a few years ago — and kept burning. The
Radio Consortium’s Brad Linder reports:
Tucked away in a non-residential section of South Philadelphia, just around the
corner from the
Philadelphia Airport, lies a heap of construction debris. The material was dumped
here years ago
by a demolition contractor, and left to rot…
Occasionally sparking up into flame, the densely packed wood, metal, carpet, and
other debris has
been smoldering below the surface for the past few years.
Down the street is a police impoundment lot, and the Water Department’s waste
And directly across from the dump is a series of community gardens.
Edward Burnabiel’s been tending vegetables here for two decades.
“We raise everything, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, scunions, onions, celery, squash…”
Burnabiel spends six days a week in his garden. He jokes that it would be seven if
his wife didn’t
drag him to church on Sundays.
A few years ago, he and his fellow gardeners noticed something unusual at the trash
the street. Every now and again, smoke would billow up from the site — and combine
stench from the nearby sewer plant.
“The smell was awful when it started burning. It would stink, even to go by. It’s
bad enough we
have to smell the poop down there, but then we got to smell that too!”
The gardeners complained to the city. But the trash has been around for well over a
Kathleen McGinty is Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental
She says the contractor responsible for the mess has long-since disappeared. That
Harold Emerson, also skipped out on a 5-million dollar fine for illegal dumping.
“About thirteen years ago, Mr. Emerson was contracted to take some houses down in
Philadelphia. As part of the deal, for a one year window of time, the agreement was
that he could
temporarily store some of that construction debris here. What Mr. Emerson
was the temporary part. And he just took off without ever having done that.”
Today, the trash pile is sometimes referred to as the “Emerson Dump.”
worried that the burning trash could be a health risk. Construction debris can
chemicals like arsenic. But city Managing Director Phil Goldsmith says tests showed
weren’t dangerous. Still, he says cleanup was long overdue.
“Fourteen years for something like this to be sitting around is far too long. And
it’s become a
nuisance. It’s been a place where our fire department has had to come to put out
fires. We should
not have allowed this to happen in the first place. And once it happened, we should
allowed to have it continue here for so long.”
The Emerson Dump is hardly unique. There are illegal dumps all across the country.
are hidden in forests or other out-of-the-way areas, and don’t have the high profile
with a flaming pile of trash in an urban setting.
Allen Hershkowitz is with the environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense
says illegal dumping is often overlooked for more serious environmental concerns,
such as air
and water pollution, or global warming. But he says it’s still a problem
authorities must deal
“In the next 10 years, this country will have to manage about 140-billion tons of
different types. More than 2/3rds are managed in ecologically inferiors ways,
impoundments, or incinerators. When you illegally dump waste, you make it that much
for that material to wind up being recycled or properly disposed of.”
Hershkowitz says illegal dumping is directly related to the cost of proper waste
Dumping was most prevalent in the late 70s and early 80s, when strict environmental
led many landfills to close, driving up the costs of waste hauling. Illegal dumping
Hershkowitz says, but less frequently.
Pennsylvania officials are still hunting for demolition contractor Harold Emerson to
force him to
pay his 5-million dollar fine.
But in the meantime, state and city taxpayers are funding a 3-million dollar cleanup
fire’s been extinguished, but cleanup efforts are expected to continue through the
end of the year.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Brad Linder.