MOUNT VERNON, Ala. — At a sprawling landfill some 50 miles from the oil-spotted coastline, trash bags brimming with tar balls, oil-soaked boom, sand, and tangles of sea grass are dumped.
Though workers in the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history wear protective gloves and coveralls as they labor across the Gulf Coast clearing beaches of oil, the mounds of debris they amass meet a pedestrian fate: burial in the same landfills that take in diapers, coffee grounds, burnt toast, yogurt containers, grass clippings and demolition debris.
Since the first trucks began rolling in June, nearly 40,000 tons of "oily solids" and related debris have been sent to municipal landfills from Louisiana to Florida, sparking complaints — and in one case, enough consternation that BP decided to stop dumping in a landfill.
"They tell us, 'It's not bad, it's not hazardous,'" said Christopher Malloy, who borrowed a sign from his wife's tanning salon to announce his opposition to using the Pecan Grove landfill in Mississippi's Harrison County.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
"Oil in Gulf - Bad. Oil in landfill/wellwater not bad? What!," reads the sign in his front yard, less than half a mile from the landfill where 1,300 tons had been disposed before BP — facing community pressure — agreed to curtail dumping.
"What I worry about is when they come back and say, 'Ooops, we were wrong. So sorry,'" said Malloy, 39, a registered nurse who said he feared that toxic chemicals from the oil-soaked material could seep into his groundwater drinking supply. "Where does that leave us?"
Under a 34-page waste management plan developed by the federal government, oily solid waste that reaches Gulf Coast beaches is bagged by BP contractors and transferred to area landfills by waste management giants: Heritage Environmental Services in Louisiana; Waste Management Inc., which is working from the Louisiana-Mississippi border east to the Ecofina River, southeast of Tallahassee, Fla.; and Republic Services, which covers Florida's west coast, the Keys and Miami.
Oily water is handled differently: mostly it's processed for recovery.
The EPA and each state's environmental protection agency have signed off on the plans for the oil-smeared bulky waste. And the operators of the landfills insist that the BP garbage is not unprecedented and is suitable for the type of landfills they've selected: disposal sites that take household waste, as well as "special waste," like contaminated soil. They note much of the waste is generated by the cleanup operation itself: soiled cleanup coveralls, gloves, sandwich wrappers and drink containers. Some 44 tons of waste materials have been recycled.
"This waste is not that much different from what we've been accepting here every day," said Matt East, a district manager with Waste Management, which runs the Pecan Grove site and the Mount Vernon landfill, Chastang. The BP waste at Chastang averages about 20 tons a day — which sounds staggering, East notes, until you realize it accounts for just 2 percent of the landfill's daily intake. "The volume is minuscule, it really is," East said.
Waste Management estimates that the BP waste at Pecan Grove accounts for 6 percent of the landfill's waste per day. The landfill, according to the state, accepts about 8,000 tons of trash a week.
What worries environmentalists and some residents is that under EPA rules, waste from petroleum operations is exempt from hazardous waste rules. But cleanup officials say they're taking the precautionary measure of testing the BP waste shore-side for potential carcinogenic volatile substances including benzene, toluene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals like nickel.
BP is required to sample and test collected waste weekly, and the EPA is doing its own sampling to confirm, said EPA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara. It has yet to turn up a hazardous sample, she said.
"EPA is not making a blanket assumption that all waste collected in the response is non-hazardous," Alcantara said. "If the waste is determined to be hazardous, it will be sent to a designated hazardous waste treatment, storage or disposal facility."
Though what was spewing out of the blown-out well in the Gulf was toxic, scientists say the light sweet crude undergoes a sea change as it bobs in the water for 50 miles or more before hitting shore.
"At least 50 percent of the oil evaporates in the first week," said Ed Overton, an oil-chemical hazard assessment expert at Louisiana State University. "And it's the most volatile parts of the oil, the potentially carcinogenic benzenes and so on."
The weathered oil also gets chewed on by naturally occurring bacteria that eat the oil.
"By the time it gets to shore, it's more like road tar," Overton said. "The average driver is exposed to more oil volatiles filling his gas tank than being around oily waste."
The sites in use now are regular municipal landfills, not designed for hazardous waste. Waste Management officials, who offered a tour of the Chastang site last week, said its three landfills boast important safety features, including a ring of ground water monitoring wells that are tested twice a year and pipes that collect rainfall and the "garbage juice" that percolates through the waste. That sludge is then transported to a sewage treatment plant for disposal.
The Coast Guard and the EPA in late June tightened the government's oversight of the project and imposed more requirements on BP, including developing a community outreach plan.
Waste Management says its trucks carrying the waste are lined with plastic to prevent waste from leaking and its landfills are lined with high-density polyethylene membranes rated to last 1,000 years, atop an impermeable clay layer.
G. Fred Lee, an environmental consultant in El Macero, Calif., who has written several studies criticizing landfills, says such thousand-year claims are written by consultants working for the landfill companies and are "way out of line."
"High-density polyethylene liners can prevent oily waste from penetrating groundwater ... with high-quality construction," he says. "But you don't often get that high-quality construction. It's kind of a crapshoot."
But he believes that the oily waste going into Gulf Coast landfills is too degraded to pose danger.
"What's going into these landfills is not likely to cause groundwater pollution," he said.
Still, suspicion persists, particularly in Harrison County, which succeeded in getting a halt to disposals at the Pecan Grove site.
"BP is responsible for polluting our beaches, our marshes, our estuaries and now they're picking it up, hauling it not more than five miles away and dumping it in our landfill," said Marlin Ladner, a supervisor whose district includes the landfill and the nearly 300 groundwater-dependent homes in a half-mile radius. "That's a slap in the face."
In Florida, David Guest, an environmental attorney with Earthjustice, said he's had calls from anguished residents asking about legal recourse to stop oil spill debris from reaching the Springhill Landfill near Campbellton in Jackson County. That site had accepted more than 14,000 tons — 13 percent of its landfill intake.
"There's a genuine serious risk of poisoning the aquifer years from now," Guest said, arguing that the landfills, once closed, are not monitored.
The Springhill landfill takes in debris from Florida beaches and at least one county — Escambia — is working to reduce the amount of beach sand that lands there. County officials have devised a rake that cuts down on how much sand is lifted, said Sandy Jennings, an engineer with the county's environmental agency.
"It works something like a kitty litter scoop," said Jennings, noting that county officials were worried about losing sand, especially from the barrier islands. Since the development of the rake, the county now scoops up about 98 percent product and just 2 percent sand, Jennings said.
Brenda Dardar Robichaux, principal chief of Louisiana's United Houma Nation, told Congress last month that the tribe is worried about the exemption for oily waste.
"We do not want these materials disposed of in our communities, and we would respectfully request that this law be changed to protect all U.S. citizens from exposure to these harmful chemicals," she told lawmakers.
Still, not every community is opposed. In Mount Vernon, town council member Verdell Dees said Waste Management, which maintains habitat for wildlife at the Chastang landfill, is considered a good neighbor, contributing to the local schools and senior center.
"They've been a big part of the community and go above and beyond keeping the landfill maintained," Dees said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington