At 4:50 on the afternoon of May 10, nine 18-wheelers loaded with urban garbage, some of it from Baltimore and Philadelphia, roared into the gates of the Kim-Stan Landfill in Selma, Va., about 150 miles from the District near the West Virginia border.

Ten minutes later, the Alleghany County sheriff sent them back out, still loaded. And then he locked the gates. One of America's most notorious landfills is closed, after 20 months of flagrant pollution, legal wrangling and political gamesmanship.

It's a story that should interest anyone who depends on a landfill to bury his or her garbage. And it should be a lesson for any city or county -- Washington and Montgomery County, for example -- now dealing with an aging landfill.

What's left behind here in Selma isn't pretty. The side of Waites Mountain stands torn open, eroding right up to the National Forest boundary. Flags of plastic and paper wave from the oak trees along the perimeter of the landfill. Millions of tons of garbage lie half-covered in the hot sun, stinking. Toxic leachate seeps into a nearby pond. The only vehicles inside the landfill now belong to creditors looking for their money: Kim-Stan claims it's broke.

Who's going to take responsibility for cleaning up and monitoring the Kim-Stan Landfill? The answer isn't going to come easily, for Kim-Stan or any of the hundreds of other small, filled-up waste dumps across the country. If the past 18 months are any indication of what's to come, we in Alleghany County had better not rely on the designated state agencies for those answers any time soon.

In September of 1988, local owners sold the small, 48-acre landfill to former stripmine operators and small-town politicians Shelby Mullins and Jerry Wharton and two other registered owners. Almost overnight the dump site was transformed from a shallow depression at the base of a National Forest mountain ridge into a truck-congested mud pit oozing toxic runoff.

The owners collected an estimated minimum of $1,000 per load. Some days more than 100 trucks roared through the landfill gates. There's big money in garbage -- only the people being dumped on never saw a penny of it.

Meanwhile in Richmond, the state Water Control Board and the Department of Solid Waste Management were getting worried -- worried enough, finally, to revoke Kim-Stan's license becasue the landfill polluted state waters. In response, Wharton and Mullins hired one of the East Coast's major-league environmental law firms, Richmond's Hunton and Williams, and threatened to sue the state for denying them their right to due process by hearing. A federal magistrate intervened and authorized Kim-Stan's reopening. The trucks were rolling again: 4 million pounds of northern garbage dumped on Alleghany County a day.

The environmental documentation was clear: Kim-Stan was an inappropriate site for a large-scale landfill, with too much moisture and too little space and fill dirt. Yet the Attorney General's office agreed to let the dump operate if the owners stepped up pollution abatement and paid minimal amounts for existing pollution clean-up, among other things. In support, Virginia's Solid Waste Management Director Cynthia Bailey remarked, "We have confidence this {agreement} will abate the problem."

Members of the Citizens for a Cleaner Environment knew better. They built a protester's shanty and sat at the Kim-Stan gates every weekday for eight hours, logging the trucks entering and exiting. They noted the leachate spills and documented the refrigerated food trucks backhauling garbage. They breathed in the dust and the stink and watched the steaming loads of someone else's refuse piling up next to their houses. They listened when gubernatorial candidate L. Douglas Wilder stood in front of the landfill and vowed, "If I am elected governor, I will issue an executive order to ban out-of-state garbage in Virginia."

State hearings came and went, and files of pollution documentation grew fat. Still, Kim-Stan remained open. Citizens wrote letters and made phone calls and chartered buses to go to hearings that were canceled without notice.

Gradually, small victories accrued. In early March Kim-Stan's due-process suit was dismissed by a federal judge, throwing the case back in Virginia courts. Shortly thereafter the attorneys for the landfill withdrew. Then the landfill management firm, Waste Placement Professionals, went home to Ohio.

In Richmond, on March 30, an administrative hearing officer and a room full of landfill protesters sat, stunned, as extensive evidence of Kim-Stan's pollution was presented by State Water Control Board and Solid Waste Management officials: iron and zinc concentrations a thousand times higher than acceptable; the worst oxygen depletion in nearby streams ever documented.

Why, citizens asked, had the state kept silent for so long, having in hand such evidence of widespread pollution? In response, the landfill was allowed to remain open for another 41 days.

Eighteen months of legal maneuvering and political manipulation are unconscionable. It's hard to see the closure of the Kim-Stan landfill as anything but a hollow victory. The damage has been done; Richmond fiddled while Selma was buried alive beneath the reeking leftovers of city peoples' lives.

On the afternoon of May 10, someone hung a large black bow on the Kim-Stan chain-link fence. It was meant to mark the death of a landfill. Maybe, too, it serves as an omen of the future. -- Joan Vannorsdall Schroeder