Hazardous wastes are accumulating in the United States at the rate of a ton a year per person, according to a recent report from the congressional Office of Technology Assessment. An article yesterday reported the rate incorrectly.
Just down the road from this western Alabama village, on 2,500 acres of gently rolling land studded with scrub cedar, is the nation's largest hazardous waste disposal site.
Bulldozers and earthmovers have been lumbering across the Sumter County countryside here for the last five years, digging enormous graves for the toxic leftovers from America's plants and factories.
Government and industry experts call it "the Cadillac of landfills."
At a time of deep public anxieties over the problem posed by hazardous wastes, the word Emelle is like a talisman, brandished by regulators, industry officials and scientists alike to ward off attacks on landfills. Emelle, they say, is proof that it can be done right.
Still, the residents of Sumter County watch uneasily these days while as many as 50 trucks a day turn up the gravel road that leads into the Emelle site, just beyond the small sign that discreetly identifies its owner as Chemical Waste Management Inc., the nation's largest disposal firm.
For the last two years county residents and Chemical Waste Management have coexisted in what passes for harmony in hazardous waste situations: the residents haven't tried to shut the place down.
"We have tried to be responsible citizens," said Aileen Nixon, who lives five miles from the site on land that has been in her family for more than 100 years. "We knew we had a problem with hazardous waste. We knew it ought not to be dumped indiscriminately. Landfilling, and definitely dependent on the geology in this area, was the lesser evil, so to speak."
But in recent weeks, Chemical Waste Management has become entangled in the web of controversy spun out of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the old fears have risen again.
In Washington, congressional investigators are probing allegations that James W. Sanderson, a lobbyist for the firm, attempted to influence EPA decisions on his client's behalf.
Alabama, one of two states to have filed lawsuits against Chemical Waste Management in recent weeks, has accused the company of conspiring, with Sanderson's help, to circumvent federal regulations in pursuit of a permit for another waste facility near Mobile.
"I see on the television that this Sanderson works for Chem Waste, and a cold chill runs down my spine," said Nixon, who teaches biology at the small university in the nearby county seat of Livingston and heads a local citizens' group organized to keep an eye on Emelle.
There is more at stake here than the fragile detente that exists between Sumter County and the giant disposal site that dominates the county's north end.
As Mark Gregory, Chemical Waste Management's area vice president, sees it, what is at stake is the nation's ability to deal with the massive problem posed by hazardous waste. For more than four years, the public, stirred by aggressive press coverage, "has caused a problem," he said. "The public has got to have some confidence."
In a report issued this month, a research panel attached to the National Academy of Sciences reached the same conclusion. Some public mistrust is well-founded, it said, but some is not, and "to the extent that new and superior approaches to hazardous waste management are precluded . . . because of incorrect public perception, then both the public and the waste generators will suffer very substantially."
"Whether or not we want to admit it, we've got to have other landfills," Gregory said. "This site, and four or five others like it, won't handle all the chemical waste."
But Gregory acknowledges that there aren't many sites like Emelle, where nature, not man, was the chief engineer.
The pits, more than 100 feet deep and twice the length of a football field, are dug into a 500-foot-thick and nearly impermeable layer of clay-like calcium carbonate. The dense, grayish mass is unbroken by any subsurface cracks or "faults" that would provide a fast lane to the ground water more than 1,000 feet below the surface.
Each pit can hold hundreds of thousands of tons of the industrial wastes that are accumulating at the rate of a ton a day for every man, woman and child in the country. At its current rate of use the Emelle site will last another 100 years.
Despite its natural attributes, Emelle barely slid in under the wire.
"We were having a public meeting the night they showed Love Canal," said Gregory. "We were accepted. Not approved or liked, but accepted. We would not be given that opportunity now."
The intensity of public fears has forced the industry to embrace federal regulations against which it might otherwise have railed.
When the EPA's new hazardous waste landfill regulations became effective last January, the National Solid Waste Management Association, voice of the industry, called them a "milestone in the country's efforts to resolve its hazardous waste disposal problems," even though the regulations were expected to force dozens of landfills out of business.
The 270 or so landfills left, association official Richard L. Hanneman said, are "part of the solution, not part of the problem. They bear no resemblance to the tens of thousands of problem sites."
There is a marked difference between Emelle and the 14,000 or more inactive dumps so far identified, and the differences involve more than geology.
For one thing, the managers here are supposed to know what is being interred in their pits--a far cry from the old days, when unidentified wastes were dumped, solids and liquids alike, to form seething underground kettles of poisonous soup.
Technicians in rubber gloves and respirator masks are supposed to sample each drum as it is unloaded to verify that it contains what is supposed to contain. If it doesn't, officials here say, it is sent back.
Site manager Roger Henson, who presides over a set of laboratories agleam with sampling gadgetry, said Emelle takes no radioactive or infectious waste, no reactive waste such as cyanide, and "of course, it wouldn't make much sense to take explosives."
But there are other allegations against Chemical Waste Management, and some of them suggest that the rules either are not stringent enough or are not being observed rigorously.
The workers here are supposed to wear respirators, rubber gloves and protective suits. But an employe at Emelle filed suit against the company last November, accusing it of failing to protect workers against exposure to acutely toxic substances.
Federal and state permits strictly define what kinds and concentrations of chemicals are permitted in landfills. But the state of Illinois has filed suit against Chemical Waste Management, accusing the company of using a site in Calumet City to dispose illegally of chemicals not allowed under its permit.
The day that suit was filed, Chemical Waste Management took action on its own to close a site in Ohio, after discovering that 135,000 gallons of waste oil stored there had higher concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a cancer-causing chemical, than are permitted in landfills.
There are well-equipped sampling laboratories at Emelle, but EPA officials say the facility has not given a satisfactory accounting for eight drums of waste oil heavily contaminated with PCBs that were shipped to Alabama from a site in Kansas in January, 1981.
A chemist at Emelle, in a June, 1981, memo, said the drums were classified as slurries and were "disposed of in our PCB trench for secure landfill as a PCB solid." The memo said the analysis of what was in the drums couldn't be retrieved "because of an uncontrolled nature problem which ruined our microprocessor which stored this data."
Federal regulations state that wastes contaminated with more than 500 parts per million of PCBs must be incinerated, not placed in a landfill. The drums apparently buried at Emelle had concentrations of up to 630,000 parts per million, according to an EPA document.
Waste Management Inc., Chemical Waste Management's parent company, has denied any deliberate wrongdoing and has launched an aggressive campaign of its own to counter the damaging press reports.
Chairman and President Dean L. Buntrock announced last week that the firm had hired an "independent counsel" to investigate each of the allegations and "restore the credibility that this company has earned through years of exemplary operation throughout the United States."
In Sumter County, even the wariest residents give Emelle's managers credit for "a good effort" to be responsive to their concerns. When neighbors of the site complained about mud deposited on the county roads by the incessant truck traffic, for example, Gregory ordered every truck washed before it left the site.
Through a state-imposed tax on the wastes buried there, the site contributes more than $1 million a year to the county treasury. It also provides more than 200 jobs in this mostly rural area. County Treasurer Joseph Steigel jokes that "only the Social Security payroll is higher."
But the fears die hard.
"We don't want to be the chemical cemetery for the nation," Nixon said, noting that the geology that attracted the Emelle facility might well entice more landfills. "We're not doing anything to encourage reduction of hazardous wastes. We have not solved a damned thing. Emelle is just a little more secure. It leaks more slowly."
Not even Gregory claims that the Cadillac of landfills will be safe forever. "We're talking about 10,000 years here," he said. Beyond that, he said, "nobody knows the effects."