LYNDHURST, N.J. -- One by one, the battered trucks rumble up the winding dirt road until they reach the top of the hill, where the debris is thickest, the stench overpowering and the view of Manhattan unimpeded but for thousands of swirling sea gulls.
For more than a century, this swath of the Hackensack Meadowlands has served as New Jersey's biggest garbage dump, the place where millions sent their wretched refuse. But its days as an urban landfill are numbered, and that has created an economic, environmental and political crisis for every city and township in the northern part of the state.
Paterson, which was barred from dumping at the Meadowlands Dec. 1, watched its trucks wander from state to state like wayward garbage barges on wheels. Newark, whose landfill here was closed in August, is reeling from a 400 percent increase in costs as it trucks its waste to Pennsylvania.
And Bergen County, whose 70 towns have less than three months to find a new dump site, has considered shipping its waste as far away as Panama and Costa Rica.
From Rutland, Vt., to Washington, D.C., the Northeast is struggling to make an uneasy transition from landfills, which are rapidly filling up and shutting down, to modern incinerators, which provoke fierce opposition wherever they are proposed. Dozens of cities are facing stiff tax increases to cover their soaring garbage disposal costs, which now rank just behind police and fire protection in many municipal budgets.
Burning garbage locally is decidedly cheaper than sending it to faraway locales. But whether they are called resource recovery, waste-to-energy or trash-to-steam plants, the specter of large-scale incinerators has spawned a wave of litigation and community opposition.
This in turn has delayed proposed incinerators in New York, New Jersey, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere, at precisely the time when this densely populated region is running out of landfill space.
"No one wants garbage in their back yards, that's a given fact," said Anthony Scardino, executive director of the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission. "No politician wants to be on the 'yes' side of a vote that puts garbage in someone's back yard. If they could have kept it coming to the Meadowlands, they wouldn't have had to face the issue."
At their peak, two dozen landfills in the Meadowlands were taking in 11,000 tons of garbage a day, enough to fill Giants Stadium every five weeks. But by February, despite heated protests, Scardino's state commission will have closed one of the two remaining landfills in this wetlands district. The last landfill is to be closed in three years.
In 1974, when it was a net importer of garbage, New Jersey barred out-of-state trash from its landfills, only to see the Supreme Court strike down the law. Now, several New Jersey counties are citing that decision in an effort to force reluctant Pennsylvania authorities to take in the Garden State's trash.
By next month, officials say, more than half of New Jersey's garbage will be headed beyond the state's borders. But no part of the region is immune:
In Boston, waste disposal costs tripled last summer, from $23 to $70 a ton. "This is a municipal finance issue of the highest order," said Neil Sullivan, policy director for Mayor Raymond L. Flynn.
After plans to use an out-of-town incinerator collapsed, Flynn decided to build a $185 million incinerator in an industrial area near his native South Boston. But state Senate President William Bulger, also from South Boston, has blocked that plant through parliamentary maneuvers, pushing instead for a larger incinerator in Weston, one of Boston's wealthiest suburbs. Flynn's plan remains caught in the political cross fire. In Philadelphia, which weathered a 20-day garbage strike last year, Mayor W. Wilson Goode has been unable to win city council approval for a $280 million incinerator slated for a naval shipyard in South Philadelphia. Hundreds of protesters, bearing signs such as "Goode's Taking Our Breath Away," have turned out at public hearings on the plant. Pennsylvania, whose rural landfills are already taking in 6,000 tons of trash a day from New Jersey and New York, has gone to court to enforce strict limits on its landfills. "Other states should start taking care of their own trash," said Susan Woods, spokeswoman for the state's environmental protection agency. Another interstate war broke out when New Jersey blamed New York for a 50-mile garbage slick that washed up on its shores last August, forcing many beaches to close at the height of the tourist season. New York officials, facing court sanctions, denied responsibility for the floating garbage but agreed to pay $1 million in reparations and install new pollution controls on their side of the ocean. New York City also faces a possible shutdown of its last remaining landfill, Fresh Kills on Staten Island, within five years. The city wants to build five incinerators to burn its 27,000 daily tons of garbage, but environmentalist lawsuits have delayed the first project, a $400 million incinerator at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, until at least 1992. The New York-New Jersey metropolitan area is the only section of the country that has not agreed to end ocean dumping of sludge. But disposal costs are mushrooming because the closest offshore site is closing and barges must now ferry the sewage to an area 106 miles off Cape May, N.J. In the Washington area, Montgomery, Fairfax and Arlington counties are planning controversial incinerators. Montgomery County, like many urban areas, has just proposed a major mandatory recycling program to reduce the flow of garbage.
With landfill space dwindling and recycling a partial answer at best, municipal incinerators -- many of which help produce electricity -- seem clearly the wave of the future. More than 100 have been built in the United States and 200 more are planned. But this multibillion-dollar investment in new technology is not without environmental drawbacks.
The burning of so much garbage leaves behind millions of tons of toxic ash, which is widely shunned and must be buried in special landfills. That toxic ash has produced a Philadelphia version of the garbage barge, the Long Island ship whose 6,000-mile odyssey up and down the Atlantic seaboard last spring became a symbol of the trash crisis.
Under a $600,000 contract last year, Philadelphia was to ship ash wastes from its two aging incinerators to Panama. In September 1986, after Panamanian authorities changed their minds, the city's contractor dispatched a ship with 15,000 tons of ash to the Bahamas, where it was also turned away. Fifteen months later, the ship is still looking for a place to unload its cargo.
Besides creating the ash waste, incinerators produce smoke that can carry dioxins, a cancer-causing chemical. But some experts view the cancer risk as low and regard incineration as a marked improvement over continued dumping at landfills.
Nowhere is the toll exacted by landfills more evident than here in the Meadowlands, where 800 garbage trucks still make daily deposits.
The 20,000-acre district is gradually being transformed into corporate offices, townhouses and sports arenas. But decades of dumping fouled the water and eliminated many of the species of birds and mammals that lived in the marshlands.
When one of the mountains of garbage reached its maximum height, towering 150 feet above the New Jersey Turnpike, it simply would be closed and a new one opened nearby.
"There are acres and acres of old garbage dumps that smoldered for years," said Scardino, who grew up in Lyndhurst. "Every once in awhile it would erupt and you'd see black smoke and the fire would spread into the weeds."
The Meadowlands commission had hoped to get out of the garbage business by the late 1970s, after New Jersey had ordered its 21 counties to develop new methods of waste disposal. But deadlines came and went, and it was not until this year that the commission began closing the major dumps used by four surrounding counties.
For Passaic County, the days since it was barred from the Meadowlands have been marked by chaos. Restaurant trash, old mattresses and other bulk items have piled up on the streets of Paterson as contractors proved unable to handle the influx of garbage suddenly destined for out-of-state landfills.
On a dusty street near Paterson's city hall, yellow bulldozers shove mounds of raw garbage onto waiting tractor-trailers at the A. Capone Sanitation Plant. But the operation has been shutting down by noon after running out of trailers.
The trailers, turned away by Pennsylvania landfills, were forced to search for dump sites in Ohio and other states. Meanwhile, the local garbage trucks that failed to unload at A. Capone had to park overnight and try again the next morning.
"When I was there at 7 a.m., there were 20 trucks lined up," Paterson Mayor Frank X. Graves Jr. said the other day. He complained that New Jersey officials were "completely insensitive" to the problem they had foisted on his county.
Newark and surrounding Essex County have become more practiced at the art of shipping trash to Pennsylvania in the 4 1/2 months since their landfill was closed. But the sudden hike in disposal costs -- from $25 to $102 a ton -- is taking its toll.
Newark officials had to arrange a $6 million emergency appropriation last month to pay the trash bill, which now consumes 10 percent of the budget. "It's costing us $58,000 a day just to dump garbage," said Pam Goldstein, spokeswoman for Newark Mayor Sharpe James.
Bergen County faces a similar increase when its landfill closes in February, a fact that will quickly be reflected in rising property taxes. In the county seat of Hackensack, where 36,000 people live, the annual garbage bill is expected to jump from $375,000 to $2 million.
"That's enough to knock the socks off anybody," said City Manager Robert F. Casey. "It's at least a 10 percent increase in taxes with no increase in services. And it's a cost a municipality has no control over."
Like its neighbors, Bergen plans to build an incinerator by the early 1990s, but, as elsewhere, opponents have tied up the project in court.
The litigant in this case is Ridgefield, a Meadowlands town of 10,000 where the county plans to build the incinerator. Although Ridgefield faces the same trash crisis as the rest of the county, 89 percent of the town's voters opposed the incinerator in a recent referendum.
"The whole corridor is already polluted," said Ridgefield Mayor Stewart Veale. "There's tremendous concern about the emissions, dioxin and other pollutants going into the air."
This put-it-somewhere-else approach is hardly unusual. At the A. Capone plant in Paterson, a large sign warns, "Passaic County Waste Only -- All Others Refused." In central New Jersey, Middlesex County is trying to avert a Dec. 31 shutdown of its privately run landfill by taking over the site, then barring three neighboring counties from using it.
Scardino, for one, has no regrets about triggering this crisis. If his commission had not put a lid on landfills, he said, the counties would not be moving to build incinerators and the dumping would have continued indefinitely.
Looking out his office window at the foot of the Bergen landfill, Scardino points to Saw Mill Creek, a peaceful stretch of salt water and marshy weeds where the quiet is broken only by the sound of ducks and birds. The site had once been slated as yet another landfill.
"All of this would have been under garbage," he said.