National Geographic : 2014 Dec
130 national geographic • December 2014 An accountant who’s now retired, he planted his family in 1978 in a modest new house in Mon- tebello, an industrial cum bedroom community just east of Los Angeles. Behind the house, in neighboring Monterey Park, sat an active land- fill—but don’t worry, the developer said. Soon it would close and become a park or maybe even a golf course. The greens never came. It turned out that the landfill, a former gravel pit that had welcomed so much ordinary trash it had filled to ground level and then kept on rising, had also accepted some 300 million gallons of liquid industrial waste—and it hadn’t been selective. Was your waste laced with arsenic, 1,4-dioxane, or mer- cury? No problem. The nodding pump jacks nearby, left from the oil boom, wouldn’t care. Some of the waste might have come from drill- ing those oil wells. Los Angeles had buried the hazardous waste, but it was far from gone. A few years after Apos- tol’s development was built, his neighbors be- gan complaining of nausea. Gas had intruded into six homes. Property values plummeted. In 1986 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency marched in and listed the landfill as a Superfund site, part of its new program to contain the na- tion’s hazardous waste crisis. Back then many hoped the national cleanup might end after a decade or two. That didn’t hap- pen at the Operating Industries, Inc., landfill in Monterey Park. The EPA capped the landfill with a processed-clay membrane and two feet of soil. Gases from the waste are now collected and burned; a treatment plant processes 26,000 gal- lons of contaminated water a day. The EPA has so far recuperated $600 million for the cleanup from various parties responsible for the waste at the site—and it does not foresee an end to its work. No one talks about the dump anymore. “Peo- ple have forgotten about it,” Apostol said one af- ternoon in his indoor patio, with music jingling on his speakers and his small dog, in a faded “Romney 2012” sweater, yapping for attention. House prices are up again, he said, and most residents have stayed put. His wife got breast cancer, but he doesn’t blame the landfill. He’s come to respect it since the EPA intervened: It’s so heavily managed that, unlike people in neigh- boring towns, he doesn’t worry about mudslides. “We don’t have any regrets,” Apostol said. “Where else can you go?” He could have moved, he admitted, but the commute from Montebello was too good. Living next to a waste site may not be ideal. But neither is bad traffic. Today nearly one in six Americans lives within three miles of a major hazardous waste site, though few people could tell you where it is. These sites fall under the Superfund program, created by Congress in 1980 after a high-profile controversy at the Love Canal development in Niagara Falls, New York. Love Canal’s residents crusaded against the Hooker Chemical Compa- ny after they found barrels of its chemical waste For most of his adult life Jun Apostol has lived, willingly, in the shadow of a mountain of waste. By Paul Voosen Photographs by Fritz Hoffmann Paul Voosen is a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Fritz Hoffmann’s latest article for the magazine was on longevity, in May 2013.