We All Live Downstream

It's one of the most basic lessons in ecology: everyone is downstream from someone else.

Gravity makes us partners in the hydrologic cycle. And the more we learn about how water works, the more we realize how interconnected our fates are. A chemical dumped into the water supply of one country can have an impact hundreds or even thousands of miles away. And although we accept it, we don't always live it.

The landfill is the symbol of our throw-away society. Nearly everything finds its way into one of the various types of landfills, including many of the 50 to 100,000 synthetic chemicals known to cause serious harm to humans.

A landfill is a miracle of modern technology. First a suitable site is chosen, hopefully isolated from running water. Then a bottom liner is installed, usually consisting of clay or a synthetic membrane. A system of pipes and pumps is designed to carry off liquids that may accumulate. Once it has been filled, the entire site is again covered, with a clay or synthetic liner, which receives a generous topping of grass and shrubs.

At the moment, this is the best we can do, and it's a lot. But liners tear, pipes clog and covers crack. Rainwater penetrates, gases form and water pressure builds. The reality is that landfills leak, vent and overflow.

The experts have known this all along. Peter Montague, director of the Environmental Research Foundation and author of Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly, has collected statements from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the subject of landfill viability. They're not reassuring.

Faced with a growing chemical waste stream, the EPA has repeatedly warned that landfills are not the answer. In 1981, the EPA stated in the Federal Register that "...the hazardous constituents that are placed in land disposal facilities very likely will migrate from the facility into the broader environment."

The reason, stated in 1982, was clear: "No liner...can keep all liquids out of the ground for all time."

The EPA has not been optimistic about the future, either. In fact, the agency has gone on record to state that regulators of hazardous waste disposal must assume that the migration of chemicals into the environment will occur. Why? Because "it is not technologically and institutionally possible to contain wastes and constituents forever or for the long time periods that may be necessary to allow adequate degradation to be achieved." In other words, look out downstream!

As we see over and over again, nature is very good at bringing things together and miserable at keeping them apart. That's the secret of its success. Nature's fundamental permeability allows the energy flows and nutrient cycling on which all life is based. It only becomes a deficit when we deny it or try to work against it.

Overall, we can reduce the waste stream before we begin to drown in it. We must work to change our way of life from a throw-away culture to a conservation culture. With the consumer economy spreading to the developing world, we risk seeing a new ballooning of waste in areas too poor to finance state-of-the-art waste recovery infrastructure. The result would be more-and leakier-landfills.

And we have to stop the flow at the source. Many countries have banned the most dangerous chemicals. According to the Worldwatch Institute, some 689 national pesticide bans are now in place. And representatives from over 100 nations are now finally hammering out a legally binding agreement on persistent organic pollutants, the worst of the worst, including DDT, PCBs and dioxins.

Hopefully it is not too little, too late. According to a new study by the National Ocean Service, a program of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the health of 86 out of 138 U.S. estuaries under investigation will worsen by the year 2020 if population growth and coastal zone development are not responsibly managed. Nutrient overloading from industry, fertilizer runoff, factory farming and other sources feeds the growth of algae, which in turn speeds up the process of eutrophication.

Everywhere one hears that the world has gotten small. This should be a mantra not only for online merchants and wireless phone companies, but for conservationists as well. It's time to recall that we all live downstream.