Waste Dump Sites on the Rise

An encounter with roadside protesters opens the author's eyes to the growing problem of waste dumps in the state.

| November/December 1989

About the only events that stop traffic on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, a venerable, graceful span that crosses the Hudson about 30 miles south of Albany, are the weekly spot checks mounted by the state police to ensure that cars are properly registered and inspected, and the annual arrival in early summer of the state bridge crew. The troopers usually show up on late Tuesday mornings, a time when traffic is light and when, presumably, there is little else to occupy them. By noon they disappear, as every scofflaw knows. The bridge crew, on the other hand, works from nine to five and makes absolutely clear who owns the bridge. Really owns it. Sometimes they paint, sometimes they replace sections of road surface, and sometimes they just hose down or sweep up. And, oh yes, sometimes they eat a leisurely lunch, right there on the bridge. No matter the activity, however, the effect is the same: a total bottleneck—one lane only with orange-clad teenagers of both sexes at either end waving red flags and whispering to each other on clever portable radios.

Like a lot of other noncommuting locals, I strive to avoid the bridge at these exasperating times, crossing only in the evening and on weekends if I can help it. I was therefore doubly chagrined one Saturday morning not long ago to see traffic stacked from here to kingdom come. No police, no bridge crew, no accident. When I finally crossed, I discovered not only the source of the tie-up but also why motorists were blowing their horns with abandon this morning, as well as what accounted for the acrid stench that had lately enveloped the western end of the bridge. For at the side of the road stood a handful of demonstrators. If Waste Dumps Offend You, Blow Your Horn read their placards. I blew my horn and pulled over.

One of the demonstrators, a young woman, made no bones about stating the case. "Waste dumps are metastasizing. There's a new one right over there," she pointed. I could see it, a nearby field strewn with what looked like demolition rubble. This close, the smell made you not want to breathe through your nose. In fact, not breathe at all.

Each month , she told me, new dump sites appear, farther and farther away from the major cities that produce the waste. Philadelphia, Newark, New York City—our particular epicenter. "First it was Rockland, Westchester, and Putnam counties, then Orange and Dutchess. Now it's Greene and Columbia," she went on. "They're proliferating, radiating outward, county by county. Waves of offal. Where you live, too."

I had told her where I lived and, indeed, had recently begun detecting an odd smell near my yellow brick house but assumed it was swamp gas or something equally pungent and sulfurous. After all, it had rained hard all summer long—so hard that puddles no longer went away and the vegetation seemed to double in mass each week.

"Swamp gas, my foot," she retorted. "That's a dump site you smell. I know right where it is, too. It's laced with PCBs."

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