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USA: Waste Dump is Monument for a Day

Associated Press
August 29th, 2001

FRESNO, California -- For a fleeting moment, the city's former dump -- 79 million cubic yards of rotting garbage so foul it's a Superfund site -- was a national historic landmark.

A little more than 24 hours later it was just another dump.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton stripped the landfill of its landmark status Tuesday after reviewing a recommendation from the National Park Service, said spokeswoman Stephanie Hanna.

The landfill earned the distinction Monday, joining such notable places as Monticello, Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West, Florida, and Walden Pond.

Before the day was out, Interior Department officials were having second thoughts after learning the 145-acre dump was given the ignoble Superfund designation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1989.

Denis Galvin, deputy director of the National Park Service, wrote to Norton on Monday, asking that the historic landmark status be withdrawn.

Galvin said he didn't know of the Superfund designation when he recommended the landfill as one of 15 sites Norton honored for their national historic and cultural significance.

Hanna said that information didn't make it to an advisory board that forwarded the nomination to Norton. She said the park service will review the decision and make another recommendation. There are other Superfund sites among the nation's 73,000 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, she said.

"It seems to me that somebody didn't do their homework and didn't do any thinking," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "What can I say, it's just weird."

'Milestone for Public Health'

The landfill, in the center of the richest agricultural land in the nation, opened in 1937 and closed in 1987.

To historians, it is the nation's first true sanitary landfill, where garbage was compacted and buried each day in trenches to prevent vermin and disease.

It was a milestone for public health, said Martin Melosi, a professor of history at the University of Houston who wrote the 1981 book "Garbage in the City." Melosi nominated it as a landmark for that reason, and that was what the Interior Department thought it was honoring.

However, the landfill's waste has polluted groundwater with paint, solvents and other hazardous chemicals. Explosive methane must be burned off.

The cleanup has cost $38 million so far, according to Leo Kay of the EPA. Kay said it is the first time he has heard of a Superfund site being named a historic landmark.

"We have hundreds of former landfills across the country that are undergoing multimillion-dollar cleanups," Kay said. "You would have thought more discussion would have taken place prior to making such a designation."

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