The Reaction Area

Enigmatic chemical reactions” have broken out underground inside two Los Angeles-area landfills, according to the L.A. Times. These “highly unusual reactions at Los Angeles County’s two largest landfills have raised serious questions about the region’s long-standing approach to waste disposal and its aging dumps.”

If landfills are the extreme endpoint of a cultural practice of burial—we bury to memorialize, to forget, to protect, to hide, store, and retrieve—then the idea that what we’ve made subterranean might take on a life or chemical activity of its own has a strange irony. Landfills seem to fully embody the idea that we don’t understand the extent of we’ve placed into the ground, nor what it does once we leave it there. Perhaps we also bury to reinvigorate and transform.

I’m reminded of a story from the British nuclear facility at Sellafield, whose new owners realized they had incomplete documentation of the site and thus had no idea where radioactive waste had been buried there. They actually put an ad in the local newspaper saying, “We need your help. Did you work at Sellafield in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s? Were you by chance in the job of disposing of radioactive material? If so, the owners of Britain’s nuclear waste dump would very much like to hear from you: they want you to tell them what you dumped—and where you put it.”

It feels oddly on-brand with modern living that we might not fully understand long-term landfill chemistry, that random solvents, dyes, acids, fuels, and detergents sloshing around together in huge, sealed landscapes for decades might break out in unexplained reactions, like inadvertent batteries—that we isolated our waste, thinking it would make us safe, but it is only gaining in chemical power.

As of November 2023, the “reaction area” in one of the L.A. dumps “had grown by 30 to 35 acres, according to the agency [CalRecycle]. Already, the heat has melted or deformed the landfill’s gas collection system, which consists mostly of polyvinyl chloride well casings. The damage has hindered the facility’s efforts to collect toxic pollutants.” This seems to imply it will get worse, and nearby residents have begun reporting chemical smells.

“The bad news,” L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger told the paper, “is we’ve never seen anything like this, and if we don’t understand what triggered it, it could happen at other landfills that are dormant. So it’s important for us to get a handle on it.” The earth, riddled with dormant landfills, attaining enigmatic chemical vigor in the darkness.

(Related: Class Action, Land of Fires, and The Landscape Architecture of Crisis.)

Class Action

[Image: Still from the end of Garbage, Gangsters and Greed.]

I have a long new feature up at The Guardian this weekend that tells the story of an English teacher at Middletown High School, in upstate New York, named Fred Isseks. In the early 1990s, Isseks was given the task of instructing teenage students at the school in how to use a bunch of new video cameras the school had acquired.

To the school’s surprise—and to some administrators’ long-term political frustration—Isseks’s students quickly formed an investigative journalism unit, taking on local politicians and the New York Mafia, and producing a feature-length documentary about the illegal dumping of toxic waste in local landfills.

The resulting film, called Garbage, Gangsters and Greed, made it as far as the Clinton White House, helped turn public opinion against the landfills, leading to their closure, and helped to reinvigorate official New York State hearings, run by Assemblyman Maurice Hinchey, on the subject of organized crime families and the illegal hauling of toxic waste.

The story of the students is pretty incredible—involving death threats, threats of arrest, trespassing onto contaminated land, and more—and I was thrilled to be able to meet or speak with several of them, even to tour the old high school with Fred Isseks in tow. It is not an exaggeration to say that Isseks’s class changed the direction of those students’ lives, as many now work in environmental law or film and television. (One former student, Rachel Raimist, even has a media center named after her at the University of Minnesota.)

The whole thing really pivots on Isseks’s belief that teenagers need to be given projects of true meaning and significance, not simply assigned more tests to take. Indeed, Isseks himself later went on—while still teaching at the high school but after a final cut of the landfill documentary had been completed—to earn a Ph.D. at the European Graduate School, studying under Wolfgang Schirmacher.

His thesis would later be published under the name Media Courage: Impossible Pedagogy in an Artificial Community, and it includes a chapter that, as I describe it in the Guardian piece, advocates for “the philosophical potential of the American high school system. [Isseks’s] belief that teenagers need to be given work with genuine meaning and consequence in the world would shape his entire teaching career and, in the process, change his students’ lives.”

Of course, the rabbit hole of Mob connections to toxic waste in the United States is bottomless, and the true consequences of illegal disposal—particularly, the long-term medical and environmental effects—are yet to be fully accounted for.

I will undoubtedly come back to this topic, but, for now, check out the Guardian piece online (or in this weekend’s print edition), watch the students’ film in its entirety over at YouTube, and click through to Fred Isseks’s blog, where I first read about all of this. His long post putting the landfills into a deeper historical and geological context is superb.

(A brief note from the small-world files: my awareness of Fred Isseks came entirely through a friendly tip from my friend, Ed Keller, who had read an earlier post here on BLDGBLOG called “Terrestrial Warfare, Drowned Lands.” The “Drowned Lands” are not only the area of New York State where Ed Keller lives, but are the same region where the toxic landfills explored by Isseks and his students are all located. I owe a huge thanks to Ed for the heads up!)