For 38 years, the mountains of trash have risen, all but surrounding William Penn’s historic summer home, Pennsbury.
Nearby, in Tullytown, a 14-story peak now looms over one end of the tidy borough in lower Bucks County.
From afar, the mountain is big enough that the trash trucks – queueing at the top to dump up to 10,000 tons a day – look like insects.
Over the years, the two mega landfills – GROWS (Geological Reclamation of Waste Services) and Tullytown, on 6,000 acres beside the former U.S. Steel Fairless Works – have become a regional trash hub, with two-thirds of its waste now coming from out of state, mostly New York and New Jersey.
Pennsylvania is the nation’s leading trash importer, and here by the Delaware River sits the state’s busiest landfill complex, which received 3.5 million tons last year.
It’s going to get busier still. The owner, Waste Management, just received permission for a major expansion in April, and at least two more are planned.
This high-tech waste monolith is a heap of contradictions. It embodies many advanced technologies, including a system to capture methane – a product of decomposition – and send it to a nearby power plant to make energy.
Yet Waste Management is also being fined millions of dollars until a new system to handle leachate – liquid that collects at the landfill’s bottom – is finished.
The owner and the site’s neighbors have reached a certain harmony, bolstered by improving technology and the tens of millions of dollars that the firm showers on residents of its “host” towns.
But the relationship was stressed in recent weeks when officials learned the company planned to accept sludge from a Montgomery County water-treatment plant that had been slightly contaminated with radioactive matter.
It had come from a company that cleaned uniforms and coveralls worn at nuclear power plants.
Scared and angered, officials vowed to intercede.
But both the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection concluded that the contamination was insignificant – less than someone would be exposed to while watching TV – and was allowed under current regulations.
Last week the trucks rolled in, depositing 499 tons of the sludge in the GROWS landfill.
In retrospect, said Tullytown borough manager Andrew Warren, the sludge itself wasn’t a big deal. The problem arose because “it was a surprise.”
Notification had come, but it was obscured in a 32-inch high stack of Waste Management folders, all but toppling off a table in the borough hall – which money from Waste Management had built.
A former Bucks County commissioner, Warren maintains that the company “has been and is a good neighbor.”
Likewise, Falls Township manager Peter Gray termed relations with the waste giant “very positive.”
But what fault lines there were have sharpened.