Whenever someone proposes a new chemical dump or a new incinerator, or a new gizmo to intercept enemy missiles, they try to sell it to us by claiming it is "state of the art." The phrase originated among military contractors who are skilled at finding new words to describe familiar items. For example, military contractors have found that, if they call a hammer a "metallic compression device," they've got a better chance of selling one to the Pentagon for $600. If they call it a "state of the art" metallic compression device, maybe it will bring $800.
Now everyone is selling "state of the art" this and that. For example, Congressman James Florio (D-NJ) introduced a bill into U.S. Congress last week requiring the ash from municipal incinerators to be called 'special waste' (as distinct from hazardous waste), and to be dumped into landfills. And the Congressman's press release called these ash landfills "state of the art" in design.
What does "state of the art" really mean? It just means "the best we can do today." Nothing more.
For citizens looking at some proposal (such as Mr. Florio's landfills), "state of the art" doesn't matter. It is not important whether some project is state of the art. The right question to ask is: "Is it adequate to protect public health and safety?"
If some proposed facility can't protect public health and safety, who cares if it's state of the art? If it's a danger to the community, who wants it, even if it is state of the art? On the other side of the coin, if some project is adequate to protect public health and safety, who cares if it's "state of the art" or not? If it is adequate, that's sufficient. Congressman Florio is a longtime friend of the environment. He is intelligent and thoughtful. His voting record is excellent. Mr. Florio was the first person in Congress to use the phrase, "There is no such thing as a secure landfill," so we know he understands all landfills leak. He was the original sponsor of the Superfund law requiring at least $10 billion tax dollars to clean up leaking landfills. But now, for some reason, Mr. Florio has decided to help salvage the municipal incinerator industry, which is choking on its own ash, and he has chosen to do it by promoting "state of the art" landfills.
The ash from municipal incinerators is heavily laced with toxic metals (lead, cadmium, arsenic, etc.) and is therefore dangerous. Incinerator ash is actually more dangerous than the raw garbage from which it was derived. Inside the incinerator, garbage breaks up into tiny particles. The small particles have a large surface area, relative to their volume. Metals collect on the surface of the tiny particles and thus become available to leach out of the ash when the ash is landfilled. Today's ash landfills are tomorrow's superfund sites.
Mr. Florio's "state of the art" ash landfills may be "state of the art" so far as landfill design goes, but, as the Congressman himself has often pointed out, all landfills eventually leak. So ash landfills are not an adequate solution to the problem of incinerator ash. The only adequate solution we know of is: don't make the ash, don't incinerate garbage.
If you want to tell Congressman Florio what you think of his
"state of the art" ash landfills, drop him a post card at: The
Capitol, Washington, DC 20515; or phone (202) 225-6501.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: state of the art; incineration; ash; florio; nj; congress; landfilling; leaks; toxicity; heavy metals; particulates; leachates; sara; siting; msw;