Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Living With Garbage


Josie Razore, a founder of a great and once local solid waste company, Rabanco, told me one time that the main reason he and three other young men got the first solid waste disposal contract let by the City of Bellingham in 1928 was not the price.   Rather, it was their firm commitment that the bodies of dead horses picked up by their company and disposed of at sea would not wash up on the city’s beaches.  The bloated, decomposing and shark savaged bodies were seen as an overall negative on Bellingham’s beautiful and largely peaceful shoreline. 

We have always been closer to our garbage than we think.  We park our cars on it, build our houses on it, construct public works on it, play golf on it.  While today’s practices, considered modern, keep much of our solid waste distant and largely invisible, most of the city’s population stands just a few inches above 100 years of primitive garbage disposal where garbage dumps and their lingering fires were next door to everyone. 

Seattle Municipal Archives
In 1900, garbage disposal in Seattle required a contract between a homeowner or business and an individual who performed a collection service, usually a wagon, often pulled by horses retired from more rigorous work in the fire service or from the horse drawn transportation industry, the last stop before the rendering plant or Josie Razore’s barge.  Often, this collection service was associated with a particular local dump, where the garbage was unloaded and set afire.  Sometimes the collector didn’t have a real dump, but was confident he could find some property with no one on it without too much trouble.  However, sometimes it did not always work out smoothly. 

The Seattle Times reported in 1908 on a stabbing of a young collector by an irate property owner who came upon his vacant lot to see the young boy unloading the contents of his wagon on it.  The boy lived and no charges were filed. 

In Bellingham, the old fire horses in use for pulling garbage wagons would bolt for the firehouse when the alarm rang, making a long day of missed accounts for the collector.

Columbia City Dump, now the library
Garbage dumps were everywhere.  The Carnegie Library site in Columbia City was a garbage dump, fires burning day and night.  So was Genessee Park.  The play field at Green Lake is a garbage dump, long abandoned.  Market Street at 28th Avenue NW in Ballard was a landfill site and so were both ends of Lake Union.  Just North of East Madison at about 30th, around the entrance to Washington Park and the Arboretum, was one of the early days’ largest landfills.  Today’s Japanese Garden sits on it.  Many other dumps crowded in, often near the water where garbage was simply pushed into the lake or sound.

Seattle Municipal Archives
A long trestle crossed the mudflats south and west of the city center and trucks and carts rode out on it and pushed garbage, ash and other materials into the flats, building a pile 120 feet long, 80 feet wide and 60 feet high.  In 1909 it caught fire and burned for most of that year, even as garbage scavengers pulled bottles and other items of value from the pyre.

The Seattle Municipal League did not like contemporary garbage management and pushed for a city takeover of collection and an investment in garbage incinerators, then called garbage destructors, to get rid of the waste.  The Muni League, as well as Mayor Hiram Gill, thought that pick-up and delivery should be free, something the small army of collectors and dumpers and their less than desireable disposal practices couldn’t keep pace with.

This set up a great bureaucratic struggle within the city.  The Municipal League favored the Seattle Health Department as the manager of solid waste because better management reduced the health risk of Typhoid Fever among other potent diseases associated with living too close to waste.  The health department took over management of the collection program and, in 1910, the program received approval for the sale of $400,000 in bonds to start a comprehensive capital and operating program in January of 1911.  But the capital side of the program was under the jurisdiction of the great city engineer, Reginald Heber Thomson, the man who oversaw the construction of nearly every utility Seattle uses today.  The progressives thought him arrogant and controlling, not necessarily inaccurate, and they questioned some of the decisions he had made that led to the removal of hills and other geographic features of the old city.  Thomson loved a straight line. 

The struggle would go on with Thomson and without him until the engineering department finally wrested control of garbage from the health department at the end of the thirties. 

At the time Mayor Gill announced the new garbage program, the city had finished building a garbage destructor around today’s South Lake Union Park.  It was said, in 1908, that it would handle a third of the city’s garbage. 

However, between 1905 and 1910, the city tripled in size from about 80,000 people to nearly 250,000 through annexations of towns like Ballard, Columbia City, South Park and West Seattle in addition to its own organic population growth.  While it was a source of great pride to be among the largest cities in the country, it was a huge job to provide sewer, water, electricity and now garbage to such a large population.  Also, that first incinerator was not really working up to snuff.  It consumed just 35% of the mass fed into it, the remainder requiring disposal elsewhere, usually in the tide flat dump, where cinders from incinerator waste likely started the year long fire in 1909.

Thomson, who had selected the burning technology after a fact finding trip to Europe, then started building a garbage burner at 8th Avenue South and South Holgate, a handful of blocks from Safeco Field and very near today’s Metro Bus Base.  In his state of the city address in 1911, the mayor also announced two more garbage burners, one that would be built at North Lake Union at the foot of Wallingford and another in Ballard, at 43rd and 9th Avenue, near today’s Fred Meyer store. 

The progressives had further reason for outrage at the North Lake Union plant.  Constructed at the same time as the destructor was a group of bunkers that Thomson said would help manage the flow of garbage in the north end.  When storage ran out, the collection companies were allowed to unload garbage directly into the lake.  Neighbors, and those living above Lake Union in some of Seattle’s most expensive houses, complained and the city promised to stop.  It did not.  When the garbage piled up too high, or one of the troublesome garbage destructors went on the fritz, collectors would dump their garbage into the lake as the health department and Thomson looked the other way. 

The Seattle Times, no friend of Thomson, hated his garbage strategy and many other things he was behind at the City of Seattle, sent out a photographer to document this outrage.  The Times cameraman was setting up as the garbage wagons drove their load onto a trestle positioned over the lake, and shoveled the contents into the water.  But before he could make an exposure, site manager William T. McKenna made his way to the camera’s position and put his bowler hat over the lens. 

A confrontation ensued.  McKenna and the photographer proceeded to take off their jackets in anticipation of things getting really physical when McKenna noticed that the collectors had finished up and were leaving the trestle.  He changed tactics and invited the Times crew into his office and adopted a tone of contrition and cooperation, pulling up chairs for them and calling his boss, the head of collection and destruction, who promised to scoot right over to North Lake Union and talk with them.  In the meantime, seagulls swarmed over the water where the dumping had taken place and tin cans bobbed about, though McKenna asserted it was merely ashes that had been put in the water. 

In the 1920s, the city’s growth and the continued under performance of the garbage destructors dictated a change of strategy in which the city added two large waste dumps to the south and east sides of the city.  They complemented the Interbay site between Queen Anne and Magnolia which had operated since 1911.  Community pressure was also shutting down some of the smaller sites like Greenlake, Madison Park and several others.  In 1927 there were 16 garbage dumps in the city.  In 1931, there were six.

Southern Edge of Interbay Landfill.
Community Garden to the right.
Presence of Cattails along base of landfill
suggests high groundwater level
Interbay was the oldest of the big dumps and started out at the north end of the site and extended south year by year.  It was a tidal area originally and the water table remains just underneath the filled surface.  No one really knows what was buried there because of the poor record keeping.  The nearby Piers 90-91 and Fort Lawton military base suggest heavy use by the military, always a risk factor.  The dump closed in 1968.

Over the years Interbay garbage has produced considerable methane.   In the early 60s, there was an explosion and fire at the south end of the landfill.  The land is used today as a golf course, play fields and a community garden.

There are numerous stories about Interbay.  A favorite of mine goes back to Dave Beck, the former President of the International Teamsters Union in the 1950s.  Beck’s personal use of Teamster funds had long made him a target of the Internal Revenue Service.  After agents had requested certain Teamster documents, Beck’s staff collected them and put them in a storage area in the Western Conference of Teamsters building just off Denny Way.  The janitor was then told to “clean out the storage room.”  The man loaded his truck with the boxes of records, drove out to Interbay and burned them, all the while watched by men in two cars who supervised the operation, stirred the ashes when the fire went down and left with the janitor.

Interbay Hooverville
Seattle Municipal Archives
Interbay also had a Hooverville.  We tend to think that there was only one shack town in Seattle, the idea driven by the famous photograph taken from the south of the city with the Smith Tower in the background.  But each large landfill had shacks in which transients lived, spending their days finding value in what others had thrown away.

It was a tough place.  A man named Robinson, taken to municipal court on a disorderly conduct charge in Pioneer Square, explained why he was carrying a long knife when arrested.

Seattle Municipal Archives
“Well, it’s like this,” he said.  “I get most of my stuff from the garbage dump.  It used to be that I didn’t get my share.  Then I got this knife and after that I didn’t have any trouble getting my share.”

Donald Francis Roy, a graduate student at the University of Washington, studied the Hoovervilles of Seattle, documenting construction techniques, town layout, ages of the residents and how they found their way through a world where people expected their share and were willing to have a big knife at their side to get it.

Montlake Dump, after World War II
The landfill is at center right and would grow to
cover the entire wetland
University of Washington Collections
Montlake Dump opened in 1926 and accepted garbage until 1966 and was covered with two feet of clean soil and closed in 1971.  Ten years before it opened, the level of Lake Washington was lowered by nine feet with the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Hiram Chittenden Locks.  The receding lake created a large wetland with an expanse of cattails covering most of 200 acres to the north of today’s Husky Stadium. 

Now play fields and parking lots, the old Montlake Dump, often called the Ravenna Dump, is probably the best monitored of the former garbage sites.  A University of Washington Committee Landfill Oversight Committee monitors the landfill and tracks its methane production, settlement and other issues. 

Montlake in the mid to late 50s
Husky Stadium is in the background.
Seattle Municipal Archives
From the University’s efforts, we know that the waste underneath the play fields and parking lots is saturated with water, producing quite a bit of methane and, in some places, has garbage directly under the asphalt of the parking lot.  Landfill savvy freshman at the University of Washington will frequently impress their dates by striking a match above an asphalt crack and start a thin blue flame.

Most of the many Seattle landfills started life as a burn site where the garbage was set afire every day, the ashes spread around and what was left of the garbage was covered over by the next day’s garbage.  In 1911, the British conceived of an idea they called “controlled tipping.”  This meant that the day’s garbage was spread around, compacted by a piece of heavy machinery and covered over at the end of the day by a foot or so of dirt.  The next day, a new layer of garbage was placed on yesterday’s soil, then compacted and covered.  It was made to fit into local contours, like a ravine or ditch and closed when a ravine or other feature was filled up.  They called the result a cell.  A sanitary landfill was a collection of these cells.  Later innovations included digging trenches in which garbage was dumped, then compacted and covered.  In the seventies and eighties, landfill regulations required layers of clay and impervious geotextile fabrics to act as liners between the garbage and groundwater.

Seattle was an early adopter of the better practices in the 1940s though not as early as the city of Fresno, California.  Its landfill, the first sanitary landfill in the United States, is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Of the 3,000 or so such designations, it is the only one that is also listed as a Superfund site.

A 1984 City of Seattle study listed several landfills around the city whose locations are often surprising.  Genessee Park, also known as the Rainier Valley Dump, operated from 1942-1968 though there is evidence that it has been used as a dump since the 1890s with up to 50 feet of garbage underfoot.   South Park, a place where you would think dumping would be going on, was in use from 1945-1966.  No one knows for sure what is there because of the non-existent record keeping, it is perhaps most prone to toxic and hazardous wastes, according to that 1984 study.  The Green Lake play field was a burn dump from 1900-1933 covering more than 100 acres.

Major Dumps in Seattle
(1) is Green Lake, (2) is Ballard, (3) is Interbay (4) is
West Garfield, (5) is North Lake Union, (6) is Montlake,
(7) is Sand Point, (8) is the Arboretum, (9) is Crockett Street,
(10) is South Lake Union, (11) are the Tideflats, (12) is
Sixth and Lander, (13) is Genessee Park
Except for Montlake, we know very little about all this garbage at our feet.  We do know, however, where most of it is, about 50 sites in all over the last 100 years.  The City of Seattle critical areas ordinance maps old landfills and does not allow development within 1,000 feet for fear of methane migration that could concentrate explosive levels in buildings.   While not common, these types of explosions are not exactly rare.  The University of Washington requires non-sparking construction techniques and no smoking while working on what was the Montlake Landfill.

In addition to our old dumps, new ones are being created all the time.  Illegal dumping is a significant problem, especially for expensive to dispose products like tires and treated pilings.  I’ve seen figures that as much of five percent of the waste stream is dumped outside of permitted systems.  The environmental agency in Oklahoma reports that there are 2,500 illegal dumps in that state and estimates clean up at $4,000,000.

It’s hard to remember what these facilities looked like at the time and how they overcame a person’s visual expectations for a beautiful city.  The Seattle World’s Fair, the city’s celebration of its space age future, used the Interbay Dump as overflow parking, a preposterous idea.  But I also know that I walked along the eastern edge of the University of Washington campus on a lovely day in the early sixties.  Looking out over the Montlake Dump, I somehow registered only Mount Rainier.  I have no visual image of the Montlake Dump that is my own.

Researchers assessing people’s reaction to airplane noise in neighborhoods have found that about half the people in a community are affected greatly by airplane noise while the other half hardly notices.   I wonder if that might true of the landfills we lived next to for so long in this lovely city.  Did half of us really just drive by, the smoke from burning garbage rising past the rolled up window?  Could we have remembered the shape of a man scrambling down a pile of garbage with a sack of bottles over his shoulder or were we focused on a grocery list or an overdue book at the library? 

Now that those places are gone, topped by the Japanese Garden, Green Lake on a splendid day, the pleasant visual clatter of the gardens on top of the 100 year old Interbay Dump, could it be that our punishment for not remembering is to notice today only the garbage buried underneath?

Seattle's Hoovervilles


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