No grass grows at Grassy Mountain landfill, the desert resting place for 2,400 tons of tainted soil shunned in several states and packed onto a pariah train that was dogged by environmentalists.
Dirt, acres of it, stretches as far as the eye can see amid asbestos, PCBs and industrial waste buried on what was once the floor of prehistoric Lake Bonneville.There, at U.S. Pollution Control Inc.'s 640-acre landfill, the 32 boxcars of Michigan dirt contaminated by acrylic acid found a home last week. And the company wonders what all the fuss was about.
"The way we look at it we're a waste management company. We're in the business of solving environmental problems," said company spokesman Charlie Roberts. "We can properly transport it and dispose of it so that it's no longer on the rails."
By Thursday night, it no longer was.
Company crews and chemists spent 14 hours testing, unloading and dumping the soil into "Cell 4," a stadium-size landfill in the Grassy Mountain complex used solely for hazardous waste.
The dirt, scooped up from the site of a 1989 train fire in Freeland, Mich., was determined by Utah and company experts to be a benign solid waste, but it was treated as something worse at disposal time because of weeks of controversy.
"When we saw the public concern over the material, we said we're going to manage it as a hazardous waste. The state also required us to do that," said Grassy Mountain General Manager Ken Hall. "It was the conservative approach."
In an odyssey reminiscent of the 1987 trek of the unwanted New York garbage barge, the CSX Transportation Inc. train traveled from Michigan through Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee before leaving for Utah a week ago.
Landfills in at least three states - Michigan, Ohio and South Carolina - rejected the soil. CSX Transportation, based in Jacksonville, Fla., tried to keep the train's whereabouts a secret.
Members of the environmental group Greenpeace trailed the train, contending the dirt should be disposed of in Michigan. In some instances, protesters chained themselves to the train, and one protester in Ohio went on a hunger strike for about two weeks after his arrest in Toledo.
But 10 demonstrators who showed up at U.S. Pollution's rail siding 75 miles west of Salt Lake City seemed mostly resigned.
"It's horrible that it's our job to chase this train through the communities," said Fred Munson of the New York office of Greenpeace.
Utah's chief of environmental health, Ken Alkema, and U.S. Pollution officials said the train was not the "Cancer Cannonball" environmentalists made it out to be.
"I'd pick something else to protest," Roberts said. "There's a lot more things on the rails and highways more dangerous than this that don't even get winked at - diesel fuel, propane, chlorine and sulfuric acid."
Hall said the dirt probably could have sprouted robust tomatoes. It was safe enough to be handled by the average municipal landfill, Alkema said.
Like other wastes at Grassy Mountain, the Michigan dirt is buried with several layers of protection - including synthetic liners and 3 feet of compacted clay.
The 9-year-old Grassy Mountain, which is owned by Union Pacific Railroad, has paid fines for more than 100 operational violations from 1984 to 1990, ranging from improper containment to losing track of hazardous waste material.
Bill Sinclair, who heads the Utah environmental agency's solid and hazardous waste division, said the number of penalties is not unusual for the commercial hazardous waste industry and Grassy Mountain remains a natural location for waste disposal.