Small towns and rural counties throughout the Mountain West and in Nebraska and Oklahoma are targeted to become America's toxic toilet as industries study dozens of remote areas to dump or destroy their growing inventory of hazardous waste.
Industries in urban areas like Denver continue to produce huge amounts of chemical, metal and radioactive waste even as they battle their legacy of leaking dumps, polluted air and contaminated water.As the waste inventory grows, more and more industries are looking for new dumping grounds.
At the same time, many rural areas are looking for ways to salvage their depressed mining, oil or ranching economies.
"People in the industry are acting as though we're just a bunch of podunks who need economic help from waste disposal since we're in a depressed state," said Linda Burkhart of the Wyoming Pollution Posse, a citizens group fighting a variety of waste-disposal proposals in that state.
"The industry just looks at us as illiterate hicks whose local officials can be convinced it means economic development to dump all that garbage here," she said.
Toxic-waste incineration proposals ring Colorado like a necklace. Proposals under consideration by various regulatory agencies include:
-Last Chance, Colo.: Browning-Ferris Industries plans to build the nation's first toxic-waste dump in a decade in eastern Adams County.
-Bennett, Colo.: A local company wants to bury liquid waste and asbestos, also in Adams County.
-Uravan, Colo.: Umetco Minerals Corp. wants to dispose of Denver's low-level radioactive waste in Montrose County.
-Kimball, Neb.: A Golden company plans to build a toxic-waste incinerator. The area also is being studied for that state's low-level waste site.
-Rozet, Wyo.: Plans are under way to dispose of oil drilling waste in 17 acres of pits in this town with a population of 25.
-Hanna, Wyo.: Martin Wilson of Denver has proposed dumping tons of garbage in old mine pits in central Wyoming.
-Cisco, Utah: A Golden firm plans to build a hazardous-waste incinerator.
-Lynndyl, Utah: Site of another hazardous waste incinerator proposal.
Still more incineration proposals are in germinal stages in Utah and Oklahoma.
As the proposals wind their way though the regulatory process, community leaders often support them, citing the need for jobs in depressed rural areas. But many nearby residents are trying to fight the plans, fearing health problems and the social stigma of living in an area used as a dumping ground.
New federal laws later this year will ban land disposal of a variety of toxic wastes, sending industries scrambling for new disposal methods. The most promising appears to be incineration.
"I'm not aware of any intentional trends" to build incinerators exclusively in rural areas, said Bill Murray, spokesman for the Coalition for Responsible Waste Incineration, a Washington, D.C., group representing a dozen large waste-producing industries.
"But areas that are less used are less likely to have implications and complications," Murray said. "It's very similar to Denver's Stapleton Airport, where it's right in a populated area now, but they're considering putting it further out where there are less implications."
Many rural towns, counties and states targeted for all kinds of new waste disposal facilities don't have the strict waste disposal laws that urban areas do, making them an easy target, environmentalists say.
"It's pretty clear that companies are trying to get away from the urban wrath and seeking rural areas where there is less resistance," said Adrienne Anderson, western director of the National Toxics Campaign, a non-profit activist group opposing a variety of waste disposal plans.
"Hazardous-waste disposal is like using a tube of toothpaste - you squeeze one end and it comes out another way. Dumpers take the course of least resistance."
Complicating the problem is the scattered rural population. Distance and rigorous ranching schedules make organizing opposition difficult, locals say.
"It's kind of hard to get a bunch of people all spread out like this together, especially this time of year" when hay and other late crops must be harvested," said Bob Nylund, a Nucla, Colo., rancher opposed to the Uravan proposal.
Not all communities targeted for disposal facilities oppose the projects. Many, in fact, seek out the proposals as ways to improve their economies.
"What's happening is communities heavily dependent on wheat and oil have had some very good times, and there aren't really any opportunities left," said Gary Severson, spokesman for Waste-Tech Inc. of Golden, which is planning to build an incinerator in Kimball, Neb.
"We recognize the country has a problem, that hazardous wastes now are being disposed of in a manner that just isn't environmentally acceptable," said Bob Arraj, Kimball city administrator.
"By and large, the vast majority of people have great confidence in Waste-Tech. There's no feeling of being a dumping ground."