Standing across the highway from the Altamont Landfill, which receives more than 80 percent of the garbage produced by San Francisco, Rick Lymp waits for a dump truck to roll by. He's not looking for any old dump truck. Lymp brought me here last spring hoping to spot one carrying the toxic leftovers of dismantled cars and old home appliances.
In the metal recycling business, these leftovers are known as shredder waste. California disposes of 700,000 tons of it every year, making it the biggest toxic waste stream in the state.
Few people outside the recycling industry know anything about shredder waste. But Rick Lymp knows a lot about it. This extraordinarily persistent retired 58-year-old salesman has dedicated the last decade of his life to getting state officials to better regulate this material, sometimes called auto fluff.
Automobile shredder waste is made up of the carpet, foam, wiring, tires, bumper plastic, dashboards, hoses, road filth, and other debris that's left over after recycling plants extract metal from junked cars. Refrigerators, washing machines, and other appliances are ground up and sorted at the same recycling facilities, and the shredder waste from these appliances goes into the same trucks and landfills.
For years Lymp worked as a broker selling lime, the alkaline mineral used in concrete, mortar, and other industrial materials. Some of his biggest customers were automobile recyclers, who used lime as part of a coating for shredder waste that purportedly prevented lead and other hazardous minerals from leaching through landfills.
Under a 1988 California exemption, recyclers using this coating could avoid having to transport this toxic refuse to special separated and double-sealed — and very expensive — hazardous waste dumps.
"It's like creating an M&M candy," Lymp says of the flawed theory behind the exemption. "You coat it, and it's safe." As a minerals broker, Lymp knew shredder waste included harmful toxins such as mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.
And the more he thought about how his auto shredder clients used his product, the less comfortable he became. The sludge inside a landfill is a caustic brew that would likely overpower the coating treatment.
Lymp came to believe the science behind the coating policy was bogus. "This could be another Love Canal," he says, referring to the 1978 disaster that resulted after a housing subdivision was built over a chemical waste dump in upstate New York. "I've spent 10 years just trying to pay back society after having been in business. I just felt it was wrong what was being done."
Lymp left the business in 1996, and a few years later made it his mission to persuade regulators to classify auto fluff as toxic waste. Since then, he has spent thousands of hours and $50,000 of what was supposed to be his retirement money trying to force regulators to accept his belief that, as sure as an M&M melts in your mouth, the chemical durability of the cementlike coating is temporary. Lymp has hired attorneys and filed multiple legal challenges against California toxic regulators, asserting that they're breaching their duty to protect the public. He has telephoned, written to, and visited bureaucrats, scientists, and politicians. It's a crusade he has waged alone. Even environmental groups around the state haven't paid attention to shredder waste.
As his reward, he's been rebuffed and ignored and legally defanged. He's now broke, and can't find a job. Though his crusade has left him destitute, humiliated, and disillusioned, it's nonetheless still what he lives for.
During his truck-watching visit to the Altamont Landfill near Livermore this past spring, he seemed downright giddy as he waited in the drizzle to show me that San Francisco's garbage is mixed with toxic waste at the dump.
"Are you catching that blue cab?" Lymp asked, as a road tractor towed a sturdy steel-box trailer up the hillside that conceals the three-square-mile landfill. "That's the kind of trailer that will carry auto shredder waste."
Though he didn't realize it back then, Lymp had just seen what was about to become an endangered species. Regulators have since quietly proposed new policies essentially complying with Lymp's demands, banning those truckloads from dumps such as this one.
The change may have come about in part because of Lymp. After fighting his lawsuits and ignoring his pleas, state regulators have quietly acknowledged that his warnings were correct, and that the truckload winding its way up to San Francisco's garbage dump was filled with leachable poisons.
In September, state regulators wrote to auto recyclers saying that the state's 1988 policy on shredder-waste handling would be rescinded. After March 1, 2009, recyclers would have to handle their toxic garbage like everybody else does, and put it in special hazardous-waste landfills.
This policy shift largely went unnoticed by the public, but it was momentous.
After publicly claiming for 20 years that it was safe to spread millions of tons of treated waste at county dumps, state officials were now acknowledging that the science behind this policy was flawed and that the waste was unsafe. That meant that millions of tons of toxic waste are sitting in municipal dumps all over California, possibly leaching hazardous materials into the groundwater.
It also meant workers at recycling plants at dumps have for a generation been breathing dust and handling material that state regulators told them was safe, but now say may be hazardous.
And it meant that automobile recycling — which charities such as Habitat for Humanity tout as "green steel" — isn't terribly environmentally friendly after all (see "Junk in the Trunk").
As it turns out, Rick Lymp wasn't the only one expressing concern about the hazards of shredder waste. In fact, state toxics investigators had likewise raised red flags for years — fruitlessly — saying California's system for regulating of this type of hazardous waste was inadequate and ineffective. Those warnings, however, were ignored.
In 2000, Peter Wood, a hazardous substances scientist with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), assessed the state's shredder waste policy by visiting seven recycling plants around California. Wood performed tests designed to determine whether treated waste could leach lead, zinc, and other hazardous minerals into the ground. This was important because an underlying assumption of the state's dumping policy was that the shredder fluff wouldn't leach poison into the water.