Southern Dumping Grounds

This April 12, 2018 photo shows containers that were loaded with tons of sewage sludge in Parrish, Ala. More than two months after the so-called "Poop Train" rolled in from New York City, Hall says her small town smells like rotting corpses. Some say the trainloads of New Yorkers' excrement is turning Alabama into a dumping ground for other states' waste. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

The stalled train load of human sewage sludge from New York City was too palpable to be a mere metaphor for bad public policy.

For more than 60 days the stench made life in the small Alabama town of Parrish a misery until the load of 10 million pounds of treated human waste was finally taken away to a dump by trucks last month.

“They tell us this material is harmless,” Parrish police officer Jeff Nelson told The Washington Post. “Well, if it’s harmless why not get rid of it up North? Why send it down here?”

The question has been raised repeatedly in South Carolina when radioactive waste, toxic chemical waste, medical waste and out-of-state household waste — baled or incinerated — have been transported here. Indeed, Savannah River Site has received highly radioactive waste from around the nation, as well as from foreign nations, typically with an empty promise from the feds that it would be stabilized and shipped elsewhere.

In virtually every instance of unwanted waste disposal, only strong action by state government in response to an outraged public has forced the issue to the benefit of South Carolina. In the case of SRS, the state and Aiken County have taken the U.S. Department of Energy to court, so far with some success.

There also is reason for optimism this week as the U.S. House is expected to vote on kick-starting a long-delayed plan to store the country’s nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, northwest of Las Vegas. That plan is strongly backed by members of the South Carolina congressional delegation.

Of course, even success doesn’t translate into undiluted victory. Consider the old Pinewood landfill, last operated by Safety-Kleen Inc. Located in an old kitty litter mine near the banks of Lake Marion, the site must be monitored in perpetuity in an effort to keep the lake from eventually being polluted by the seepage of chemical waste. Has there ever been a more preposterous location for a toxic chemical waste dump?

Parrish, Ala., suffered the indignity of having to endure the reek of odor from what became known as “the poop train” after a neighboring jurisdiction legally brought the shipment to a halt.

And the current resolution doesn’t mean the problem is finally solved. If a landfill is permitted to accept concentrated human waste it will do so as long as the price is right. Restrictions on interstate commerce are difficult to impose, even by a state government that is dedicated to the task.

It’s even worse when state officials encourage the interstate shipment of waste as an economic boon. Once a state gets the reputation as a dumping ground, it’s hard to get its good name back.