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A Times Editorial

A landmark worth dumping

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2001


Question: What is Interior Secretary Gale Norton's idea of a national historic landmark? Punch line: A garbage dump!

Question: What is Interior Secretary Gale Norton's idea of a national historic landmark? Punch line: A garbage dump!

It sounds like the latest joke environmentalists are telling about Norton, the fox-guarding-the-henhouse secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior. But for a day this week, it was true.

Among the 15 historic spots Norton granted landmark status on Monday was the Fresno, Calif., garbage dump, which briefly joined the likes of Monticello and Mount Vernon. Norton said had this to say about the newly designated places: "These special sites underscore our heritage and tell stories of a period and events in our history."

The Fresno dump has a history, all right. It is considered the oldest "sanitary landfill" in the nation, where garbage was dumped into trenches, compacted and covered with dirt, the Los Angeles Times reported. Before that, garbage was either burned, fed to hogs or left to lie in a heap.

The dump had no underground lining, however, and in the early 1980s, state regulators discovered that methane and volatile organic compounds had seeped into the area's drinking water. It became a Superfund priority site. So far, the cleanup has cost $38-million.

When that history was revealed, an embarrassed Interior Department quickly withdrew the dump from its historic landmark list. A spokeswoman for Norton said the department hasn't been able to determine who nominated the Fresno dump. "It's likely that Secretary Norton will review this process of designating landmarks in the future," said Stephanie Hanna, apparently with a straight face.

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