THE LATEST IN TOURIST TRASH

THE BROADER PICTURE
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The Independent Culture
The barges belch forth their cargo round the clock at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, New York, the 49-ton compactors crush the crud to smithereens, and the gulls do what gulls will do on unprotected heads. The final resting place of all New York City's household waste, the dump spans 3,000 acres and towers 150 feet above sea level, allegedly surpassing the Great Wall of China as the Earth's largest man-made structure.

"This is the only operation like this in the world, where you bring in garbage by barge," boasts Steve Violetta, the burly operations supervisor. "See that hill? That whole mountain? That wasn't here before - it's all garbage."

Sharing his enthusiasm for the site with others is not new to Violetta. In March he took on the additional role of tour guide when a deputy commissioner at the Sanitation Department came up with the brilliant idea of turning the dump into a tourist destination on a par with the great New York attractions: the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the world's largest rubbish dump. "It's one of those things in life you have to see to truly appreciate," he said, urging visitors to carry umbrellas against the gull droppings and expressing the hope they would come away more commited to recycling.

Slick brochures extolling the dump were readied for placement in tourist bureaux; an on-site trailer was rigged up as a visitors' centre to screen an informational video and sell T-shirts, umbrellas and hats inscribed with the dump's new logo. A plan to sell actual garbage laminated in plastic was vetoed, but the sale of stuffed seagulls was certainly under consideration.

Unfortunately not everyone shared Steve Violetta's and the deputy commissioner's vision for the engineering marvel, where each year 8 billion pounds of rubbish is sculpted and intricately terraced into vented mountains. Staten Island's 400,000 residents have long chafed at having to take in the soiled nappies, coffee grounds and old newspapers of the city's 7 million other residents. So vehement has been their opposition to the dump that three years ago Staten Islanders voted to secede from New York City, a rebellion ultimately quashed by New York's governor and the belated realisation on the part of the locals, tens of thousands of whom work for City government, that they had voted themselves out of a job.

"This landfill happens to sit in the middle of three affluent neighbourhoods of $400,000 to $500,000 homes and up," Violetta explains. "It wasn't supposed to get this big. It's a little noisy, and it smells a bit. It's garbage."

For the benefit of his tour passengers, he fitted his van with a Peachy Peach Car Freshener though he himself has no need of it - "I haven't smelt anything in years." He can trot out facts, figures and tour guide's anecdotes: the dump's name, he explains, derives from the days of the original Dutch settlers (kills means stream in Dutch), not from the resident Mafiosi who are Staten Island's other claim to fame. Human remains turn up "very seldom", he says, but "they did find a horse here, or a cow or something."

For long-suffering Staten Islanders, the scheme bringing tourists to the site was the last straw. The week that the guided tours were announced, the borough's politicians filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court seeking to shut down the 48-year-old landfill once and for all. "Now that it's getting high, communities that never smelt the dump before are getting it on a daily basis," complained the borough president, ominously warning that the opposition to the landfill was becoming "almost violent". New York City Mayor Giuliani, who faces re-election next year, acted swiftly to put an end to the tours.

But by then the legal wheels were in motion and last month the New York State Legislature approved a bill to close the landfill competely by the end of 2001, a timetable to which the mayor and governor reluctantly agreed. Steve Violetta questions the wisdom of the decision: "You can't shut this down until you find someplace else to put all this garbage." Since nobody else wants it, where that might be is anyone's guess. !

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