By Carol Bogart 
Some years back when my then-17-year-old son and I packed plants, animals, personal treasures and ourselves into two cars to trek from Ohio to California, I remember being amazed anew at this country’s wealth of wide open spaces.

Traveling through Indiana and Illinois farm country, Utah desert, Wyoming ranchland and the high Sierra – I had to force myself to remember that which lies hidden from view from coast to coast.

Each time, though, that I read something new about global warming, I think about all the unseen methane spewing out of America’s forgotten landfills. A greenhouse gas of such interest to science that researchers have drilled 2 mile long ice cores in glaciers to study methane in relation to climate change in eons past.

If you’ve ever seen a dead animal by the side of the road, its bloated belly is filled with methane gas. When organic material – garbage, dead leaves, dead anything – breaks down, methane is emitted.

Most communities preferred to deposit accumulated refuse some distance from residential areas, so America’s “green” space is dotted with forgotten landfills. Those that predate the EPA (1972) were monitored – in many? cases, inconsistently – by state and local health departments. Once trenches in these dumps were full, such landfills were abandoned, but the stuff buried in them continued to decay. Not just household trash, either. Chemicals from factories. Radioactive wastes of unknown origin. Toxic heavy metals like arsenic. Any sandy subsoils allowed these poison to migrate down into underground rivers known as aquifers, posing a risk to farm wells, and discharging into surface water: lakes, creeks, rivers. Some of the pollution became airborne, migrating up through the ground as gases, chiefly methane.

Some such landfills were later equipped with methane “monitors.” As methane gas was emitted, the monitors burned it off.

Imagine how much methane permeates the air above the many, many landfills large and small that have no monitors. One such landfill I investigated in Ohio had never even been “capped” with clay, let alone had such monitors installed. At the landfill that replaced it, methane monitors burn all night long. You wouldn’t want to live next an unremediated landfill. Migrating methane gas can accumulate in a basement. Don’t light a match.

So, as researchers study ice cores and ocean sediments in search of methane clues, I wish someone at the federal level would demand a thorough inventory of America’s improperly abandoned rural landfills.

Each global warming report is increasingly dire: As glaciers melt, gases like methane trapped in the permafrost release, doing more harm to earth’s atmosphere. Rising oceans risk swamping the nesting grounds for six of seven species of Caribbean turtles. Rising ocean temperatures spell doom for fragile coral reefs. The World Wildlife Federation says violent rainstorms and leveled mangrove forests may spell doom for the world’s largest population of wild Bengal tigers. On a human scale, hundreds of millions of people could be without food and water due to changing climates.

Right now today, landfills like the one I was investigating are suspected to contaminate even treated drinking water sources in downstream cities. Some believe the buried poisons are directly responsible for area cancer deaths, birth defects and more.

Today’s leaders have a moral obligation to this and future generations to face this problem head-on. Cleaning up trash along America’s highways and byways makes our country look better. Now let’s get busy on trash that can hurt you. We need to clean up America underground.

Carol Bogart blogs at Contact her at

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