Roadside Dumps and Water Quality

This publication addresses the complex issue of water quality as it is affected by solid wastes that have been mismanaged, including roadside dumps.
Roadside Dumps and Water Quality - Articles



Waste has been thrown into roadside dumps for decades. Roadside dumps are a form of illegal dumping wherein wastes are disposed of in an unauthorized area, typically quiet areas that afford vehicles easy access. Few people think of the consequences of roadside dumping; however, serious environmental concerns are associated with dumping: wastes placed in dumps may contain pollutants and toxins that percolate, or leach, through the soil and into groundwater and surface waters. Additionally, dump sites raise concerns regarding public health and safety, property values, community pride, and overall quality of life.

This publication addresses the complex issue of water quality as it is affected by solid wastes that have been mismanaged. Pollutants generated in modern landfills are compared to those that often emanate from roadside dumps. Chemicals that leach into groundwater and private wells can affect human health. You will learn how to evaluate and characterize roadside dumps, and hence be more able to address the associated risks. Water testing and other actions the landowner can take are also discussed.

This publication is not a guide to educate citizens on how to clean up roadside dumps; rather, it focuses on ways to identify whether a dump might be adversely affecting a local watershed or drinking water supply. If you are interested in pursuing cleanup of a dump site, land ownership must be addressed. Information on how to determine ownership and cleanup procedures can be found in Project Trash and Illegal Dumping Prevention Guidebook (see Appendix C).

Landfill tidiness: Tires are problematic at landfills and, by law, must be separated out for recycling or tire-derived fuel. At this landfill, discarded foundry sand (right) is used to help cover the trash at the end of each working day to reduce odor, transmission of airborne bacteria and spores, and problems due to windblown items. It also controls vectors such as birds and rats.

Landfill monitoring well: Landfills have numerous water monitoring stations where samples are regularly taken to monitor water quality in lands surrounding the landfill.

Trends in Solid Waste Management

Throughout history humans have disposed of waste in ways that are convenient and inexpensive. Often this meant simply disposing of the material in a remote location or dumping it into waterways. The intent of these practices was to achieve an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” result. Many of the six billion inhabitants on earth still practice these simple disposal habits, now called open dumping.

Dumps come in many forms, from solid wastes discarded in heaps along public roadways to stashes of used machinery and farm equipment on privately owned land. The legality of dumps can sometimes be questioned, but all dumps are an eyesore or what is known as visual pollution. Dumps along public roadways are illegal in Pennsylvania and most other states. Besides marring the landscape, most dumps pollute in ways not visible to the naked eye. This publication addresses such hidden pollution.

When population density increases, organized collection and disposal of solid wastes is necessary. Over the past century, the United States and other industrialized countries have developed solid waste management and treatment systems that have become increasingly sophisticated. Early landfill practices relied on burning or burying municipal wastes that were collected. During the 1980s it became apparent that landfills could adversely affect nearby water resources, particularly groundwater. As a result, more attention was directed toward siting, designing, and managing municipal landfills. Modern municipal waste landfills are constructed following comprehensive design criteria that protect public health and minimize the impact on local surface water and groundwater resources. Liners and leachate containment and monitoring systems are installed to limit pollution before it can contaminate groundwater aquifers (figure 1b).

Most serious cases of environmental degradation and groundwater contamination have been associated with unregulated industrial disposal of toxic and hazardous wastes. Typically, these wastes were buried in sealed containers that deteriorated over years. Groundwater flow and contaminant transport rates may be very slow in some settings. Thus, the effect on groundwater and drinking water quality from an industrial disposal site from the 1950s may not be noticed for years.

Even with modern landfill systems a great potential exists for improvements in waste disposal through programs that encourage conservation, waste reduction, beneficial use, recycling, and waste-to-energy. However, it cannot be forgotten that the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality still exists, even in the United States where coastal dumping of raw sewage and solid wastes is still practiced in many urban shoreline areas. We are a long way from solving the waste management problem, particularly as our population and per capita production of wastes increases.

Because different types of wastes affect water resources to varying degrees, a description of some terms is in order. See below for full definitions. In short, trash and waste refer to items and materials that are no longer wanted. Anything discarded as useless is considered waste. Reusables are items that are used again by a different user or for a different purpose, but not reprocessed into raw materials. Recyclables are materials that are collected, separated, and processed into raw materials, then made into new products. Compostables are wastes that decompose and can be returned to the earth as nutrients or soil. Garbage is generally food waste or wet food, either of animal or plant origin, including those wastes likely to decompose. Municipal solid waste is household waste combined with commercial, business, and institutional waste.

Curbside recycling is good. Many waste management options are available to minimize environmental damage, especially the 3Rs: reducing, reusing, and, pictured here, recycling.

Such a waste: Many items that are easily recycled at the community level are needlessly discarded at landfills.

Solid Waste Terminology

Disposal- Incinerating, depositing, injecting, dumping, spilling, leaking, or placing solid waste into or on the land or water in a manner such that the solid waste or a constituent of the solid waste enters the environment (into the air, surface water, or groundwater).

Dump - An unmonitored, unprepared land area where unrestricted unloading of refuse was conducted but is now no longer legal to operate.

Garbage - Any solid waste derived from animal, grain, fruit, or vegetable matter that is putrescible (see definition below); also called food waste or solid waste.

Hazardous waste - Any waste materials that pose a substantial present or potential hazard to human health or the environment when improperly treated, stored, transported, disposed of, or otherwise managed. Such wastes may be nondegradable (i.e., persistent) in nature, biologically magnified, lethal, or otherwise may cause or tend to cause detrimental cumulative effects.

Illegal dumping - Disposing waste in an unauthorized area.

Infectious waste - Wastes such as those from a hospital or laboratory that may contain concentrated amounts of pathogens. See also hazardous waste.

Leachate - Liquid that has percolated or passed through, been in contact with, or been produced in a landfill or compost pile. Leachate contains dissolved or suspended microbial, organic, and inorganic constituents.

Litter - Solid waste scattered in a careless manner.

Municipal waste - Also called municipal solid waste, these are wastes generated by residents, commercial businesses, institutions, and communities.

Putrescible - Capable of being decomposed by microorganisms with sufficient rapidity as to cause nuisances from odors and gases.

Refuse - All solid waste materials that are discarded as useless, including general community waste and kitchen/food wastes. Domestic refuse is putrescible and nonputrescible waste originating from a residential unit; also called solid waste.

Residual waste - Materials resulting from industrial, mining, and agricultural operations, including sludge from these locations and related water or wastewater treatment facilities or air pollution control facilities, if they are not hazardous.

Rubbish - All nonputrescible municipal waste except garbage and other decomposable matter; also called trash.

Solid waste - General term for discarded materials destined for disposal; any municipal, residual, or hazardous waste which includes solid, liquid, semisolid, or contained gaseous material.

Trash - Nonputrescible solid waste materials (includes plant trimmings but not food waste).

Waste - A material whose original purpose has been completed or is abandoned and is directed to a disposal or processing facility or is otherwise disposed; an expended material that is not a coproduct.

Dumps and Water Quality

When precipitation, surface runoff, or a high groundwater table infiltrates into a landfill or dump, leachate is created. Water percolating through the wastes causes chemical compounds to be dissolved or suspended in the leachate. As a result, leachate may contain high concentrations of various bacteria, viruses, metals, nutrients, and organic compounds. Bacteria may also alter the leachate composition over time.

Understanding the elements of pollution formation and the effects pollutants have on our environment is helpful. figures 1a and 1b show how leachate may form in a municipal landfill and two open dumps. Note that the materials in the dump determine what pollutants will move, or leach, as well as the extent of contamination of groundwater. The age of the dump along with physical, chemical, and biological conditions inside determine the extent and rate of degradation of materials and the release of pollutants. Important factors include temperature, the presence of oxygen, pH, the presence of bacteria, precipitation, mobility, and leachability of contaminants.

Leachate: Unlike runoff from roadside dumps, leachate from sealed landfills is safely collected and contained and properly managed by recirculation or special off-site treatment.

Figure 1a. Categories of common items found in roadside dumps.

Figure 1b. Listed in the chart above are broad categories of items and materials commonly found in roadside dumps, shown as symbols. Above left, leachate in the lined municipal waste landfill contains all of the symbols from the chart. Leachate sealed within the watertight landfill liner is treated to remove toxic chemicals, then recirculated into the landfill or sent to a publicly owned treatment works for treatment. Notice how the unlined roadside dumps (above right) allow precipitation to percolate through the wastes, conveying the pollutants directly into groundwater. Notice also that each dump is different and not all pollutants found in landfills are in each dump.

Many of the items shown pictorially in figure 1a have been banned from land disposal for 10 years or more. However, not all materials can be identified at the source, which in many cases is the uninformed citizen. Education at the community level, coupled with legal enforcement for volume sources, has seen a dramatic increase in material capture, resulting in proper waste management. Items classified as hazardous wastes must meet treatment standards prior to land disposal in hazardous waste landfills. Hazardous waste treatment standards typically require items to be stabilized, incinerated, encapsulated, or neutralized prior to land disposal. Placement of liquids such as paints, solvents, acids, or lubricants in landfills is prohibited. PCBs are considered residual waste in Pennsylvania and may not be disposed of in a municipal landfill. Likewise, refrigerants from appliances must be removed prior to landfilling, and liquids in containers greater than 1 gallon, hazardous wastes, and lead acid batteries are specifically prohibited from municipal landfills. Of note is the fact that despite precautionary measures taken by haulers and landfill operators, small quantities of almost every waste known elude detection and are discarded in municipal landfills by innocent and uninformed homeowners and end-users.

Battery leakage: Batteries contain strong acids or alkalis and heavy metals, which pollute.

The impact a dump has on water quality depends on more than just the material that has been dumped. The opportunity for leachate to migrate to groundwater or surface water depends on the topography, soils, bedrock type and layout, and local and regional water flow patterns. figure 2 shows how an open roadside dump can contaminate groundwater and surface water. The influence of leachate on nearby wells and surface streams will depend on proximity and the type of underground flow patterns. Note that groundwater generally flows in the same direction as surface water (downhill). As a result, wells (such as Well A) or streams that are downhill from dumps are more likely to be contaminated by the leachate coming from these dumps. In some cases, a layer of watertight rock (called a confining layer) might prevent the leachate from moving deeper into the ground and contaminating other deeper underground water storage reservoirs, called aquifers. Wells drilled into these deeper aquifers may not intercept contaminated water, which is not the case in the overlying unconfined aquifer. Pumping may cause contaminated groundwater to move through the confining layer(s).

Precipitation eventually ends up in the water well in a variety of ways. Note that arrows indicating water flow have been isolated to simplify the illustration; however, in actuality, these flows occur in all locations depicted. Water can weave its way past confining layer(s) that resist water flow, or it can percolate deep into aquifers. Some of the water remains in aquifers, while portions of the flow exit at lakes, streams, springs, or pumping wells. Notice how some water is recharged into the unconfined aquifer, and when this water percolates through a roadside dump, the resulting leachate (pollutants) may contaminate down-gradient drinking water supplies. The deep confined aquifer will receive water far from the dump shown, hopefully assuring a clean water supply for Well B.

figure 2. A roadside dump can influence water resources in many ways.

Surveying Dumpsites

This section describes what you can do to appraise the extent of a dump and which course of action to take to help keep cleanup efforts safe. As stated earlier, see Appendix C for references on dump cleanup procedures. For legal reasons, make sure to seek landowner consent before entering a site. When conducting your own survey of a dumpsite, several key factors should be considered. If there are multiple sites, you may choose to prioritize the sites based on these factors. Remember, removing only what shows on the surface does not eliminate the pollution. Correspondingly, dumps that have been covered over with soil still pollute groundwater.

What Is Present in the Dump?

Dumps are comprised of many different materials, some very dangerous and some relatively benign. For the safety of the cleanup crew, consult DEP (the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection) if you have any doubt. Listed below are materials that are most commonly found in roadside dumps.

  • Appliances (white goods) include clothes washers and dryers, sinks, bathtubs, refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, ovens, and cabinets. Lubricants and refrigerants leak from many of these items. Problems arise from older motorized models that used capacitors containing oils comprised of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which persist in groundwater. Besides polluting water, refrigerants used in the appliances can volatilize and enter the atmosphere as ozone-depleting compounds. Solid waste authorities and many local haulers are able to recover refrigerants, so during cleanups keep items with refrigeration systems separate from other white goods to facilitate refrigerant recovery. Many municipalities recycle appliances and white goods at no charge or for a slight fee, either at collection days or special drop-off areas. Working with your local recycling coordinator prior to a dumpsite cleanup can assure that hot water tanks, refrigerators, washing machines, and other items made predominantly of steel are recycled.

Refrigerants leak: Refrigerated appliances use compressors like this one, shown separated from an old refrigerator. As these units corrode over time, refrigerants and lubricating oils pollute by either vaporizing into the atmosphere or entering the soil.

  • Automotive and machinery waste includes items such as automobiles and lawn mowers; engines and drive-train items with associated lubricants; machinery maintenance parts such as air filter elements, spark plugs, and oil filters; and auto body repair items such as sandpaper, rags, and body putty. Although most fuels and lubricants are made from crude oil that at one time came from within the ground, even very small quantities can contaminate groundwater or surface streams. The performance additives blended into the product, such as methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), can also taint water, even in parts per trillion quantities.
  • Construction and demolition waste includes drywall and plaster; ceiling tiles and flooring materials; roofing tar, flashing, and shingles; lumber; bricks; concrete; plumbing; drainage tiles or piping; and similar materials. Certain preservative-treated lumber and lumber painted with lead paint can be problematic if found in large quantities. Asbestos can be found in some older floor tiles, ceiling tiles, and asbestos cement pipes. During cleanup, asbestos items should be earmarked and the local solid waste authority or a reputable waste hauler should be contacted to dispose of the material properly as a residual waste rather than a municipal waste.
  • Electronics typically include computers, televisions, radios, entertainment centers, and wired items. Many of these components contain heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, which pollute drinking water. If not labeled “No PCBs,” ballasts (capacitors) from fluorescent light fixtures should be considered hazardous and should be set aside for disposal as regulated waste. Many municipalities have electronics recycling collection days or special drop-off areas. Items typically included are computers, televisions, electronic appliances, radios, and CD players.
  • Furniture commonly includes couches and chairs, portable chairs, beds and mattresses, and lamps. These are bulky but usually fairly benign or harmless.
  • Garbage includes mainly food wastes but also includes wild game carcasses and animal remains. In some cases, garbage can add coliform bacteria to water supplies. During cleanups, carcasses may be disposed of as municipal solid waste or left on site to degrade.
  • Household trash consists of the usual daily packaging, foods, beverages and their containers, toys, clothing, and so forth. Of all of the components in household trash, old paint, cleansers, batteries, and pesticides - many not even manufactured anymore - are the most problematic to the environment. Known as hazardous household wastes (HHW), they represent less than 1 percent of the total waste stream, but their organic components are potentially the most persistent in the environment. During cleanups, small quantities (e.g., less than ten items in containers of one gallon or less) of HHW can be disposed of as municipal waste; in the rare instance that larger volumes are unearthed, contact DEP for disposal advice. Household hazardous wastes such as disinfectants, cleansers, solvents, and pesticides can be dropped off at special collection events. Contact your county recycling coordinator for details. Keep in mind that rather than disposing of HHW, the recommended practice is to dispense/use the product as per guidelines on the product label.
  • Medical waste commonly includes prescription and non-prescription medications, disposable gloves, masks, pads, and hypodermic needles. These are not only chemical in nature but may be biologically hazardous as well. The medical profession has very strict guidelines for medical wastes, often called “red bag” wastes. However, some individuals use medical supplies at home, which occasionally end up in roadside dumps. If more than a few of these materials are found during a cleanup, seek counsel from DEP, your local solid waste authority, or hauler on how to handle these “sharps” and related red bag wastes.

Infectious waste: “Red bag” wastes from hospitals, clinics, and veterinary practices are considered infectious and are burned in special high-temperature incinerators. Shown here are wastes being dumped into the chute of the incinerator.

  • Textiles, including rugs, are commonly discarded items that make great nesting materials for all kinds of animal life that may be dangerous or transmit disease. These include snakes, mice, rats, and groundhogs, to name a few.
  • Tires include not only tires, but also the tire and rim assemblies. Main concerns are West Nile virus from standing water in the tire carcasses and the dangers of being set afire. Tires can be placed in a landfill as long as they are cut. During cleanups, whole tires must be kept separate from other wastes. Some studies show tire rubber can cause elevated levels of zinc in plants and groundwater. In some areas, cement companies are disposing of tires as a supplemental fuel in coal-fired kilns.
  • Yard waste such as leaves, grass, and twigs are not perceived to be a problem since they are known to biodegrade. However, some unforeseen problems can arise, such as seeds and cuttings that can spread invasive species. Additionally, the plastic bag or the rope that binds these items often ends up in the pile. Logs and stumps also can be safety concerns since they often create cavities that collapse many years later.

Suspicious Materials

If any toxic or hazardous materials are suspected or observed, immediately contact your regional DEP office (see Appendix B). Full barrels or unusual-smelling spills or puddles should be investigated by DEP technicians trained in hazardous material (hazmat) management and should be left undisturbed by untrained individuals.

Assessing the toxicity of a roadside dump is very difficult. If most of the waste is obvious household items, toxicity is usually not an issue. However, industrial waste is a different issue, especially since the concentrations and volumes can be sizeable. In Pennsylvania, there are three classes of wastes: municipal wastes, or least harmful; residual wastes; and hazardous wastes, or most harmful. Hazardous wastes must be managed very differently than other wastes. Listing what items or chemicals comprise hazardous wastes is beyond the scope of this publication. However, they are referenced in Pennsylvania laws, which further reference the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). To determine which materials are hazardous wastes, see the “Further Reading” section below. During dumpsite visits, if you are in doubt, contact your regional DEP office, your local solid waste management authority, or a local reputable hauler for an onsite visit and a determination. Haulers of municipal and residual wastes must be licensed in Pennsylvania and vehicles must be clearly labeled. Do not attempt to manage residual or hazardous waste.

Locations and Features of Dumps

Accurately locating a dump during any assessment and survey is important, especially to determine land ownership. Many county conservation districts and Pennsylvania Department of Conservation of Natural Resources (DCNR) personnel will survey dumpsites and log precise locations using global positioning systems. Contact your local conservation district office or DCNR regional forester for information on how you can help record sites on public or private land.

Terrain Features

Terrain can play a big role in the spread of pollutants off site. Additionally, terrain is the single most important factor that determines cleanup activities and equipment needs. Note the underlying geology by observing nearby roadcuts. Nonporous rock formations with few cracks can limit transport of pollutants, whereas porous formations (gravel or glacial till) or rocks with cracks provide rapid pollution movement. Bedrock that can be dissolved by groundwater, such as limestone, can contain interconnected conduits that may allow unusually rapid transport of pollutants. Clay soils limit water flow, and clay particles can bind with pollutants, thus slowing pollutant transport. Vegetation - or lack thereof - is another important factor. Deep-rooted trees nearby allow pathways for water to flow into the underlying ground. Lack of trees, or trees with stunted growth, can be an indicator of chemical imbalance in the root zone. Invasive species, such as black locust trees, tree of heaven, or Japanese knotweed, can be indicators of site disturbance, perhaps due to past dumping.

Determining what is affected by a roadside dump requires careful study of the surrounding terrain in relation to homes and sources of water. As discussed earlier, notice which way the terrain slopes. Since groundwater generally flows downhill, any landowner between the dump and the closest stream, river, or lake may be affected. If you do not know the landowner, a trip to the county courthouse can help. Any surface stream, pond, or lake that receives water from the dump area could also be contaminated by leachate.

Steep road banks are commonly used for illegal roadside dumping since they are convenient spots to heave rubbish out of sight. These sites are often perpetuated by local roadway workers, perhaps unknowingly. Noting a site has expanded to a sizeable dump, roadway workers often import a load of soil or fill material to cover the eyesore. This enlarged embankment now makes for a wider pull-off, making it easy to accommodate even larger vehicles. Load after load of cover material is added over time until the site is crescent-shaped with plenty of weeds to mask new loads of trash. Removing just the trash from the working face is pointless from a pollution standpoint because of the massive amount of trash that commonly lies underneath.

  • Wetlands are a favorite place to deposit wastes. To estimate waste volumes, note the extent of trash buildup above the swamp water level and assume the trash has sunk several feet into the muck over the years.
  • Sinkholes in karst (limestone) regions offer boundless dumping possibilities because the earth gobbles up the trash. These dumpsites are especially harmful to groundwater supplies since they often allow pollutants to directly enter bedrock aquifers. These aquifers are characterized by relatively fast groundwater flow, combined with limited opportunity for natural removal of contaminants. Some sinkholes contain visible openings or “throats” that are direct portals into the underlying aquifer. Check with local residents to determine the original depth of any possible throat; sometimes, abandoned automobiles or farm equipment were used to plug the throat of the sinkhole.
  • Streams and rivers are often dumpsites. Determining the size or extent of streamside dumps is difficult because materials are often washed downstream during periods of high water. Over time, tires fill with sand and can be very difficult to remove, which adds to cleanup headaches. Perhaps more important than drinking water quality for humans is the long-term effect dumping into streams and rivers has on aquatic life. Trash in streams disrupts habitat for aquatic life, food chains, and water chemistry.

When Was the Material Dumped?

There are two types of dumps, active and inactive. This important distinction between active and inactive will affect any actions you choose to undertake. Fresh tire tracks, items still in plastic bags, or visibly unweathered items comprise an active dump. Active dumping can be monitored and stopped by contacting the proper authorities, especially the state police. Some municipalities have a solid waste enforcement officer who may also be contacted. In cases where violators are known or have confessed to the dumping, your local district justice may have some suggestions for coordinated cleanups between the offenders and volunteers. Dumps that are inactive are typically low priority in the eyes of local authorities and consequently are ignored.

Take Action Soon

Should you notice any strange or unusual circumstances or dumping trends, immediately contact your local barracks of the Pennsylvania State Police. Remember, roadside dumpers do not respect the law and probably will not respect your safety if you confront them in the act. Let the police deal with any suspicious individuals.

Protecting Watersheds and Water Supplies

Since all dumps are located in watersheds, they may have a detrimental impact on the water quality of one or more streams draining these watersheds. Dumps can also affect wells and springs if leachate from the dump flows into groundwater aquifers that feed these water supplies. Determining the impact of dumps on private drinking water wells, springs, and surface streams requires careful consideration of many factors, including physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of the leachate, flowpaths, and time of travel. The influence trash has on nearby wells and streams can either be very localized, or it can result in gross contamination of aquifers and surface waters.

It is generally not possible for individuals to conduct the comprehensive testing that public drinking water suppliers are required to perform. If a suspicion arises that drinking water is contaminated, the homeowner should purchase bottled water until testing or subsequent treatment assures the supply is safe. Regardless, some practical, low-cost steps can be taken to assure drinking water is safe.

  1. Determine the location of dumps in relation to streams and water supplies. The surface streams that might be influenced can be determined by locating the dumpsite on a topographic map. Small streams located downhill and in close proximity to the dump are most likely to be affected. You might find helpful maps on the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Web site or on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “Surf Your Watershed” Website. Similarly, private wells and springs located in close proximity (within sight) and downhill from dumps would be most likely to be affected, although in some settings distant spring and well waters can be influenced by contaminants from dumps.
  2. Conduct a dump survey and cleanup. Surveys that characterize dumping areas can be used to encourage cleanup activities and prioritize sites based on the severity of the hazard. Get involved by encouraging and participating in surveys and cleanup activities of dumps in your watershed or near your water supply through organizations such as PA Clean-Ways and local watershed associations. Property owners are encouraged to work with their local waste haulers to determine the best methods of cleanup for dump sites on their own property. Landfills sponsor various cleanups and are often willing to supply equipment and containers for cleanups. Based on surveys of roadside and illegal dumping areas in your watershed, encourage cleanup of the sites in order of priority. During surveys and cleanup activities, document the types and quantities of materials found in the dump. This information will be helpful in targeting water testing that is likely to include contaminants that might have originated from the dump. Persons who wish to clean up a dump site that may contain industrial wastes are urged to contact the DEP. The cleanup and remediation activities of such locations are highly regulated and must be conducted by professionals.
  3. Test the well, spring, or stream using a certified laboratory. If dumps are located in the vicinity of a stream or your water supply, consider having the water tested for pH, total dissolved solids, coliform bacteria, and organics. If these basic tests indicate a possible problem, follow up with more specific tests. Keep in mind that sampling of any private water wells or springs requires permission of the owner. If you know what has been dumped, then target your water tests accordingly based on information presented later in this publication. For example, if a dump survey uncovers old pesticide containers and oil cans, have adjacent water supplies and streams tested for pesticides (pesticide scan) and oil derivatives (petroleum scan).
  4. Don’t forget the professionals. Where toxic or hazardous wastes are suspected, seek professional advice. When you are contacting an enforcement agency, always start at the local level. Local officials are familiar with properties and residents and should be able to respond quickly. A good starting point is to contact local police, a municipal or county code enforcement office, or the county health department. Contact your county solid waste authority to solicit their advice on enforcement of the laws regarding toxic waste cleanups. Contacting a reputable waste hauler can often yield advice on how to proceed. If none of these agencies are available in your area or none respond to your concerns, call the local barracks of the Pennsylvania State Police.

Analyze the dump and its contents. Survey each dumpsite and write down the types of materials found. The use of global positioning systems (GPS) pinpoints each location, which can help communities with mapping, grant writing for funding, and logistic details during cleanups.

Suspicious containers: Barrels and other containers are commonly discarded along roadsides. If they are not empty, contact DEP to seek advice on how to properly identify and dispose of them.

Sample your drinking water: Arrange to have your water tested by a state certified water testing laboratory. Contact the laboratory to obtain proper sampling containers and instructions on how to collect water samples. Follow the instructions carefully, including filling the sample container completely to minimize air pockets.

Water-testing laboratory: Water samples received at the laboratory undergo a wide variety of analyses, such as testing for nitrates (pictured). Costs for individual water test parameters vary greatly. Basic drinking water tests like pH or coliform bacteria usually cost less than $25; however, tests for organic pollutants, such as pesticides or petroleum products, may cost several hundred dollars.

General Guidelines for Maintaining Any Private Water Supply

Although private water supplies are vulnerable to the same contamination as public systems, private systems are not required to be monitored. It is the voluntary responsibility of homeowners to monitor, protect, and treat their water supply as needed. Dumps are only one of many potential sources of contamination of private water wells and springs. Follow these simple steps to ensure that your water supply is safe.

  • Be aware of changes in the area around your well and the water it provides.
  • Have your water tested for total coliform bacteria every year to ensure that potentially dangerous bacteria are not entering the supply.
  • Every three years, have your water tested for pH and total dissolved solids (TDS). These inexpensive tests are good general indicators of the safety of your drinking water. Results from these tests should not change much over time. If you notice changes in pH or TDS, consider more specific water tests to determine the cause of the changes. In addition to these routine tests, have your drinking water checked any time there is a change in taste, odor, or appearance, or any time a water supply system is serviced. Contact your DEP regional office or your local extension office for a list of commercial certified drinking water laboratories in Pennsylvania, or look up “water testing” or “laboratories” in the yellow pages of the telephone listings.
  • Always use licensed or certified water well drillers and pump installers when a well is constructed, a pump is installed, or the system is serviced. Well drillers are licensed through the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Topographic and Geologic Survey.
  • Keep chemicals such as paint, fertilizer, pesticides, and motor oil far away from your well.
  • Seal your well or spring to ensure that insects, surface water, and small mammals cannot enter the water supply. Sanitary well caps can be installed on new or existing wells to properly seal the well. Spring boxes should also be sealed to prevent contamination. Periodically check the well cover or well cap on the casing (pipe) to ensure it is in good repair.
  • When landscaping, keep the top of your well at least one foot above the ground. Slope the ground away from the well casing for proper drainage.
  • Take care while working or mowing around your well. A damaged casing could jeopardize the sanitary protection. Don’t pile mulch, leaves, or other materials around the well.
  • Keep records on your well and keep them in a safe place. This includes the construction report, plus the results from your annual well system maintenance and water testing reports.
  • When your well has come to the end of its serviceable life, have a qualified water well contractor properly decommission the well after constructing your new system.

Dumps and Drinking Water

Drinking water supplies near dumps can be influenced by a wide variety of contaminants. The amount and type of contaminants will be affected by the volume and type of material in the dump. Public drinking water suppliers in the United States monitor likely contamination problems by testing water samples to see if they meet EPA and state drinking water standards. These standards are also known as maximum contaminant levels (MCLs). The MCL list of parameters and concentration standards changes frequently, but it typically includes more than 60 parameters that can influence human health. Nonhealth (aesthetic) parameters such as turbidity and color are also sometimes monitored.

Drinking water standards can be broadly grouped into three main categories: microbial, inorganic, and organic contaminants. A fourth category, radiological pollutants, is beyond the scope of this publication. This section will briefly discuss some of the more common pollutants in these categories and discuss some potential water testing to identify these pollutants in your home water supply. A list of current drinking water standards is given in Appendix A.

Microbial Pollutants

Bacteria and viruses can originate from dumps where household garbage, sewage, or medical wastes have been dumped. There are many different kinds of bacteria that may be present in a water supply. Some of these bacteria are disease causing while many are not. The standard water test to determine the microbial safety of water is for total coliform bacteria. This large group of bacteria is used to indicate the potential for the presence of disease-causing bacteria in water. Other common bacteria tests for drinking water include fecal coliform bacteria and E. coli. These tests are more specific to bacteria that come from human or animal wastes. All bacteria test results are expressed in the number of bacteria colonies that are present per 100 milliliters (ml) of water, although some laboratories may simply express results as “Present” (P) or “Absent” (A). Individual tests for bacteria in water (total coliform, fecal coliform, or E. coli) typically cost about $20 to $30 each. Total coliform, fecal coliform, and E. coli bacteria should not be present at any level in drinking water.

Inorganic Pollutants

A wide variety of inorganic pollutants can originate from dumps. These include various metals (e.g., copper, cadmium, iron, lead, zinc) and nutrients (e.g., nitrate and phosphate). Metals often originate from automotive wastes, industrial wastes, and appliances. Nutrients may occur from yard wastes, animals, or household garbage.

Table 1 lists some of the most common inorganic contaminants associated with dumps and landfills, along with typical concentrations. Refer to Appendix A for a listing of important drinking water standards. Testing each of these pollutants in water would be extremely expensive, hence it is very helpful to have some idea of what contaminants are in the dump so you can target your water testing program. In the absence of this information, you may want to test your water for total dissolved solids (TDS). TDS refers to the total amount of inorganic substances that are dissolved in the water. The recommended drinking water standard for TDS is 500 milligrams per liter (mg/l). High TDS levels in excess of 500 mg/l may indicate the presence of other water quality problems. If your water test exceeds 500 mg/l, you should consider more specific testing for some of the parameters in Table 1 to determine the source of the TDS.

Table 1. Common inorganic chemical concentration ranges found in leachate prior to treatment or discharge from municipal landfills compared with allowable pollutants in drinking water.

Pollutant typeTypical range for leachate (mg/l)1,2Federal drinking water allowable limits (mg/l)3
Sulfate (SO4)<1–300250
Phosphate (PO4)1–10*

11 mg/l = 1 ppm (part per million)

2Source: Tammenmagi, Hans. 1999. The Waste Crisis: Landfills, Incinerators, and the Search for a Sustainable Future. Oxford University Press. p.102.

3Source: EPA, Office of Water. 2004 Edition of the Drinking Water Standards and Health Advisories.

*no drinking water standard

Organic Pollutants

Hundreds of organic chemicals can occur in dumps and landfills. Many of these compounds are human-made substances such as industrial wastes and solvents. Organic chemicals vary in their ability to pollute groundwater and their toxicity varies once present in a drinking water source. Many organic chemicals are carcinogenic (cancer causing) and, therefore, usually have very low limits in drinking water standards, often measured in parts per billion. There are two major groups of organic chemicals - volatile and synthetic. Volatile organics escape readily into the air, such as benzene and toluene from gasoline. Many volatile organics are used in industrial processes or fuels. Synthetic organics are human-made compounds that are mostly pesticides. Refer to Appendix A for volatile and synthetic organic compounds listed within a drinking water standard.

The organic compounds listed in Appendix A are the most common and those that have been adequately studied to determine their toxicity in water. However, dozens of other organic compounds are not listed in water standards or have not been adequately tested to determine a drinking water standard, such as MTBE - an octane enhancer added to some gasolines. Testing water for organic chemicals is extremely expensive and especially difficult given the large number of chemicals. Individual tests for one compound can often cost $100 or more. Some laboratories can run “scans” for various groups of organic compounds (e.g., pesticides and petroleum products). These scans simply detect the presence of any of the compounds in the group but they do not give specific information on the concentration present. Such scans are usually available for about $100 to $200. If a scan detects a compound, more specific testing may be needed to further identify and quantify its concentration. Again, knowing the organic materials that might be present in the dump is critical to targeting water testing. For more information on testing private water supplies for organic pollutants, consult Water Tests: What Do the Numbers Mean? 

Closing Remarks

Roadside dumps put public health and safety at risk, reduce property values, thwart community pride, and negatively affect overall quality of life.

This publication has addressed water quality as it is affected by solid wastes that have been mismanaged. It has helped show ways to identify whether a dump might be adversely affecting your watershed or drinking water supply, especially by encouraging water testing.

By comparing chemical compounds within modern landfills to pollutants from roadside dumps, one can begin to see the difficulty in collecting and managing wastes from roadside dumps even with the best available technologies. Although burying wastes in landfills has environmental impacts that future generations will have to deal with, landfills nonetheless are highly controlled and monitored repositories for caustic and harmful wastes, leaving less of an environmental footprint than random litter and dumps.

Knowing how to evaluate and characterize roadside dumps will make you better able to address risks associated with cleaning up these dumps.

Dumps leak bad things: The switch in this discarded home heating thermostat contains mercury, which has recently been banned from many electronic and temperature-sensing applications because it is not only harmful to humans, but persists in fish and shellfish for years.

When you see this, get help from others. Illegal roadside dumpers use stealth to their advantage. If you catch them in action, get license plate numbers if possible, but refrain from confrontation. As soon as possible, call the state police.

Further Reading

Several organizations, government agencies, and regulations apply to illegal dumps and related water quality. Listed below is a brief description of these, along with Web addresses.

American Public Works Association (APWA)

American Public Works Association is an educational and professional association that provides a forum for public works professionals to bring important public works-related topics to attention in local, state, and federal arenas. Public works include schools, highways, docks, and so forth that are constructed for public use or enjoyment, especially when financed and owned by the government.

American Water Works Association (AWWA)

American Water Works Association is a nonprofit scientific and educational association for advocating and improving public drinking water quality and supply.

Clean Water Act

Passed in 1977, the Clean Water Act establishes broad-based rules and programs to clean up rivers, streams, and lakes. It establishes a basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into waters of the United States.

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)

CERCLA, commonly known as “Superfund,” this legislation was passed in 1980. It establishes requirements for closed and abandoned hazardous waste sites, provides for liability of persons responsible for releases of hazardous waste at these sites, and establishes a trust fund for cleanup costs when no responsible party can be identified.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Environmental Protection Agency develops and supports environmental regulations and standards related to landfills, leachate, and drinking water standards.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)

Pennsylvania DEP offers a wide variety of education and regulatory information related to solid waste management, landfills, watersheds, and drinking water supplies. Contact your local DEP regional office listed in Appendix B.

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)

The Resource Conservation Recovery Act was passed in 1976 to protect citizens from the hazards of waste disposal, promote conservation of energy and natural resources through recycling and recovery, reduce or eliminate wastes, and clean up wastes that have spilled, leaked, or been disposed of improperly.

Safe Drinking Water Act

First passed in 1974 and amended as recently as 1996, the Safe Drinking Water Act establishes requirements for public and community drinking water treatment and standards.

United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA)

The Environmental Protection Agency drinking water guidance has been updated. This guidance contains health advisory levels (HALs), maximum contaminant limits (MCLs), and secondary limits (SMCLs) that serve as standards under the statewide health remediation standard.

United States Public Health Service (USPHS)

United States Public Health Service develops public health standards and provides individuals and communities with guidelines on how to live healthy lives.

Toxicological Resources

The effect chemicals and contaminants have on human health is a field of science called toxicology, which is the study of poisons, including their nature, effects, detection, and methods of treatment. Toxicologists are medical physicians who have specialized in toxicology. Due to the complexity of interpreting the toxicological effects that various chemicals have on human health, attempting to define this information goes far beyond the scope of this publication. Consequently, listed below are resources for information about specific pollutants in water to determine their associated health risks. It should be kept in mind that because the health effects are dependent on dose, concentration, and duration, the worst possible scenario is often offered. Use good judgment when viewing this information. Since many of the Web sites have contact information where it is possible to contact trained professionals directly, ask pointed questions and let the professionals make recommendations to guide you.

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry produces, by congressional mandate, the toxicological profiles for hazardous substances found at National Priorities List (NPL) sites. These hazardous substances are ranked based on frequency of occurrence at NPL sites, toxicity, and potential for human exposure. Toxicological profiles are developed from a priority list of 275 substances. The ATSDR also prepares toxicological profiles for the Departments of Defense and Energy on substances related to federal sites.

The EXtension TOXicology NETwork (EXTOXNET)

The EXTOXNET InfoBase provides a variety of information about pesticides. Access the pesticide information profiles for specific information on pesticides. Toxicology information briefs contain a discussion of certain concepts in toxicology and environmental chemistry. Other topics include toxicology issues of concern, fact sheets, news about toxicology issues, newsletters, resources for toxicology information, and technical information.

Poison Control Center

The Poison Control Center comprises 51 regional poison centers nationwide that are certified by The American Association of Poison Control Centers. Their specialists in poison information are registered nurses and pharmacists with extensive backgrounds in emergency and intensive care nursing. These specialists have passed a national certification exam in toxicology. They are staffed with three board certified toxicologists available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Their emergency number is 1-800-222-1222 and the number for the TDD line for the deaf is 202-362-8563.

Toxicology Data Network (TOXNET)

TOXNET is a toxicology and environmental health resource databank. There are links to several databases with descriptions of various chemicals. Sponsored by the National Library of Medicine, it lists each database by category: toxicology data, toxicology literature, toxicology release information, and chemical information. Of the many databases listed, two are noteworthy:

  • HSDB - The Hazardous Substances Data Bank is a search for information on known hazardous substances. It focuses on the toxicology of potentially hazardous chemicals. The site is enhanced with information on human exposure, industrial hygiene, emergency handling procedures, environmental fate, regulatory requirements, and related areas. All data are referenced and derived from a core set of books, government documents, technical reports, and selected primary journal literature. HSDB is peer-reviewed by the Scientific Review Panel, a committee of experts in the major subject areas within the data bank’s scope. HSDB is organized into individual chemical records and contains over 4,500 such records.
  • IRIS - The Integrated Risk Information System accesses information for potential human health effects resulting from environmental pollutants. It is based on data from the EPA in support of human health risk assessment and focuses on hazard identification and dose-response assessment.

Appendix A: Federal Drinking Water Standards as of December 2004

Microbial (all are primary standards)

Total Coliform Bacteria0bacteria per 100 ml
Fecal Coliform Bacteria0bacteria per 100 ml
E. coli0bacteria per 100 ml
Giardia lamblia0oocysts
Cryptosporidium parvum0oocysts

Inorganic Chemicals with Primary Standards

Antimony (Sb)0.006 mg/l
Arsenic (As)0.01mg/l
Asbestos7 millionfibers/l
Barium (Ba)2mg/l
Beryllium (Be)0.004mg/l
Cadmium (Cd)0.005mg/l
Chromium (Cr)0.1mg/l
Copper (Cu)1.3mg/l
Cyanide 0.2mg/l
Fluoride (Fl)4mg/l
Lead (Pb)0.015mg/l
Mercury (Hg)0.002mg/l
Nitrate (as Nitrogen) (NO3-N)10mg/l
Nitrite (as Nitrogen) (NO2-N)1mg/l
Nitrate + Nitrite (as Nitrogen)10mg/l
Selenium (Se)0.05mg/l
Thallium (Tl)0.002mg/l

Volatile Organic Chemicals (all are primary standards)

Carbon Tetrachloride0.005mg/l
Tetrachloroethylene (PCE)0.005mg/l
Trichloroethylene (TCE)0.005mg/l
Total Trihalomethanes0.08mg/l
Vinyl Chloride0.002mg/l
Xylenes (Total)10mg/l

Synthetic Organic Chemicals (all are primary standards)

Aldicarb sulfone0.003mg/l
Aldicarb sulfoxide0.004mg/l
Benzo(a)pyrene (PAH)0.0002mg/l
Dibromochloropropane (DBCP)0.0002mg/l
Di(2-Ethylhexyl) Adipate0.4mg/l
Di(2-Ethylhexyl) Phthalate0.006mg/l
Ethylene Dibromide (EDB)0.00005mg/l
Heptachlor Epoxide0.0002mg/l
Oxamyl (Vydate)0.2mg/l
2,3,7,8-TCDD (Dioxin)0.00000003mg/l
2,4,5-TP (Silvex)0.05mg/l

Radionuclides (all are primary standards)

Gross alpha particle activity15picocuries/l
Radium 226 + 2285picocuries/l
Beta-particle & photon activity4millirems/year

Inorganic Chemicals with Secondary Drinking Water Standards

Aluminum (Al)0.05-0.2mg/l
Chloride (Cl)250mg/l
Copper (Cu)1.0mg/l
Foaming Agents0.5mg/l
Iron (Fe)0.3mg/l
Manganese (Mn)0.05mg/l
Odor3threshold odor number
pH6.5-8.5pH units
Silver (Ag)0.1mg/l
Sulfate (SO4)250mg/l
Total Dissolved Solids (TDS)500mg/l
Zinc (Zn)5mg/l

Appendix B: Regional DEP Offices

Northwest Regional Office

230 Chestnut Street
Meadville, Pa., 16335-3481
Phone: 814-332-6946
Counties: Butler, Clarion, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Mercer, Venango, and Warren

Southwest Regional Office

400 Waterfront Drive
Pittsburgh, Pa., 15222-4745
Phone: 412-442-4192
Counties: Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington, and Westmoreland

Northcentral Regional Office

208 West Third Street, Suite 101
Williamsport, Pa., 17701-6448
Phone: 570-327-3695
Counties: Bradford, Cameron, Clearfield, Centre, Clinton, Columbia, Lycoming, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, and Union

Southcentral Regional Office

909 Elmerton Ave.
Harrisburg, Pa., 17110-8200
Phone: 717-705-4704
Counties: Adams, Bedford, Berks, Blair, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon, Juniata, Lancaster, Lebanon, Mifflin, Perry, and York

Northeast Regional Office

2 Public Square
Wilkes-Barre, Pa., 18711-0790
Phone: 570-826-2511
Counties: Carbon, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Luzerne, Monroe, Northampton, Pike, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Wayne, and Wyoming

Southeast Regional Office

2 East Main Street
Norristown, Pa., 19401
Phone: 484-250-5900
Counties: Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia

Appendix C: References

Christensen, T. H., R. Cossu, and R. Stegmann. 1992. Landfilling of Waste: Leachate. New York: Elsevier Applied Science.

Closz, J., P. Gill, D. Lane, and E. Long. 1995. Is Illegal Dumping a Problem in Huntingdon County? Huntingdon Area School District Senior Humanities Project.

Izzo, Becky. 2002. Project Trash: Learning about Littering and Illegal Dumping. Greensburg: PA CleanWays.

Peavy, Howard, D. R. Rowe, and G. Tchobanoglous. 1985. Environmental Engineering. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Pennsylvania Bulletin, Volume 22, Number 27. July 4, 1992.

Pennsylvania Code, Title 25, Chapters 271–285. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Current through 32 Pa. B. 2572 (May 18, 2002).

Pennsylvania Code, Title 25, Chapters 260–270. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Amended through January 16, 1993.

Pennsylvania Code, Title 25, Chapters 75, 101, 271, 273, 277, 279, 281, 283, 287–289, 293, 295, 297, and 299. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Current through July 4, 1992.

Qasim, Syed R., and Walter Chiang. 1994. Sanitary Landfill Leachate: Generation, Control and Treatment. Lancaster, Pa.: Technomic.

Swistock, Bryan, W. E. Sharpe, and J. Clark. 2003. Water Tests: What Do the Numbers Mean? University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University.

Tammemagi, Hans. 1999. The Waste Crisis: Landfills, Incinerators, and the Search for a Sustainable Future. New York: Oxford University Press.

Unknown. 1998. Illegal Dumping Prevention Guidebook. Chicago, Ill.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5, Waste, Pesticides, and Toxics Division.

Unknown. 1998. Safe Drinking Water Program Summary of Key Requirements for Community Water Systems. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Water Supply Management.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2004. 2004 Edition of the Drinking Water Standards and Health Advisories. Washington, D.C.: EPA Office of Water.

Westlake, Kenneth. 1995. Landfill Waste Pollution and Control. Chichester: Albion.


The authors would like to express their sincere appreciation and thanks to several individuals for their technical reviews of this publication. Their in-depth and thorough comments and suggestions helped lend credibility to the text and illustrations, while helping to maintain the authors’ intent to keep this publication understandable by the lay individual.

  • Mr. John J. Blazosky, president, Blazosky and Associates, Inc.
  • Mr. William Brusse, vice president and chief geologist, Converse Consultants
  • Mr. Michael L. Crist, staff engineer/recycling coordinator, Wayne Township Landfill, Clinton County Solid Waste Authority
  • Dr. Michael G. Holland, M.D., Center for Occupational Health, Glen Falls (NY) Hospital
  • Mr. Mark Jancin, project manager and senior geologist, Veolia Water
  • Mr. Stephen Lathrop, environmental planner, Bureau of Watershed Management, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources
  • Ms. Carolyn L. Lehmann, environmental consultant
  • Dr. Thomas R. McCarty, water quality specialist, Penn State Extension
  • Mr. Mark R. Ralston, principal hydrogeologist, Converse Consultants

Additional thanks go to individuals who helped in various capacities.

  • Ms. Maurine Claver, Penn State
  • Dr. Hershel Elliott, Penn State
  • Ms. Barbara first, designer, Penn State
  • Mr. William K. Moyer, illustrator, Penn State
  • Mr. Howard Nuernberger, photographer, Penn State
  • Ms. Rebecca Paranich, Penn State
  • Ms. Amanda Rudisill, editor, Penn State
  • Dr. Paul D. Robillard, World Water Watch
  • Ms. Joanne Shafer, Centre County Solid Waste Authority
  • Dr. William Sharpe, Penn State

Prepared by James W. Garthe, instructor of solid waste management and recycling; and Bryan R. Swistock, water resources extension specialist.