TANGIER ISLAND, Va. -- A brochure that promotes Tangier Island to tourists hints at something no one here is eager for visitors to see.
It says: "Tangier is a romantic destination for those who would see a largely unspoiled fishing village. . . ."
"Largely unspoiled" are the words to note because a portion of this Chesapeake Bay island -- which Indians parted with in 1666 upon receipt of two overcoats -- couldn't be more spoiled. Accomack County Administrator Arthur K. Fisher describes it as "a festering sore." Diane M. Abato of the state Department of Environmental Quality's Waste Division calls it "a mess."
The 650 or so residents of Tangier know it simply as "the dump."
For years they've dumped what they no longer want -- furniture, tires, refrigerators, stoves, water heaters, shopping carts, cars and trucks, propane gas tanks, oil filters, beer bottles, mattresses, bicycles, tree stumps, you name it -- along a road between their seawall and airstrip. The dump attracts curious children, hungry rats and lots of mosquitoes.
Earlier this summer, the Eastern Shore Health District issued this warning: "The continued operation of this dump is certainly at a level which could pose serious health risks in the future." State waste officials now are coordinating efforts to get rid of it all. And the town plans to begin recycling this summer. But there is much to resolve before anything is loaded onto barges and taken away.
Finding a place to dump trash has become a big problem for localities nationwide. But Tangier's case shows that it can be a bigger problem for island communities, most of which are too small and too near sea level to have their own landfills.
Tangier's trash problems are not new to state officials, who have been proposing solutions since at least 1972, state records show. An official back then suggested that Tangier burn its trash. And a dozen years later an incinerator was built.
That didn't solve all of the island's trash problems, however. In fact, it created other problems that never have been solved.
"It's a sad thing to admit," says Nina C. Pruitt, a Town Council member and school librarian, "but I think very few people here are bothered by it, really.
"It's not in anyone's back yard," she says of the dump, which is largely blocked from view by a marsh. "If it was in the middle of town, something would have been done by now. The tourists don't seem to care. They keep coming."
Aboard a tour boat on a recent sunny morning, Nathan Payne of Pittsburgh noticed the heaps of junk and said, "Interesting view. Not something you'd expect to see on an island everyone says is so pretty." But as he left the island that afternoon, he said, "The dump didn't get in the way of my good time. I don't care if it comes or goes. I'm not from around here."
Although trash disposal is not Accomack County's responsibility, says county administrator Fisher, its governing board this summer "decided to treat Tangier as an island, not just as another one of our 14 incorporated towns." In other words, Tangier will get some extra attention.
The most immediate problem to solve -- and one that islanders say won't happen unless the state gives them money -- is getting everything in the dump off the island. According to the local health department, the dump is an ideal breeding ground for rats and mosquitoes. And it probably is polluting groundwater and nearby shellfish grounds.
"I'm not saying that someone there will get sick today, tomorrow or next week because of the dump," says Arthur Miles, the local health district's environmental health supervisor. "But it's not a good situation. It's not something that should be continued."
Town officials estimate it will take at least 20 barge loads at $1,000 a load to get rid of the dump. State officials say they will give Tangier some money after it comes up with a state-approved, long-term trash disposal plan.
Town officials want to sign a contract with Fox Brothers Inc., an Eastern Shore company whose owners, John T. and James N. Fox, also run a funeral parlor, Ms. Pruitt says. The fee to remove what's in the dump is reasonable, state officials say.
But Ms. Abato of the state Waste Division says town officials are willing to pay Fox Brothers too much to barge the town's trash after that. The Foxes want $1,000 to remove what the islanders generate every three months, assuming that is one barge load. If it's two barge loads, the Foxes want $2,000, and so on.
After that issue is resolved, there's the matter of transporting the trash from the barge after it reaches the Eastern Shore to the landfill in Accomack County, where it will be buried. The county ++ promised the town $15,000 to spend on landfill tipping fees in 1990 after the county received payment of a fine from a Perdue Inc. chicken processing plant.
No one knows how Tangier will raise money to bury trash in the county landfill after the $15,000 is spent.
Tangier, which can't afford to hire a town manager, doesn't even have money to buy fuel oil for its incinerator. "If we had to buy fuel oil, it would be a big hardship for us," says Town Treasurer Danny McCready. "We haven't bought it for at least five years, since I've been in town government."