U.S. Environmental Issues Solved by the Rangos Family

Solid waste management is crucial to protecting America’s natural environment, and is today a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States alone. Environmentally sound methods required to keep America clean were first developed by John G. Rangos, Sr. almost 60 years ago.

A pioneer in that regard, Mr. Rangos was widely credited with putting a white hat on the country’s solid waste industry. According to Forbes magazine, “he anticipated landfill shortages and found ways to meet tough environmental standards” at a time when many leading industry experts considered the problem unsolvable.

A veteran of the Korean War known for his philanthropy, Mr. Rangos revolutionized the field of solid waste disposal, and the Rangos family is largely responsible for solving the “unsolvable” problem. By setting standards with their own company, they actually helped formulate the basis for today’s environmental laws and regulations, creating and practicing proper transport, disposal and recycling of industrial and municipal waste.

Among other things, Mr. Rangos was the first to develop beneficial uses for industrial wastes; the first to actively seek sites for landfill construction that were rich in clay to prevent toxic chemicals from seeping into the country’s groundwater supplies; the first to bolster naturally clay-lined landfills with ultra-durable double-composite synthetic liners; the first to extract methane from leachate and other biodegradable substances; and the first to apply rigorous engineering principles for landfill construction, thereby creating environmentally-sound regional landfills which also convert waste into energy to help supply electricity for thousands of households in the communities they serve.

Practices that are taken for granted in the industry today did not take place in a vacuum, however. They evolved during a long, fastidious journey that began six decades ago with Mr. Rangos’ long and storied career; a journey with a mission to help the country handle its literally mountainous solid waste problem.

The present-day basic three-pronged strategy of transporting, disposing and recycling solid waste required considerable forethought and a scientific approach.

When Mr. Rangos returned from his tour of duty in Korea, he saw the threat gigantic mounds of industrial waste posed not only to the environment, but also to entire adjacent communities. Enormous piles of coke ash were sitting exposed in open areas, unprotected and unregulated all over the countryside, while coal-burning plants were also producing exceedingly high amounts of fly ash, boiler ash and slag.

Mr. Rangos quickly determined that as America’s natural resources were being consumed more rapidly in greater quantities, the need for quality, inexpensive alternate aggregates was becoming obvious. He thought about ways to eliminate, or at least redistribute and reduce, those mountain ranges of industrial waste, and also how to find better uses for them which, in turn, would both help shrink their presence in the waste stream and diminish their deleterious effect on the environment.

After studying the problem carefully – conducting his own research and consulting with scientists and engineers – he not only set himself on an extraordinarily successful entrepreneurial path, he laid the foundation for converting industrial waste to useful products for decades to come:

1. Coke. Coke is a porous hard gray fuel with a high-carbon content and few impurities. It is derived from bituminous coal and made in brick furnaces. It is a necessary component of the steel-manufacturing process. Without the high temperatures produced by coke combustion, making steel would be much more difficult, and without coke, the industrial revolution itself might not have taken place. But burning coke generates byproducts which can be very harmful to the environment: eg., ammonia, coal tar, coal gas and coke ash.

2. Usable Products from Coke Ash. By the mid-20th Century, enormous piles of coke ash were peppering and poisoning the landscape, with millions of tons spread across miles and miles of land, destroying all surrounding vegetation. People were dying from cancer because contaminants had gotten into their groundwater supplies. Increased ash volume also resulted in decreased ash storage facilities with limited room for expansion, as well as increased handling, transportation and spreading costs. Mr. Rangos determined that coke ash could be readily turned into several usable products: e.g., skid-resistant road surfacing for highways, concrete masonry units (a.k.a., cinder blocks), and aggregate for temporary access roads to help facilitate construction projects.

3. Fly Ash. Mr. Rangos patented use of fly ash as a soil stabilizer. Fly ash is the fine residue removed from smokestack gases captured before being released into the atmosphere. About 40-45 percent of that residue is now recycled as pozzolan, a silicon-based compound used to make cement, helping concrete and plaster to set more readily with greater shielding against wet conditions and chemical spills. Mr. Rangos also determined that pozzolan could be used as a silicon coating for metal screens. Other modern uses for pozzolan include substitute material for Portland cement and sand; embankments for road construction; road sub-base construction; grout; waste solidification; mine reclamation; aggregate substitute material for brick production; and mineral filler in asphaltic concrete. Additional applications include cosmetics, toothpaste, kitchen counter tops, floor and ceiling tiles, bowling balls, tool handles, picture frames, auto bodies, boat hulls, roofing tiles, roofing granules, decking, and fireplace mantles.

4. Coal Bottom Ash and Boiler Slag. Bottom ash and boiler slag are coarse, granular incombustible products collected from the bottom of coal-burning furnaces, which generate steam for production of electric power. Six decades ago, discarded bottom ash and boiler slag were either landfilled or sluiced into huge storage lagoons. They were not being properly disposed or recycled. But by 1996, 30 percent of all bottom ash and 93 percent of all boiler slag produced were being recycled. Bottom ash is now used as roadbase and sub-base material and as an aggregate for asphalt paving, while leading slag applications now include blasting grit and roof shingle granules. All this can be traced back to Mr. Rangos’ perseverance and dedication to remove as much as possible from the waste stream by combining waste removal with safe and sustainable uses for toxic substances.

“We really needed to execute. We had to make absolutely sure that we had well-built access roads for our trucks and coordinated pickup routes for our haulers, and ensure that everything was done in a safe and environmentally responsible manner, so that any impact on the public and environment were either minimized or completely eliminated from the equation. The last thing we wanted to do was to pollute God’s good earth or cause any discomfort to communities, or encroach upon human activity in any way. But that challenge was also the heart of our industry. By converting hundreds of thousands of tons of industrial waste into reusable and useful products, and by making sure we did that in an environmentally conscious manner, we became environmentalists,” he said.

But when Mr. Rangos first started contending with industrial waste along the Eastern Seaboard, the solid waste industry was typified by sites that were essentially open holes in the ground next to ravines, where people simply opened an office with a scale and accepted waste. That approach was also akin to raping the environment, however, so it took a lot of hard work and dedication to elevate the industry to the level of public confidence it enjoys today.

Mr. Rangos founded Chambers Development in 1971, and operated the company with his sons, John Jr. and Alex, and navigated it thru the industry’s often-turbulent waters for the next 14 years until it merged with USA Waste in 1995.

Before such large corporate developments took place, however, Chambers had already developed real solutions (e.g., treating waste water so that it could be as safe, or even safer, than drinking water). And even before Chambers built its first waste water treatment plant in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, Mr. Rangos had already established himself as a major contractor with three major utilities, which he says gave him the knowledge and experience he needed to help forge the Chambers empire, Chambers was the first company to develop a leak-free/odor-free rail system to facilitate more effective transportation routes, so that people would not need to complain when solid wastes passed thru their communities. Rail haul eliminated truck emissions and maximized rodent control because each Chambers load was sealed. Again, these were practices Mr. Rangos had put in place long before today’s government mandates were set forth.

From the 1970’s and into the 1990’s, Chambers developed a number of large regional landfills with long lifespans that are still active today. By October 1991, the company owned and operated more than a dozen large regional landfills across 12 states, and employed more than 17,000 people. The Rangos family’s commitment to sound environmental practices and regional economic development were so meticulous and comprehensive that Carol Browner – director of the EPA under President Clinton (1993-2001), and the country’s top environmental hawk – readily approved a major regional landfill in Okeechobee, Florida and signed off on Chambers’ permit to develop and operate that same facility, even before she joined the Clinton Administration. Currently operated by Waste Management Incorporated, Chambers built that site with a 100-year capacity, and it is still well equipped to handle thousands of tons of waste daily.

Such monumental and environmentally friendly disposal sites have also since proved to be an economic boon to the areas in which they function. Originally developed and operated by Chambers, landfills like the ones in Okeechobee and Charles City, South Carolina continue to generate millions of dollars in royalties for their respective counties each year. Such revenue helps municipal governments expand capitalization to build schools and roads, as well as maintain police and firefighting services, thereby easing the burden of residential property taxes that typically pay for such projects and services.

After Chambers merged with USA Waste, Mr. Rangos continued serving as vice chairman of USA Waste’s board of directors, and was onboard guiding its subsequent merger with Waste Management Inc. in 1998. In the span of just a few short years, Mr. Rangos and his sons had become the driving force of an immensely successful transition from one smaller company to the largest company in their industry.

It’s a tremendous success story that set the stage for the inevitable: consolidation of the waste management industry itself. In that sense, Chambers Development was the progenitor of today’s large waste management companies. But Chambers was also much more that that. The company initiated enormous changes to – and set standards for – an entire industry, and was itself ultimately an extension of Mr. Rangos’ vision for a better America. He clearly recognized and pursued a great opportunity, and in the process, he also performed an immensely important civic duty by helping to literally keep his country clean and create thousands of jobs at the same time.