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“Freshkills Park was once the world’s biggest landfill – an emblem of wastefulness, excess and environmental neglect. Its transformation into a productive and beautiful cultural destination will make the park a symbol of renewal and an expression of how our society can restore balance to its landscape.” -from the official Freshkills Park Site Tour Guide booklet
view from “North Mound”, a 200 ft high hill of garbage with methane gas vent. Manhattan skyline in the distance. In the low lying wetland between mound and city, the original topography of the area pre-landfill.
The view from the top of the mound was pleasant, but less than spectacular. We were on a grassy hill, surrounded by other hills and fields. In the not so far distance we could see a tight pack of suburban houses. Another 180 degrees and a scattering of smoke stacks and oil tanks dominated the view. A slight scent of gas caught in the wind, reminding us that this view was far from a “natural” landscape. The heights we had been elevated to, this shift in topography that our little tour bus had just ascended, was afforded by accumulated and compacted garbage – 53 years of it.
Here we were in Freshkills Park, Staten Island, formerly known as Freshkills landfill. We were participating in a free tour offered by NYC Parks and Recreation.
Freshkills landfill was opened by city planning czar Robert Moses in 1948. Intended to receive New York City trash for three years, it continued to do so for half a century. The dump was finally closed in 2001 after years of heated debate over concerns for health, property values, and odor. It was reopened briefly after September 11, 2001. After 53 years of use, it had become the world’s largest landfill. The site still has remaining capacity–enough to store another 20 years worth of garbage. Instead, New York City’s garbage is trucked and barged to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. Meanwhile, the title of the largest landfill in the United States has passed on to Puente Hills in Los Angeles. And the world’s largest dump is now floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Here on Staten Island, city planners have been hard at work since 2006 attempting to ideate and implement ways to transform the landfill into something usable by the public. The current answer is Fresh Kills Park. If funding continues, in 2036 the completed park will be three times the size of Central Park.
The garbage will continue to settle over the next ten or so years, resulting in a 10-15% shrinkage rate. So, the topography will be subtly on the move over time. With garbage as its foundation, the site is unsuitable for heavy construction, ruling out one idea that had been considered: using it for a wind farm. Instead, the park will offer light-use recreational activities such as mountain biking and trail running.
One of the most interesting things we learned about Freshkills during our tour is its current ability to produce energy. The “mounds” that constitute the site’s topography are massive methane gas generators. National Grid has set up a processing facility on site to purify the gas coming out of these hills. Each year more than 22,000 Staten Island homes are heated with methane vented from the garbage. Officials expect this gas supply will continue for up to 30 years.
It’s quite remarkable that Freshkills’ methane is being collected. We were told that many other countries don’t capture or burn the methane generated in their landfills, but simply release it into the air–a practice that is extremely dangerous to the environment because methane is a volatile greenhouse gas.
Methane is mainly produced by the anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition of organic materials (such as banana peels and coffee grounds). We were told by our guide that a couple hundred years from now you could cut open the mound and find yesterday’s lunch as intact as it was the day it was added to the landfill, “whole hot dogs can be found”. All this garbage won’t be breaking down into compost of any kind, but will remain suspended in time until the “impermeable” plastic layer designed to cap and contain the garbage decomposes or is disrupted. We asked our guide how long this plastic is designed to abide and he estimated around 400-500 years.
As garbage breaks down it creates a liquid by-product called leachate. Leachate will be collected by Department of Sanitation until there is no need to continue collecting it, which could be over thirty years from now. The process of collection is described by the park’s outreach coordinator:
“Leachate is pumped from wells to a pump station, then conveyed to the leachate treatment plant. At the treatment plant the solids and liquid are separated; the liquid is cleaned and discharged into the Arthur Kill River; the solids are dried and packed into “leachate cakes”. These cakes are not considered “hazardous” waste, and are taken to a municipal landfill in New Jersey.”
Freshkills is composed primarily of residential garbage, but we couldn’t help think about the many toxic household products that often end up in household garbage, such as the energy efficient compact fluorescents lightbulbs that contain mercury or smoke detectors complete with radioactive Americium 241 (check out this site from the EPA for how to dispose of your smoke detector, though the chances of avoiding it ending up in a landfill seem unlikely). Even as Freshkills will be monitored for safety in terms of air, water, and soil for a minimum of 30 years (starting in 2006), it’s has been difficult to find information that clearly and specifically addresses how known toxins associated with residential garbage are being handled and monitored in the short and long-term life span of the site.
Perhaps the area’s natural geology is the site’s best bet for containment of these substances. According to a document describing the landfill: “an integral part of the leachate control system at Fresh Kills Landfill is the fine silt and clay Pleistocene layer beneath the landfill that forms a relatively impermeable barrier between refuse and the groundwater table below.”
We left the Freshkills tour with many questions about its future. What will unfold here, within this subterranean world of garbage? What will come of this odd amalgamation of landfill and park? Will funding for the proposed park continue? Will the park ever be completed as imagined? How long will the site’s impermeable plastic barrier really last? Will environmental monitoring continue beyond 30 years? Will people using the park in the future actually remember what is below them? How common will this type land use/reuse become?
Because of these questions, we will include Freshkills in our Geologic City field guide as an exemplary site of Anthropogenic design. This place is a rich crystallization of our contemporary geologic era. Take the fact, for example, that plastics are an inorganic material and never actually ‘decompose’–they merely break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Just how will all the plastics contained at Freshkills endure into the unknowable geologic future? In 2000 years, Freshkills Park might be known as a geologically rich site for the concentration of plastics, not unlike today’s concentrations of coal, uranium or oil. And, if the impermeable plastic endures longer than expected, perhaps it will be known as a geologically rich site for mummified hot dogs too.
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