Integrating the Landfill into the Pine Bush or What do you do with a Landfill?

by Lynne Jackson

ALBANY: Dr. George Robinson gave an excellent succinct speech about landfill reclamation at the January Save the Pine Bush dinner at the First Presbyterian Church.

Dr. Robinson, an associate professor of biology at the University of Albany, started by talking about the history of landfills. He mentioned many historic buildings, such as the Imperial Palace in Peking, are built on landfills.

Landfills, explained Dr. Robinson, are land forms. They are highly engineered, and have about a 25-year life span. After 25 years, the Environmental Protection Agency says you can walk away. As a biologist, Dr. Robinson sees an ugly green mound. “People who design landfills, don’t think about what happens to the landfill in the future.” Futures for landfills are poorly planned.

Dr. Robinson pointed out that siting of landfills is often haphazard, or next to the poorest people possible, that the end use after closure is usually uncertain, that ownership after closure is uncertain, and that landfills are sited with few aesthetic or ecological considerations.

For example, the Albany landfill is in a key position in the Pine Bush. In the P-4 landfill permit given to the City of Albany to operate its current landfill, the City was supposed to follow-up with certain reclamation experiments. None were done.

What do you do with a landfill? Most typical is abandonment and neglect, and the used-up landfill stays static and ugly. Sometimes, landfills are reused for parking, light industrial uses, storage, or for recreational fields. However, whatever is built over a landfill may shift a lot.

Sometimes, ecological reclamation of a landfill is done. Of course, this is Dr. Robinson’s particular interest.

The City of Albany needs to realize that there are many options.

Dr. Robinson suggested that the Greater Albany Landfill (GAL), the 80-acre original landfill opened in 1969 and closed in 1990 could be re-used as a landfill (see extensive discussion about mining/reusing the GAL in the January/February 2006 Save the Pine Bush newsletter). An engineer would need to determine if re-use is possible. To reuse, the contents of the GAL would be mined, metals would be recycled, and the organic materials shredded. Most importantly, the bottom of the landfill would be lined. Currently, there is no liner under the GAL. Dr. Robinson emphasized that the GAL, at 80 acres, is a lot of space and, much bigger than the current landfill.

The Pine Bush around the GAL is suffering. According to Dr. Robinson, the forest at the “toe” of the landfill slope is pretty trashy looking, the soils are very wet and support many invasive species.

The GAL has no bottom liner to capture the water. Dr. Robinson has been studying the Patroon Creek. During his study, he discovered a pipe running under Rapp Road. Out of this pipe comes orange and smelly water, which is characteristic of landfill leachate. This water flows into Lake Rensselaer, which is the backup water supply for the City of Albany. Dr. Robinson has shared his findings with the Albany Water Department.

Dr. Robinson observed, “It is so unusual to have a landfill in a forever wild area.”

So, what can you do with an old landfill?

Dr. Robinson is interested in taking something thoroughly useless and turning it into wildlife habitat.

Nature can be coaxed, cajoled, enticed, and otherwise enlisted as a collaborator in the ecological reclamation. Dr. Robinson worked on reclaiming the Meadowlands, NJ landfill.

New Jersy’s slogan is “see for yourself”, though some people have suggested the slogan “dances with landfills.” While showing a photo of the Meadowlands landfill, Dr. Robinson asked the audience, “Do you know what shows up in these old landfills? Old rubber dolls heads. Children’s doll’s heads and body parts.”

Regarding the cost, Dr. Robinson began by observing that typical landscaping is quite expensive, and if this type of landscaping was done on a landfill, it would be prohibitively expensive.

However, as an ecologist, Dr. Robinson can attract birds and animals, and at not much cost at all.

To reclaim the Meadowlands landfill, Dr. Robinson obtained for free 2000 truckloads of clean sand and 3,000 to 4,000 truckloads of compost. The sand came from an old river bed that was under the site of where New York City was building a new post office. The compost came from town in New Jersey that was under court order to get rid of tons of old leaves. For this 20-acre landfill, Dr. Robinson was able to obtain three feet deep of compost and sand for free.

Little islands of vegetation were planted. After three years or so, birds, squirrels and mice were attracted to these little plots. The birds brought in lots of new seeds. It was a big success.

This could be done in the Albany Pine Bush.

According to Dr. Robinson, the GAL has a pretty crummy cover and a top liner. In some places, more soil would need to be brought in. The Pine Bush has nutrient poor soils, and nutrient rich soils are not wanted. Covering the landfill with sand (which is easy to come by) may be a good idea. This may be a good place for lupine to grow.

Dr. Robinson noted that the roots from trees and shrubs will not penetrate the landfill cover. He said that either you can spend $250/year/acre in perpetuity to mow the closed landfill or you can naturally reclaim the landfill. Some people go so far as to say that even if the roots did penetrate the top of the landfill, this is good for the landfill, because that would bring water into the landfill to encourage decomposition. Two to three feet of soil will support a forest.

Archeologists take cores of landfills and find readable magazines and cantaloupe rinds that look like they just got thrown away. Many landfills are so sealed up that the contents are not decomposing; they are garbage tombs. The best designed landfills take the leachate from the periphery and keep recycling the water so that it promotes decomposition.

Dr. Robinson emphasized passive, nature-aided reclamation can greatly reduce the cost of reclaiming a landfill. “Wildlife,” he said, “aren’t too choosey, but they do need ecological accommodation.”


Printed in the March/April 06 newsletter