Dr. George Robinson Sheds Light on Landfills, their Possibilities and Problems Post-closure.

by Grace Nichols

Dr. George Robinson is a professor in the Biodiversity and Conservation Policy graduate program at the University at Albany. He is very knowledgeable about landfills, as much of his work has involved transforming old landfills into positive open spaces which can meet the needs of local wildlife and local communities. Dr. Robinson’s students have traditionally used the Pine Bush as a place to conduct studies; Dr. Robinson maintains a good relationship with the Pine Bush Commission which stands to gain a lot of funding from the proposed Landfill closure project. Though Dr. Robinson is predisposed to believe in the possibilities of Landfill reclamation, he also has experience with the difficulties of such projects. He came to our dinner on 1/19/11 to share his knowledge with us.

Good news: At our request, the Common Council has just invited Dr. Robinson to advise them on the “Restoration.”

Dr. George Robinson first presented at a Pine Bush dinner in 1994 with a talk on the shrinking pool of native plants in NY State and has been a friend to the Pine Bush virtually all of his professional career. The historic bumpersticker “Don’t Mall the Pine Bush” is found in his office up at SUNY Albany. Dr. Robinson doesn’t only know a lot about landfills; he is a pioneer in both landfill reclamation and restoration biology. With a wry grin, Dr. Robinson noted that there is an interesting interaction between malls and landfills. They both take up rare habitat when zoned poorly, and conspicuous consumption itself leads to very prominent and conspicuous landfills/landmarks. Dr. Robinson calls our landfill a landform.

Wow, there sure is a lot to know about Landfills! The reclamation of landfills is an important environmental issue as we are generating landfills at a shocking rate and we need to do something with them once they are brimming with waste. The EPA uses the term reclamation to refer to digging up landfills and taking the waste away but in the context of NY State landfill policy, reclamation means taking degraded land and revegetating it. In contrast, restoration means returning higher quality land to a more natural state, a recapitulation of the original natural ecosystem in a location. Dr. Robinson was adamant, “You can do reclamation but not restoration on a landfill (or any highly degraded land.)”

We saw some great slides of landfill reclamations—one was of the Festival Gardens in Liverpool; another one was the Ferry Point Park in the Bronx which provided grassy meadows and open space for a highly developed urban community. Even more impressive was the reclamation of a small uncapped landfill in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. Dr. Robinson’s team was able to get free subsoil – from a Manhattan post office site and also free topsoil mulch from decaying leaves from another site. He noted that about 40,000 cu. yards of subsoil and 20,000 cu yards of top soil would have been immensely expensive so they were very fortunate to get these , which needed to be “disposed of” anyway. They were able to plant islands of trees and allow the birds and the winds distribute seeds from surrounding plants to bring in vegetation. The birds of New Jersey used this patch of open habitat and they effectively seeded the land along with the wind. Amazingly, when Dr. Robinson returned in 20 years, he had successfully “grown” a woods – a woodlot. He hastened to explain that it was not a planned execution of a design – that wasn’t possible. He just set the stage for natural forces to take over and the fertility of the surrounding lands was able to effectively reinhabit that place with seeds, plants, shrubs and trees. He had prepared the way by introducing little islands of trees to the habitat.

As regards the Rapp Road landfill – which is smack in the middle of rare Pine Bush habitat–Dr. Robinson commented “I can’t be all high and mighty about it; my university is probably the largest single contributor to the landfill, and we are paying! About $50 a ton, but of course, it should be more,“ (because of the environmental cost of the structure). Dr. Robinson noted that there are areas of concern down at the “toe,” below the foothills of the unlined dump (GAL). Because the clay from the cap on the dump slides downhill, the soil at the foot of the hill is very acidic from the clay. The tree roots in that spot have died and no one is exactly sure why; it could be the acidic soil or some other factor, such as a methane and hydrogen sulfide release. Methane doesn’t kill, it just displaces oxygen in the soil, which may inhibit growth in some way. However, it is often accompanied by hydrogen sulfide, which gives the methane the objectionable odor it carries with it. Hydrogen sulfide is not considered beneficial to tree roots or to lungs. (I found out later, it is also a central nervous system depressant – a neurotoxin.)

In addition, in one area of concern near Patroon Creek, Dr. Robinson has detected high levels of salt (4000 ppm) and ammonium at concentrations of 50 ppm. Whereas salt is likely coming in from I-90, ammonium is generally associated with decaying waste and could be coming from the older, unlined landfill. Since unlined landfills often leak, he suggests we watch for the presence and effects of landfill leachate on the land downhill. As most nongaseous substances like to flow downhill, rain included, it is likely that any leachate may be headed the same place the water goes – Six Mile Reservoir. But this is speculation, not observation, so we will just have to see, unless we can find a way to remediate any leaking from the landfill.

Yet, that $18 million “mitigation” wasn’t slated for remediation so we’ll continue to talk about reclamation and the landfill.

Dr. Robinson also commented on the newer landfills which are lined by thin geotextile membranes which are impervious to water. The decomposition rate in these “tombs” is very slow. Dr. Robinson believes that they have been able to have an efficient capture of methane. The slopes of the new landfills are well drained to prevent erosion and “suitable vegetation” is supposed to go on top. In his own experimentation on top of the super large and high Freshkills landfill in Staten Island, Dr. Robinson observed a less than 0.01% survival rate amongst seeds that were sown there. This meant that much of the planting depended on wind and species bringing in the plants. There is a very intimate interaction between surrounding habitat and the habitat which is nurtured on top of the landfill.

One practical challenge of landfill reclamation is the fact that landfill regulations only apply for 25 yrs after the closure of the landfill. At that point, it is assumed that most of the methane has dispersed. But this means that any problems and needs the landfill has at that point are left unaddressed. The time lapse does reduce the chance of methane collecting somewhere and blowing up – as it did in a garage on the South End when methane followed the groundwater to this location.

The second major challenge is the very large industrial footprint of the landfill, given all they need to function.

Third, the landfill is likely to need re engineering as conditions change and problems arise.

Fourth, cover vegetation is variably successful.

The Ecological Challenges which Dr. Robinson faced in Fresh Kill and which we certainly face in Albany include:

1) These are large areas to reclaim and it is very expensive to bury them in soil and sand layers; They are expensive to seed, expensive to maintain.

2) The surrounding landscape is best if it supports the vegetation desired. If it does not, invasive plants may take over the site.

3) Substrate properties can be less than ideal; materials brought in as final cover are not always clean, and sometimes contain a lot of junk.

4) Steep slopes; it is very difficult to stop erosion; lower levels are poorly drained and become silted up.

5) There is direct exposure to sun and wind. Because there are no trees, the elements are very harsh on the land and young plants. It is a little like the High Peaks on top of a landfill because of unbroken wind.

Dr. Robinson would like to see the Reclamation proceed slowly and thoughtfully. He believes that there should be lots of testing areas on the steep slope areas to see what works; Just look and see if this method can stop erosion, get things to grow. His recommendations were to

1) Test section by section

2) Have contingency plans

3) Vary the design and see what works. Just because it looks good on paper doesn’t mean much. One dry summer or spring and you can lose thousands of dollars of seeds, effort and plantings.

One of things I gathered from the presentation is that we don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel. We can look to other examples of the same thing. I’d like to know more about other landfill ventures and what worked or didn’t work. Wildlife preserves all over the country have been impinged upon by landfills so there are many experiences of coping with closure. Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, which provides habitat for migratory birds in the Atlantic Flyway, and which hosts bald eagles, has to cope with Seneca Meadows Landfill. Their advocacy group, Concerned Citizens of Cattaraugas County, has good information about what a very large landfill has done to their land and community out there.

Another thing I noticed is that no other landfill is doing controlled burns on top of the landfill, so far as anyone knows. It would nice to not be the first experiment, here in the middle of a fairly large city.

I asked Dr. Robinson about acquiring land which is discussed in the “Restoration” plan. Dr. Robinson suggested cataloguing suitable parcels to suggest for purchase.

The new landfills, which are sealed and lined, are tombs, according to Dr. Robinson. They slow down decomposition and entomb the garbage on site.

All landfills eventually leak, and regulations aim to prevent leaching into ground water and other future degradation. Older landfills that have undergone lengthy decomposition may be returned to some useful state for people and wildlife, but they are still full of trash.

In closing, please incorporate at least one “Buy Nothing Day” into your week; if you already have one, please add another.

Never has all life so depended on a people redefining success and pursuing a different happiness. We cannot afford all the stuff we throw away, nor to lose the habitat it will smother.

Stay warm, do good work and be in touch. – Grace Nichols




Published in March/April 2011 Newsletter