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What Lies Beneath

The North Meadows Dump Is Closing For Good. Can The City Figure Out What To Do With It?

November 2, 2006
By NATHAN CONZ, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

Last Thursday night, Oct. 26, concerned Hartford residents and other interested parties gathered at the Hartford Public Library for Life After Landfill, a workshop regarding the North Meadows landfill’s closure and post-closure issues. If those residents came to the workshop looking for answers, they may have come away empty-handed.

The landfill is set to close by the end of 2008, but it’s still unclear who will foot the bill for the closing, what will be become of the land and just what lies at the bottom of the dump. And things weren’t made any clearer at Life After Landfill. Essentially, Thursday’s gathering was a brainstorming session: We have this giant pile of waste; after we cover it up, what do we want to do with it?

In July, the Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority (a quasi-governmental agency that operates the landfill) submitted a proposal to the Connecticut DEP to close the landfill, which consists of a large 80-acre site (the one you see from I-91) and smaller 16-acre site consisting solely of ash. Under the proposed plan, both would be covered with a geosynthetic membrane in addition to 24-inches of soil and vegetative cover.

Also included is a proposal to revise the eastern slope of the large landfill from a 4:1 grade to 3:1. The added steepness would allow for about two more years’ worth of trash to be put in the landfill.

The slope change would increase the landfill’s size, but not its height or circumference, and allow the landfill to earn additional money for CRRA and the city. Still, that’s a lot (around 330,000 cubic yards) of added trash. The Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice opposes the slope change.

Bruce Haskell is an engineer who has worked on several landfill-closure projects, primarily in the greater Boston area. While admittedly unfamiliar with the North Meadows landfill, he did provide several examples of how other municipalities have put their closed landfills to use.

Mostly, those landfills became parks, sometimes for passive recreation and sometimes for organized sports. A closed landfill in Yarmouth, Mass. is now a 9-hole golf course. Another in Reading, Mass. became Walker’s Brook Crossing, a commercial development — but that’s rare.

“It’s very expensive to build on top of a landfill,” Haskell explained.

Dr. Bob Painter of the Hartford City Council, who moderated the workshop, suggested a recreational sports complex be placed atop the closed landfill, where local, youth and recreational field-sport teams (baseball and soccer, for example) could hold championship games and tournaments.

Mike McGarry, a former city councilman, was in the audience on Thursday night and wasn’t scheduled to speak, but he did anyway. He doesn’t want to build on top of the landfill, he wants to zap the thing and build on roughly 100 acres of land underneath it.

McGarry has long been critical of the CRRA and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection for their handling of the site and plans for its closure. The city doesn’t need another park, he says. It needs a big piece of land to bring in a big taxpayer. To that end, he hopes the site is “remediated” upon its closure and used for commercial development.

“The only big piece of land we have, for major development, is where that landfill is. The only thing to do is go in there and vitrify it or plasma torch or do something to remediate that land.”

By “remediate” he means reducing the landfill’s size considerably using innovative technologies like plasma arc. An article in the Hartford Courant calls plasma arc “artificial lightning.” Through a complicated process, electrical current in plasma creates a plasma torch that burns hotter than the surface of the sun.

During the torch process, organic compounds would become simple gases that can be burned for fuel, while inorganic compounds melt into a glass-like substance. One expert says that the process could reduce the landfill by 90 percent. That’d give the city a sizable, empty plot of land for commercial development. Unfortunately for McGarry, plasma arc technology and the North Meadows landfill will likely never meet. CRRA and the state DEP both say the cost of the process would be prohibitive.

Paul Nonnenmacher, CRRA director of public affairs, claims that the use of plasma arc technology on the landfill would cost over a billion dollars. While, Robert Isner, director of the waste engineering and enforcement division of the Connecticut DEP, suggested the process would cost hundreds of millions or billions.

“We have looked at that technology. We are continuing to look at that technology. What we know of that technology today tells us that it is enormously expensive,” Nonnenmacher says. “It’s simply not realistic at this time to think that it’s a feasible alternative over the next several years, when that landfill needs to be closed.”

This is all, of course, putting the cart before the horse. There’s still no determination on who will pay for the cost of physically closing the landfill (about $22.5 million) and the cost of monitoring the site for 30 years after it’s closed (about $12 million). That’s a dispute the city and CRRA are working on right now. Hopefully, the state bond commission will help out.

What’s more — and this is another point of contention for McGarry — no one knows what’s at the bottom of the landfill, which opened in 1940. If the landfill is closed and becomes a park, would you walk on it or play a game of soccer on it without knowing exactly what you’re standing on top of? Would you support using plasma arc technology without knowing what you’ll find on the ground when you’re done?

“That’s true, we don’t know what’s at the bottom. There’s no need to find out though because the environmental control systems that we’ve put in at the landfill, since we began leasing it from the city, ensure that everything that is there is contained,” Nonnenmacher says, specifically mentioning the site’s ground water flow control and gas collection systems.

On Saturday morning, CRRA offered tours of the landfill to citizens, with shuttle buses departing from the Rajun Cajun restaurant. After the tours were through, CRRA Director of Environmental Affairs and Development Peter Egan took me on a tour. It was windy, rainy and miserable. And yet, looking east from on top of the landfill towards the Connecticut River (and without an interstate to impede my view) I could almost see the place as a park.

But where some see a park, others like Mike McGarry see an opportunity to bring in a big taxpayer. Either way, because mistakes can happen even to the best-laid plans, maybe we should figure out what lies beneath this 138-foot mound before we do anything else.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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