Landfill doesn't go to waste

Recycle: An educational hike in Carroll County is one way retired dumps are being reused.

October 19, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Among the rolling hills of northern Carroll County, one stands out. Not for what is on it, but for what is under it: thousands of tons of slowly decomposing trash.

Since the 88-acre John Owings Landfill closed in 1988, there has been no telltale odor to give away its secret stash. The garbage is contained within layers of lining, clay and dirt. The only evidence of the refuse within the 150-foot-tall hill, which was recapped in 1996, is the occasional wafting of methane gas through the hook-shaped pipes that dot the landscape.

The dump is off-limits to the public most of the time. But twice a year, Carroll County recreation specialist Tina Shupp leads a 25-minute hike from the Bear Branch Nature Center to the top of the landfill, with its breathtaking view of Bachmans Valley and the woods surrounding the Hashawha Environmental Center, where the trees are awash in fall colors.

Creative uses for old landfills have grown across the country, from a small skiing hill built on a dump outside Chicago to parks in Brooklyn and Miami, golf courses in New Jersey and a ski lodge in New Hampshire.

The 165-acre Mount Trashmore Park in Virginia Beach, Va., features a playground, basketball and volleyball courts, picnic areas, "Lake Trashmore" and a 60-foot-high mountain of contained trash with a replica of the state seal on the summit.

"We view closed landfills as wasted space, and certainly we push and advocate supporting communities to reuse landfills to the extent possible," said Kent Drinker, senior manager of technical programs at the Silver Spring-based Solid Waste Association of North America. He said a large percentage of states probably have recycled closed landfills into some type of open space.

In Howard County, the playgrounds, basketball courts and athletic fields of the Alpha Ridge Community Park in Marriottsville take up 72 of 590 acres of a closed landfill.

At the John Owings Landfill, Shupp led more than 20 adults, Scouts and others last week to the top of the landfill to take in the view.

Sandy Mortimer drove from Catonsville because she had seen the tour advertised and thought it was just the kind of thing her 9-year-old daughter, Heather, would appreciate.

"She loves to hike," said Mortimer, who found the hike a bit more strenuous than she was expecting. "I like planned activities. They get so much more out of it."

Leading the group through thigh-high brush up the steep hill, Shupp explained how ground wells monitor ground water contamination. Garbage that accumulated since the county took over the landfill in 1972 is layered with clay and earth. Plastic liners are used to keep liquid waste -- called leachate -- from leaking into the ground and water beneath the landfill.

Shupp said it takes 30 years for garbage to completely decompose within the closed landfill. Trees are not planted because the landfill must not be penetrated by roots or burrowing animals. The total cost of closing the landfill was $4.5 million.

"It's like a giant bathtub, but it's in the ground, and it doesn't have a drain," Shupp said. "The idea for a landfill is for the garbage inside to decompose. It's not supposed to get air and water."

Carroll has four other closed landfills: Bark Hill, Hodges, Kate Wagner and Hoods Mill.

Northern Landfill, just east of the Westminster city limits on Route 140, is the only operational landfill in Carroll. It receives about 110,000 tons of waste annually, but 90 percent of it is transferred to a landfill in Virginia for disposal, according to county officials.

Many of the young hikers weren't even born when the hill they were climbing was still used as a landfill. Some were more intent on the crickets and bugs crawling through the grass.

"A hike takes so long with him," said James Jaco of Westminster, who was on the tour as part of a father-son activity night with 7-year-old Ryan. "He'll turn over every rock, looking for salamanders. If it moves, he can find it."

Another parent, Lana Hunter of Westminster, said the hike reinforced her family's dedication to recycling.

From the top of the hill, the hikers had a view of the nearby hills and trails that make up the Hashawha Environmental Center. The setting sun split the valley into gold and black.

After an hour hiking up and down the hill, the exhausted group sat down at a table back at the nature center to digest Shupp's facts about landfills.

Facts such as: 704 football fields could fit inside the John Owings Landfill. Or, the average person produces 4.3 pounds of garbage a day. Or, perhaps most startling: The United States throws out enough paper each year to build a wall 12 feet high from New York to Los Angeles.

"It's amazing when you see the numbers," said Cub Scout pack leader Joey Breining.

Sun researcher Shelia Jackson contributed to this article.

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