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 September-October 2009

September-October 2009

 

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Dumping Grounds

Mount Trashmore and Kindred Bayside Landfills Are the Parks of the Future

Michael Halberstadt

   The view from Mount Trashmore — the former Alameda city dump, located just over the Bay Farm Bridge — is one of the best in Alameda. To the south, the Chuck Corica golf course stretches out toward San Francisco Bay and the San Mateo mountains, as if there were no houses, no roads, no business parks in between. To the north and west, you can see much of Alameda’s East End. To the east, lie San Leandro Bay, the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and the long line of the Oakland Hills beyond. Birds — pelicans, red-winged blackbirds, red-tailed hawks, and the ever-present gulls, terns and songbirds — converge on the site.
    Just the presence of Mount Trashmore, in fact, gives lie to the idea that Alameda is flat—or that the Island is totally developed. Rising nearly 65 feet above the tide line, the giant mound encapsulates nearly 30 years of Alamedans’ trash. But with its lush cover of grass, shrubs and, yes, weeds, the hill provides a welcome break to the Island’s densely built environment, as well as a splendid place to walk, jog and bicycle. It also offers much-needed habitat for local birds, mammals and reptiles.
    Built before anyone realized that putting a landfill next to — oh, say — a saltwater marsh might be a problem, Alameda’s old dump is a symbol of the way Americans used to deal with their trash. And the question of its fate is one that now bedevils thousands of communities around the country that built similar sites in the last century.

Prime Tidelands

    There was no mountain — not even a hillock or a spit of solid land — on the Trashmore site before the dump was built in 1953. Instead, the area was a salt marsh that was nationally renown for the tens of thousands of shorebirds (including avocets, willets and godwits) it attracted. In an Alameda Journal history column published in 1990, local historian Woody Minor wrote that this shorebird habitat was so rich that ornithologists and wildlife photographers came from all over the United States to study it. The value of tidal marshland was not well understood by city governments in the 1950s, however, and when Alameda ran out of dump space south of the golf course, it chose the mudflats as the new site.
    According to Minor, local ornithologist Junea W. Kelly led the fight against the proposed landfill in the late 1940s, gathering letters from a wide range of local and national conservationists, including Roger Tory Peterson, the renowned naturalist and ornithologist who invented the first modern field guide for birds. He claimed he was “shocked” by the city’s decision to build a landfill on the marsh. “Surely I hope that Alameda will not allow this to happen,” Peterson wrote in a letter to the Salt Marsh Refuge Committee, “and will set aside this remarkable area as a refuge for the thousands of migrating shorebirds that pass through and winter here.” John H. Baker, then the president of the National Audubon Society, also wrote a letter of protest to the committee, noting that the salt marsh was “frequented by one of the most extraordinary and interesting concentration of shorebirds known anywhere on this continent …”

A Dump Is Born

   Alas, the city council weighed the benefit of birds against the benefit of having a place to stash its trash and voted in favor of the latter. Alameda wasn’t alone in making such decisions — throughout the 1940s and ’50s, cities built dozens of landfills around the edge of San Francisco Bay, impervious to the pleas of early conservationists who understood the value of salt water marshes and the biodiversity they support. By 1953, Alameda did what most cities did: constructed riprap levees around the roughly 40-acre site, pumped out the water, and begun dumping residential and commercial garbage there.
   “I can remember going there with my dad,” says Flavio Barrantes, who, as interim maintenance superintendent of Alameda’s Department of Public Works, now manages the site. “We’d run around looking for stuff and chase the jackrabbits.”
   The city had planned to expand the dump; today the narrow arc of land that stretches east beyond Mount Trashmore’s furthest tip marks the proposed boundary. But federal and state regulations enacted in the 1970s brought bayside dumping to a grinding halt. Left with a half-built landfill, the city “capped,” or covered, the site with a 2-foot thick layer of foundation soil, a 1-foot thick layer of low permeability clay and then another 1-foot thick topsoil layer. Today, Alameda’s garbage (and waste from 19 other Bay Area cities) is trucked a few miles further south, to the Davis Street Transfer Station in San Leandro.

The Methane System

     The soil-and-clay cap on Mount Trashmore essentially seals in the garbage — and seals out oxygen. As a result, unlike your backyard compost pile, which is exposed to air and so can decompose aerobically, Alameda’s post–World War II trash remains preserved. “It’s all still under there,” notes Scott Schmidt, vice president of technical services with Pacific Waste Services, the consultancy that monitors the site. “If you drilled down, you’d probably still find newspaper clippings from the 1960s.” Adds Barrantes, “Bricks, washing machines, refrigerators — people dumped everything there.”
    Some anaerobic decomposing still occurs, however, and the process produces methane gas. Pipes drilled into the landfill in 1986 collect that methane, which is then sucked out of the pipes by a giant fan and burned off with a 1,450-degree Fahrenheit flare that is next to the Bill Osborne Model Airplane Field. As the years have passed, the amount of methane produced has slowed to about 25 cubic feet per minute — such a small amount that the burner only operates during the day at this point.
    “At night, the flame is off, and the landfill essentially fills with methane like a balloon,” Schmidt says. “During the day, we suck the methane out again and burn it off.” Most of the methane is expected to be burned off by 2017.
    To make sure no contaminants leach out of the fill and into the surrounding San Leandro Bay, agencies routinely sample the water from monitoring wells positioned around the dump. “So far, there’s never been an issue,” Schmidt says.

Seaside Park?

    Though a shadow of its former biodiversity, the area around Mount Trashmore still attracts a wide range of birds (including black-necked stilts, scaups, grebes, canvasbacks, coots, pelicans, egrets, herons, several kinds of hawks, kingfishers, bufflehead, surf scoters, black Phoebes, swallows, hummingbirds and black-crowned night herons). Ground squirrels skitter across the bike trail and into the riprap; jackrabbits leap and bound across the hill. If you watch closely, you can sometimes find a garter snake in the grass.
    Still Mount Trashmore could be a far richer natural and community resource — especially if people understand the site’s history as a valuable habitat. “There’s a concept in ecology called the ‘shifting baseline,’ ” notes Robin Grossinger, a senior scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute. The institute is on the Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline, just east of Mount Trashmore on Doolittle Drive. “Each generation accepts a greatly reduced idea of what their ecosystem should be, because they don’t know what used to be there.”
    Mount Trashmore can’t be developed, because of the ongoing risk of methane leaks and ground settlement. Currently the public is fenced off from all but the perimeter of the site (I was given a tour by Barrantes and Schmidt only because I was writing this story), and federal regulations require the site operator (in this case, the city’s public works department) to maintain the cap, monitor groundwater and manage the methane gas until 2017. Alameda’s General Plan — drafted in 1991 — calls for the dump to be converted into either open space or parkland, possibly with a network of trails leading across it, or possibly as a joint project with the East Bay Regional Park District.
    “Whenever we talk about large-scale projects like this, we think of EBRPD,” says Andrew Thomas, planning services manager with the Alameda Planning Department.
    A 2007 memo by the city’s Department of Public Works reviews the possibility of planting trees and wildflowers on the site but notes that care needs to be taken with the tree choice, as deep roots could disturb the clay cap and allow irrigation and rainwater runoff to leach through the dump and contaminate the bay.

Converted Parks

    Alameda is hardly the only city dealing with a decommissioned dump site. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 3,500 landfills have been closed since 1991 alone; no agency has tracked the number of landfills closed since, say, the 1970s. Hundreds of those sites have been converted into parks, including Boston’s Millenium Park (once the Gardner Street Landfill); Virginia Beach’s Mount Trashmore (now replete with picnic grounds, a playground and a skatepark); and the 50-acre Mabel Davis Park outside of Austin. The city of Guelph, Ontario, is working with landscape architects and integrative biologists to turn its 100-acre landfill into a “pollination garden” with plant species that attract pollinators.
    A number of Bay Area cities have converted former bayside landfills to parks: Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, Sunnyvale Baylands Park, Candlestick Point State Recreation Area in San Francisco, Albany’s “Bulb,” Emeryville’s Marina Park, Point Isabel Regional Shoreline in Richmond and San Leandro’s Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline. Byxbee Park in Palo Alto is a good model for what Alameda’s Mount Trashmore could become — the 30-acre site is still off-gassing some methane, but is open to the public and serves as both open space and a sculpture garden. Some locals may also remember that the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View was built on an old landfill. In its first year, in fact, bursts of flame erupted from the ground during concerts when fans accidentally ignited methane plumes with their lighters. This was no doubt exciting, but resulted in the amphitheater being temporarily closed while engineers solved the problem.
    Open space is a precious commodity in the Bay Area, as are tidal wetlands, most of which were filled in during the last century. At the very least, Mount Trashmore could serve as parkland  from which Alamedans could enjoy views and fresh air. But perhaps something greater could be created in Alameda — a space that could allude to the site’s rich natural history or replicate habitat lost from other parts of the bay. “You may not be able to literally return to what it once was,” Grossinger says. “But you can look at the palette of habitats that once existed around the bay and recreate those elements — including low grassy hills, very few of which remain. Once we know how sites used to look, our aspirations — and expectations — rise. We start thinking about how to restore what has been lost.”


Getting It Right: Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline
    Just 10 minutes south of Mount Trashmore, one landfill has been turned into a seaside park that is a joy to wander and a possible model for what Mount Trashmore could become.
    Managed by the East Bay Regional Park District and still in its earliest stages of development, the Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline in San Leandro now has 150 acres of open space, including hills, fields and groves of trees and spectacular views of both the Bay and Oakland International Airport. Hawks, jackrabbits and shorebirds abound, as do wildflowers in springtime. A paved trail around the perimeter of the park makes it wheelchair- and bicycle-accessible; several group picnic areas provide resting spots for those seeking a civilized park visit.
    But for locals who’d prefer a wilder experience for themselves — or want to let their dogs bomb through tall grass, explore rock outcroppings and race up and down hills (yes, off leash!) — a half dozen dirt tracks crisscross the interior of the park, giving the illusion that one is miles from civilization and not just a half-mile from the Davis Street Transfer Center as well as a heavily industrialized neighborhood.
    The dump is still producing methane gas as evidenced by the numerous concrete “wells” located across the terrain and the methane burning tower near the transfer station’s fence line. But the pipes have been buried beneath truckloads of soil donated to the park district, and the public has access to most of the property, including the southernmost hill, where a graceful sculpture, Rising Wave, by Roger Berry crosses the terrain. Eventually, planners say, the park will include grassy play areas, as well as more picnic sites and parking lots, but for now it’s a fragment of wild Bay shoreline along our very developed coast.

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