Down in the Dumps? Redevelop!

Down in the Dumps? Redevelop!

Property formerly used as landfills or dumps is increasingly being redeveloped. Public interest in making new uses for these properties is forcing the issue of landfill reuse into prominence. When, where, how, and in some cases, if, such redevelopment should be pursued are questions being considered by property owners, developers and all levels of government. There are many relevant considerations for landfill redevelopment, including state regulation and/or support for such redevelopment.

Site Characterization Is Key

The range of conditions that may be present at landfills/dumps being considered for redevelopment extends from those associated with historical neighborhood or industrial dumps to those of regulated monofills and solid waste landfills. A clear and accurate understanding of the pre-existing conditions will determine the level and type of effort required to redevelop the land. For instance, a modern-day regulated landfill with a liner system, landfill gas collection system and other controls can be more directly evaluated and designed for reuse than an orphaned landfill or dump that would first require substantial assessment to understand property conditions.

Adverse conditions that may need to be addressed for redevelopment include landfill gas (LFG), strength of the waste materials, direct contact with hazardous substances, soil erosion, leachate generation, water quality, and runoff.

LFG is formed principally from the decomposition of organic material (including typical municipal solid waste, or MSW) and consists of methane and carbon dioxide. The methane can be a fire and explosion hazard if the gas is allowed to build up in a confined area.

Settlement over time is another obstacle. It can occur over several years depending on the depth of waste, type of waste (MSW or construction and demolition debris), and method of placement (trench or area fill).

In order to maintain any needed cover over waste materials, the types of soils available and a stormwater analysis should be performed. Engineered controls for landfill conditions can involve addressing substantially steep slopes, and redirecting drainage (which can result in large increases in off-site flows and sediment deposition).

While these issues are broad in scope, their engineering control measures are usually simple and direct. For example, methane can be controlled with a passive or active control system. Settlement can be addressed using various foundation designs and interactive systems that float with the topography.

Inappropriate development on or adjacent to landfills/dumps with inadequately controlled conditions can indeed result in hazards and harm. Proceeding in a manner that recognizes the need for good property assessment (such as the process illustrated in the flow diagram) can and does result in successful landfill redevelopments.

It All Depends: State Restrictions

Although standard measures to address given redevelopment challenges may be technically and economically viable, it is not as clear whether given jurisdictions will allow their use and a given redevelopment will be allowed (or encouraged). Issues such as the legal and regulatory status of the landfill/dump property and activity; past, current, and future property ownership; and liability for existing or future contamination may all be factors in the decision to allow or support a given project. Additionally, each of these factors is governed and interpreted according to laws and regulations that vary from state to state.

A survey of 14 states regarding landfill redevelopment was conducted in late 2004. Surprisingly, all of the states surveyed, including Alaska, had been dealing with at least one landfill redevelopment issue. Not so surprisingly, the perspective and nature of state regulation of the issue varied widely.

In general, all states had some means to deal with landfill redevelopment issues, usually as part of their solid waste programs. Many landfills have, at some time, been licensed, and so would be required to modify their post-closure plan as part of the development process.

California draws in all sites under their Environmental Quality Act process, ensuring that any landfill site development proposal get regulatory review. Rhode Island recently developed a landfill closure program bringing together elements of its solid waste and cleanup programs in a unique group to work with municipalities to close landfills and review any development proposals. States with permit programs, such as New Jersey, Texas and Wisconsin, are able to use those programs to bring even sites that predate their solid waste laws under review when developments are proposed.

Although all the states were willing to work with parties determined to redevelop landfill sites, their attitudes toward the benefits of landfill redevelopment varied. Some states, especially New Jersey, seemed very comfortable with landfill redevelopment due to the number of projects that have already been constructed in their state. California would allow commercial or industrial development, but not residential. Florida had previously recommended recreational as the preferred use at landfill sites, but is currently considering a 5,000-unit condominium development. Others, especially where little development had yet been done, were much more cautious, and would encourage rearrangement of the project to avoid fill areas or recommend the development occur elsewhere altogether.

In New Jersey, a landfill is just another site that needs to be remediated. Alaska is just getting its brownfield program going, and would like to make sure landfills are included so that brownfield dollars can be used to close some landfills that would otherwise remain open sores on a landscape where local businesses depend on tourism dollars.

Some states, though, view them differently. Massachusetts has brownfield incentive programs, but landfill sites do not qualify and so cannot use these funds. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency offers a voluntary action program that can provide a redeveloper a covenant not to sue in exchange for risk-based cleanup, but this program is not allowed at landfill sites where a closure was ever required.

Clearly, the ability to redevelop an old landfill/dump into a new use is a very case-specific determination, and one that in some cases may be governed as much by a state's current regulatory perspective as by the cost of the measures that may be needed to create a safe new use.

The Time Has Come

Certainly, some historical development at or adjacent to historical landfills and dumps has resulted in hazards for which remedial actions after development have been necessary. However there is no need to interpret the need for this "remedial" action to mean that it is never safe and appropriate to make new uses of historical landfill and dump properties. In fact, it would be a sad admission of failure if many such properties were doomed to abandonment.

The technology to address the concerns of a landfill redevelopment project is available. Developers are conquering the legal and regulatory issues with increasing effectiveness as they seek to use this natural resource. Several state programs are in place to take advantage of these opportunities.

The time has come to use the tools that are available and, where needed, develop new ones to ensure that these properties can be redeveloped to their best possible use for their communities and the environment.

Douglas Gatrell and Gary Klepper are project managers for Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, based in the firm's Plymouth and Lansing, Mich., offices, respectively. Peter T. Masson is with SWCA, Inc., in Rock Springs, Wyo.

This article has been reprinted courtesy of Brownfield News. It first appeared in the December 2005 issue of that publication.