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How Staten Island is Turning a Massive Pile of Garbage into a Park

Clara Mokri

Clara Mokri

What was once the biggest landfill in the world is on track to become a park three times the size of Central Park.

Fresh Kills Landfill was at one point not only the biggest landfill, but also the largest human-made structure, in the world. Now, the site in Staten Island, New York is undergoing a transformation that will build a beautiful 2,200 acre park on top of all that trash.

Fresh Kills Landfill was established in 1948 as a temporary dump, but became New York City's main garbage dump in the second half of the 20th century, eventually taking on most of the wreckage from the Twin Towers after 9/11. Its transition into a park is an epic physical transformation, but even though the waste has been sealed securely, landfill gas is generated as organic material continues to decompose. Successfully building a park on top of a landfill means managing the massive amounts of gas produced by the garbage.

"Staten Island had a bad reputation among New Yorkers," explained Megan Moriarty, as we drove to the Freshkills Landfill-to-Park project (what was formerly known as Fresh Kills Landfill is now referred to as Freshkills Park). Moriarty, a Staten Island native and the park's spokesperson, recalls the impact the landfill had on the community when she was growing up. "I remember the smell you'd experience when you'd get out of the car," she recalled. Even though the landfill has been closed since 2001, Staten Island continues to bear the negative associations of being home to a massive garbage dump.

In 2006, Freshkills began its ongoing developmental makeover. Upon completion, Freshkills Park will be nearly three times the size of Central Park. Today, the park looks like an untouched grassland, with rolling hills, expansive greenery, and plenty of wildlife. "Wherever you see a big rolling hill in the park, that's a big rolling hill of garbage," Moriarty explained.

According to Ted Nabavi, the Director of Waste Management Engineering for the Department of Sanitation, what makes it possible to manage the landfill gas is the combination of a process called "capping" (basically, sealing the landfill waste and funnelling out the gas emissions) and the site's Gas Collection and Control System (GCCG).

Without the GCCS, landfill gas is at risk of causing explosions, asphyxiation, odor, greenhouse gas emissions, and potential health problems. The process draws up landfill gas from underground wells, where it is compressed (and subsequently cooled), treated, stripped of CO2, and distributed through National Grid, which provides the state with natural gas and electricity.

Even though Freshkills Park isn't set to open until 2036, Staten Islanders are already able to reap the benefits. Certain areas on the outskirts have been completed, and are open for use.

We went inside the park for a closer look at the gas collection process.

All photos by Clara Mokri

One of the four Flare Stations at Freshkills that controls landfill gas emission. Landfill gas (LFG) is generated during the anaerobic bacterial decomposition of organic material contained in municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills.

Because the park is built on top of the Fresh Kills Landfill, the capping and Gas Collection and Control System are essential. They are the heart of the Freshkills Park project, allowing wildlife to grow and continue to exist above the municipal solid waste landfill.

The landfill gas collection system consists of approximately 640 LFG wells, 167,000 feet of laterals and header pipe, with approximately 8,300 feet of transmission pipe and a LFG purification plant.

DSNY Director of Waste Management Engineering Ted R. Nabavi explains the gas collection process.

Inside the flare station control room.

The Fresh Kills Landfill Gas Collection and Control System is operated by qualified wellfield technicians. These technicians are responsible for 'turning' the landfill gas extraction wells. Turning involves maximizing the volume of gas extracted from each LFG well while maintaining oxygen (<0.25%) and nitrogen (<1.0%) concentration.

A truck transports soil to be used as the baseline layer in the capping process. Multiple layers of soil and geo-composite lie above and below an impermeable plastic liner that prevents waste and its byproducts—landfill gas and leachate—from migrating into the surrounding environment. Systems like the landfill gas collection stations throughout the landfill mounds collect and purify the byproducts.

An area of the park undergoing the capping process.