Fresh Kills landfill was used in 2001 as the site where debris from the World Trade Center was separated into evidence on the one hand and waste on the other. Some victims, not having been recovered from the debris among the evidence, must have ended up in the waste. That is to say, their ashes now rest somewhere high on the gigantic piles of trash built by New York City out of all the waste it didn’t need for parks, parkways, and real estate improvement of a private sort. Until 2001, people in the know used to say you could see the World Trade Center from the unnatural mountains of Fresh Kills.
Now Fresh Kills is in the process of being redeveloped into a recreational area, and the planners envision a monument to the fallen of September 11 at the highest point.
I feel for everyone who has to let go of the people they love under circumstances such as these, their remains sifting right through the fingers of the investigators and drifting away, indistinguishable from the other ashes coming out of the conflagration. Nevetheless, I was relieved to read that a judge decided against the families suing to have Fresh Kills reopened for another effort to remove any human remains from the waste.
Fresh Kills is maybe a weird but not the worst place to end up. The mounds offer magnificent views, abundant wildlife, and endless peace and quiet. Below a report from a visit I made in 2005.
November 5 and December 31, 2005
Fresh Kills is peaceful and deserted. Grass and weeds have sprung up on the garbage mounds, while a few scraggly trees are struggling in the wetter hollows and around the monitoring stations. The hillsides bristle with equipment—vents and pumps, drains and wells poke up out of the slopes everywhere. There’s a smattering of birds—a heron, an egret, an osprey. Fluids seep out of the sides of East Mound, making filmy puddles in suspicious colors on the road below. Here and there, a whiff of methane underscores the point. The largest and most famous garbage dump in the United States is officially in hiatus. Fill activity has stopped, the World Trade Center debris has long been processed, and the dump lies quiet. If you don’t look too closely, you might think it is a nature park.
I’m on the bus with perhaps 30 other visitors, taking a tour of the future. The New York City planners for the borough of Staten Island who have organized the tour are so full of hope, it’s infectious. They look out of the windows of the bus and see a pastoral idyll, a green haven in an urban jungle, an island oasis in the midst of a desert of urban sprawl. One of them proudly notes that this is the most engineered landfill in the world.
Through their eyes, how beautiful it is, how promising. They point out that 55% of Fresh Kills was never used for dumping to begin with. The water in Main and Richmond Creeks is as clean as the water in the Hudson River. (Whether that’s good or bad news I don’t know, but apparently it could be worse. The Arthur Kill, a major shipping lane that separates Fresh Kills from New Jersey, is reportedly more polluted.) And the views! On a clear day, you can see Manhattan from the garbage pinnacles, which form the highest point on Staten Island.
In its various planning documents, the City of New York relies on a profusion of images of what the dump will look like in the future—icons of wholesomeness and gleaming grass, nature groomed into polite submission and peopled with model citizens (not a single one of whom is fat). They are meant to prove its point that Fresh Kills is not a badge of shame, not a showcase of environmental insult and collective wastefulness, but rather a great natural resource that argues the versatility and tenacity of nature.
It came as a shock to me to realize, a few years ago, how hospitable and appealing a garbage dump is to a broad range of species. The raw garbage, of course, is an irresistible food source to birds. Besides the wheeling, screaming flocks of inevitable gulls, I have seen a heron virtually under the treads of a dozer while a pheasant went about its tranquil business less than 100 feet away. Virtually ineradicable, weeds colonize the mounds at the speed of the wind, and trees follow suit shortly after. The hares and rabbits, squirrels and other vegetarians move in probably only months after the weeds arrive. It’s hardly surprising that one of the visitors on our tour discovers deer droppings on South Mound.
This swift recuperation notwithstanding, for me it is a little more difficult to ignore what’s underfoot: a seething leachate stew bubbling up new chemical compounds, made up of manual typewriters, half-eaten hot dogs, cabbage leaves, love letters, safety pins, office chairs, paint thinner, tampons, lawn mowers, cigarette butts and yoghurt cups. All sorts of things once loved and then discarded. Barbie dolls and baseball gloves. Things no one ever cared for overmuch that were pitched in a trash can without a thought. Candy wrappers, potato peels, and nail clippings. It’s not so much that it’s wrong to ignore the garbage, it’s just a lot more interesting to think about. Hospital waste. Communion dresses and baptismal gowns. Dead rabbits. Incinerator ash.
The CLUI people describe Fresh Kills as “an undulating, dripping, vented bio-reactor of artificial organic decay, covered by a thin lid of soil.” Which is not to say it doesn’t have a great future as a recreational park.
Fresh Kills served New York City for a little over 50 years, from 1948 to 2001. The garbage, originally meant just to fill up the tidal marsh to pave the way for residential development, reaches some 20 to 40 feet down into the water without benefit of a liner. While the city planners paint a rosy picture of its environmental impact, the authors of Rubbish claim that the dump “pours a million gallons of leachate into New York Harbor every day.” Indeed, of all garbage dumps investigated by the University of Arizona Garbage Project, Fresh Kills was the only one that offered up evidence of advanced biodegradation, presumably because the tides continually wash the garbage, stimulating bacterial action—which in turn creates leachate. And the leachate flows into open water on the outgoing tides.
At its peak, the dump received 29,000 tons of garbage daily, which amounts to about 10 million tons a year. The barges arrived from the five boroughs around the clock. Just imagine the scene at dead of night in the middle of a winter storm: barges looming up out of the inky blackness, wind howling, cranes straining to transfer fresh garbage out of floodlit holds and into waiting trucks, which would disappear into the blackness themselves, only their headlights showing their progress up the face of the garbage mountains.
The four giant mounds are named for the compass points. North and South Mounds are the oldest and the smallest, at 250 and 345 acres respectively. At its highest point, North Mound is 146 feet above sea level. East Mound and West Mound, both larger and higher, are more recent and still in the process of being capped. West Mound, the tallest of the piles, will rise about 225 feet from the plain and spreads out over 500 acres. A September 11 memorial is planned for West Mound, to commemorate not only the tragedy but the fact that Fresh Kills was temporarily reopened after the attack to process debris and sort through the evidence. Some or all of the ash is buried there, making West Mound the final resting place for some of the victims.
In a photo I took from the summit of South Mound, I see some little ant-like scribbles on top of West Mound and realize with a shock that it must be the earth-moving equipment being used to place the cap. They are like a ruler in a picture of an archaeological find. If the dozers are so tiny that I never even noticed them with the naked eye, then the garbage mountain is 10 times bigger than I already thought it was. In fact, Fresh Kills takes up just about as much space as the lower third of Manhattan.
No matter what its spic-and-span future, Fresh Kills will always be a garbage dump. There are plenty of recreational parks in the U.S.—some of them quite large—where a despoiled nature is squeezed and groomed for the maximum convenience of an alienated people. But very few will have the same potential as Fresh Kills to invite us to reflect on who we are.