Since its establishment in 1969, the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, now the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, has worked to ensure the proper control, closure and remediation of landfills throughout the Meadowlands District. In 1969, there were nearly 1,900 acres of unregulated landfills in the region. The NJSEA is in the process of permanently closing the sole remaining landfill in the District, which has already stopped accepting waste. In addition, environmental controls are in place to collect leachate, the liquid contaminant byproduct of landfill decomposition, and pump it to a regional sewage facility.
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The filling of wetlands in the Meadowlands started with the earliest settlers, who attempted to farm portions of the area through a series of dikes, and also built roads as a means to traverse the marshes. In the mid-1900s, the Meadowlands were viewed as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, unusable land that should either be drained or filled. With the increasing population in the surrounding area, the Meadowlands provided a convenient location for indiscriminant dumping and large-scale garbage disposal operations that filling what were commonly viewed as swamps. By today’s standards, these operations would be considered open dumps lacking any environmental controls.
When the agency was created by an act of the Legislature in 1969, the area had become home to almost daily, unregulated dumping of solid waste. Most of the open dumps that were operated prior to 1969 resulted in extensive filling of the region’s wetlands with no regard to environmental damage.
A 1970 study prepared for the agency by Zurn Environmental Engineers identified 51 individual locations of solid waste dumping operations within the Meadowlands District. These sites were placed into the categories of past and present operations, not counting locations where “midnight dumpers” routinely disposed solid waste.
Dumping practices at that time were characterized as “dump and push” operations. Trucks that arrived at the “dump” (landfill) would unload their contents and a machine would push loads on top or over the edge of the landfill. This did not allow for any compaction of the garbage, and debris from these sites would simply erode in an uncontrolled manner. Waste was also dumped into the Hackensack River with no environmental controls in place. Covering of the garbage was random at best, and fires at these sites were common-place.
In addition to closing many of these open dumps, the agency prevented the expansion of solid waste operations into another 1,400 acres of undisturbed wetlands, and instituted standards for compacting and covering solid waste years before such guidelines were promulgated on a statewide level. One of the agency’s solid waste planning goals has been to remediate many of these larger sites in the District by bringing them up to modern-day standards.
Remediation has included efforts to control the migration of leachate from the site by constructing perimeter cutoff walls and leachate collection systems.
One of the early efforts by the agency to manage solid waste more effectively was the construction of a baling facility, commonly known as “the baler,” in the North Arlington. The agency operated the baler from April 1980 until September 1997. Twin balers compacted waste into one-ton bales about the size of a refrigerator. The bales were brought to a landfill on a flatbed trailer, where they were off-loaded and stacked like bricks. Baling uses less landfill space, since more garbage is squeezed into the available area in the landfill. With bales, less soil is also needed for cover than with a traditional landfill. The agency leased the facility from 1998 to 2008 solely as a waste transfer station.
The facility was reopened in 2010 and is currently leased by the agency to a private operator as a multi-modal transfer facility that provides additional solid waste disposal capacity for the region. Waste from this facility is loaded into multi-modal containers that are brought by trailer to a rail facility and off-loaded onto railcars. This waste is then transported to out-of-state landfill facilities.
From 1996 to 2006, the agency leased composting sites atop two closed landfills in the District. Vegetative waste from northern New Jersey towns, including leaves, grass and brush, were composted to produce a topsoil product, while brush and tree parts were ground into mulch. This vegetative waste would otherwise take up landfill space. Beginning in 2006, the agency began leasing a single vegetative waste transfer facility. The waste deposited at the landfill today is brought to a separate location for composting.
Landfill Closure and Post Closure
The open dumps in the Meadowlands District in the early 1970s predated state environmental regulations and the establishment of the Authority, and all involved the filling of wetlands. In general, these operations entailed the excavation of the marsh soils and the backfilling of the wetlands with solid waste, with no thought toward environmental impact. Many of these open dumps were eventually “orphaned,” or abandoned, by their operators, who walked away from the sites without making environmental improvements or setting aside funds for closure.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, created on the first Earth Day in 1970, developed and implemented solid waste regulations. The former open dumps in the Meadowlands became heavily regulated and required site preparation, operational controls, capping, leachate collection and landfill gas recovery. In addition, the landfill operator was required to maintain all aspects of the landfill closure improvements for a minimum of 30 years following closure of a site.
There are two main by-products from the decomposition of solid waste in a landfill. When rainwater filters through the decomposing garbage at landfill sites, it produces leachate, a tea-colored liquid that can seep into the surrounding wetlands and eventually into local streams and rivers. Leachate contains a mix of contaminants, depending on the waste that is encountered when water flows downward. Another by-product of solid waste decomposition is landfill gas, a roughly 50/50 mix of methane and carbon dioxide. If left uncontrolled, these gases can build up and cause fires or explosions.
Over the years, the agency has remediated these former open dumps through the construction of perimeter cutoff walls that extend to a naturally occurring clay layer beneath the landfills. This clay layer meets or exceeds liner standards established by the state for vertical permeability, or the ability of water to pass through the soil. The cutoff wall design that was employed utilizes a vertical trench that extends into the underlying clay layer. Once stabilized, the trench is replaced by a cutoff wall that effectively isolates the landfills hydraulically from the surrounding wetlands, creating a “bathtub” for the leachate.
Once this perimeter vertical barrier is in place, a leachate collection system is constructed to gather the leachate within the landfill and maintain an established level. The agency has designed these systems so that the interior leachate level remains below the level of the wetlands surrounding the landfills. In the event that there is any migration of liquids through the cutoff wall, the liquid would tend to travel into the landfill, and not out to the wetlands. This state-of-the-art “inflow landfill” design has been used successfully throughout the country. The collected leachate is then pumped to a regional sewage treatment facility.
Landfill gas is collected from two sites in the District through a network of vertical wells that extend into the waste, and a web of collection pipes. These ultimately go to two central collection points.