Streams

A Forest Grows on a Brooklyn Landfill

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Planting a tree requires an act of faith. They take years, sometimes decades to reach their prime. So, John McLaughlin’s faith in the future is something to admire. Because tree by tree, he’s planting a forest.

MCLAUGHLIN: Those are Virginia pine….there are three types of pine in here. Virginia pine, short leaf pine and pitch pine….

REPORTER: And not just any forest. This is going to be a Northeastern coastal woodland, using plants native to our area and selected specifically for this site. McLaughlin’s also planting native drought-resistant grasses...wildflowers.…holly, swamp azalea…even prickly pear cactus.

McLAUGHLIN: Here’s the cactus. When you look at it this time of year, it’s like, eek, It looks all shriveled up…that’s its normal characteristic this time of year.

REPORTER: McLaughlin’s forest will someday cover two Brooklyn landfills, the Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue landfills. You can see their big, grassy mounds along the Belt Parkway, near exit 14. Usually, the Department of Sanitation handles landfills. But the Department of Environmental Protection got involved in the early 90s. It took control of Penn, Fountain, and two other landfills, after the feds banned ocean dumping. Ultimately, the DEP found other ways to get rid of its sludge, but it still has these old landfills to deal with. And that’s where John McLaughlin comes in. He’s DEP’s Director of Ecological Services.

McLAUGHLIN: The Department saw this as a great opportunity to take nearly 400 acres of open land near a very sensitive area such as Jamaica Bay and convert it to ecologically valuable habitat.

REPORTER: Once a landfill is capped, and covered with soil…once its dangerous methane gas and toxic ooze are dealt with….it seems logical to try to restore its ecology. But the DEP is not required to do this. And it's relatively new idea.

SAUER: The regulations required that you grow turf, lawn, basically, and mow it for 30 years. The problem is, it certainly has nothing to do with a very useful end use in the area.

REPORTER: That’s Leslie Jones Sauer, the founder of Andropogen Associates, which pioneered the concept of environmentally-sustainable landscape design. In the late 80s, John McLaughlin was part of a team charged with the future of the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. At two thousand, two hundred acres, Fresh Kills would make a mighty big lawn…so the team asked Sauer’s firm to come up with something else. First things first, Sauer told them: you’ll need more dirt.

SAUER: the problem we encountered in looking at the regulatory requirements is that they required very little soil on top of that impermeable cap. And the idea of supporting any vegetation for a long haul was really kind of bogus.

REPORTER: If you put at least three feet of soil over a landfill’s plastic or clay cap, she told McLaughlin, you can avoid decades of lawn care. You can restore a native landscape that will take care of itself. And you can even start planting…..trees! The idea was heretical to landfill engineers. Steven Handel is an ecology professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

HANDEL: There was terrible concern that the roots of trees would push down through the cap, make holes and then rainwater would get into the garbage and cause a lot of pollution problems in our waterways. This concern grows out of something that every New Yorker sees, which is roots pushing up sidewalks. Roots are strong. But of course, a young root is very, very different. It’s weak. When a young root hits a cap, it turns, and then rides the soil above the cap. It never goes in.

REPORTER: Handel conducted experiments at Fresh Kills to prove his point.

HANDEL: we had to spend three years convincing the regulators in Albany that that would happen. After those tests succeeded at Fresh Kills, the folks at the Sanitation Department said, we know this will work, let’s start doing this elsewhere.

REPORTER: Fresh Kills is now closed, and the city has a draft master plan for turning it into a park. But the $20 million ecological restoration of the Pennsylvania and Fountain Avenue landfills is years ahead of it. John McLaughlin doesn’t want this forest to fail, so he's painstakingly mimicking what he's learned from other coastal forests. He’s analyzed each load of dirt, down to the macro and micronutrients. He’s got each tree and shrub barcoded, with information like what nursery they came from, and when they were planted. He’s studied each species’ ratio in the wild, and his planting is guided by a computer-generated design plan and a global position system. Landscape designer Leslie Jones Sauer says McLaughlin has taken her ideas, and has run with them..

SAUER: It’s one thing to plant a seed. It’s another thing for someone to put in years and years and years of rigorous work to really do something very, very well.

REPORTER: I tell McLaughlin that his ability to hold a vision for this barren and challenging site is akin to that of the 19th century duo who created Central Park out of a Manhattan swamp.

REPORTER (Off Mic): I’m telling you, Olmstead and Vaux. With a little help from computers and satellites.

McLAUGHLIN: don’t even go there. Don’t even go there. This was the right thing to do.

REPORTER: This is WNYC.

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