Methane Brings New York $12 Million a Year as Dump Becomes Park

Methane Collection
Methane is collected and purified on the edge of Freshkills Park on Staten Island. More than 170,000 feet of piping connects a vast complex of gas captured from the old landfill. Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

Everyone asks the same question about Staten Island’s Fresh Kills, once the world’s largest garbage dump.

Does it smell?

On a recent tour of these now-green rolling hills on New York’s other island borough, I learn the answer is yes, in fact, the place smells like spring.

Much of the site, which will eventually comprise 2,200 acres and hides more than a half-century of trash, is covered in switchgrass, wildflowers and trees. This capping of garbage mountains isn’t merely a coverup, however. Under the greenery is a vast reservoir of methane, a byproduct of decaying organic matter.

The last of the big mounds of garbage is being capped by an impermeable plastic liner and soil, and soon any evidence that this was an enormous trash heap will be hard to find.

“The Parks Department has not yet come and done any modification to the landscape, but as you can see, Mother Nature had already taken over,” says Carrie Grassi, outreach manager for what is called Freshkills Park. “It’s really exciting for us because the site is already starting to come back.”

So is the wildlife. Deer, muskrat and fox have returned to these tidal wetlands. I see several red-winged blackbirds and white egrets, and a pair of nesting ospreys perched in an aerie over Main Creek. The one bird I don’t see, oddly enough, is a garbage-dump staple, the seagull.

‘Sneak Peak’

Another species coming to Freshkills these days is the human. The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation is hosting events -- walking tours, birding excursions and, this summer, boating -- to introduce people to a space three times the size of Central Park. A recent event called “Sneak Peak” attracted a small throng.

“We expected five or six hundred people,” Grassi says. “We got 2,000. It was great to see the reactions, especially of the people who live in Staten Island and expected to see garbage. They can get quite emotional, which is an amazing thing to see.”

As for the methane, The New York City Department of Sanitation has been tapping into that reservoir for more than 10 years, harvesting and purifying the methane, then selling it to energy company National Grid.

Fresh Kills has been generating five million cubic feet of usable methane every day for more than 10 years, enough energy to heat 25,000 to 30,000 homes. The city says it takes in around $1 million a month from the sale of the gas. How long can this keep up?

Pipes and Tanks

“There’s no easy way to answer that,” says Ted Nabavi, director of waste-management engineering for the Sanitation Department. “Depending on a number of factors, it could be 10, 15 years or more.” He pauses before adding, “Or less.”

Nabavi presides over a trailer-like office flanked by dozens of pipes, holding tanks, and gas-purification apparatus. Inside are large-screen computer terminals from which the entire complex can be monitored. Outside, in their own building, twin 1,500-horsepower engines (powered by methane, of course) pump the gas out of the mounds.

“We have 600 gas-collection wells throughout the site, and over 170,000 feet of piping,” says Nabavi. If the Sanitation Department didn’t grab the methane, it would build up and pose expensive dangers. Even now some of the methane has to be flared off from time to time. Fortunately the wells and flare-off sites are mostly unobtrusive in the growing park and will be capped over in time.

Freshkills Park will also feature other environmentally inclined conveniences, such as solar panels for parking-lot lights, a tree nursery and composting toilets. The Parks Department is even looking into the feasibility of placing a few windmills on the hilltops.

Waste Problem Remains

This encouraging scene shouldn’t give people the impression that the problem of waste has been solved. The city still generates 12,000 tons of waste from residences and a further 13,000 tons from commercial sources -- every day. This relentless sea of garbage is trucked, shipped and railroaded to other states, which are paid to take out the city’s trash.

Nevertheless, dreams of solar power and windmills on a vast parkland, all atop a gigantic garbage dump, is an inspiring vision. So yes, it does smell. It smells good.

(The Parks Department will have another “Sneak Peak” on Oct. 2, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.)

(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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