California Landfill's Landmark Status Under Review

In her first wave of landmark nominations since taking office this spring, Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton named the nation's first trench method landfill one of 15 sites placed on the National Register of Historic Places this summer, but she quickly rescinded the honor after learning of the landfill's toxic history.

The Fresno Municipal Sanitary landfill was named a national historic landmark on Aug. 27 by Secretary Norton. Only later was she informed that the landfill was placed on the Superfund list in 1989, two years after it closed. Norton rescinded the honor on Aug. 28, saying that the department was not notified of the landfill's status.

The honor was recommended by the National Park Service Advisory Board, who initially overlooked the site's Superfund listing.

According to Cindy Wood, a park service spokeswoman, “When [the Fresno landfill] went through the approval process, it was not clear to officials that it was a Superfund site.” She adds that once the deputy director discovered the truth, he asked Norton to rescind the honor until it could be discussed further.

Prior to making its initial decision, the park service and Department of the Interior consulted with Dr. Martin Melosi, a professor of history at the University of Houston and an expert on the history of sanitation innovations in the United States. Melosi says he included the landfill's toxic history in his footnotes to the department and says that the landfill's toxicity should not change the fact that it is has been a symbolic landmark for public health.

California's Fresno landfill was the first to use the trenching method of covering trash with dirt every day, rather than burning it or letting it sit. The trenching method led to a significant reduction in animal infestations and set a national standard still used today.

The problem with the 145-acre landfill is that it was never lined, causing methane gas and other substances to leak into the groundwater and surrounding land. The site was placed on the Superfund list in 1989, two years after it closed. The landfill was in operation for 50 years, from 1937 to 1987.

Since 1989, nearly $38 million has been spent on the landfill's cleanup, which contains about 79 million cubic yards of waste. The site has been capped, the methane gas vented and the water treated. The site currently is being transformed into a park and sports complex.

Proponents of the measure to place the landfill back on the landmark list note that other national historic landmarks, such as mines in Montana, also are Superfund sites.

The National Park Service says that the landfill's designation was part of a movement to document the history of civil engineering in the United States.

The case currently is being reviewed by the National Park Service advisory board. No further information was available at press time.