Sorry, Landfill Closed

Somewhere, alongside a typical road in middle America, sits a forgotten landfill. Maybe once, long ago, this dump was state-of-the-art. But now, the landfill is stagnant and abandoned — and no one knows who is responsible for it. People just hold their noses and ignore it, until the day when methane gas or leachate begins to seep into their backyards.

The reality is that this scenario was much more common 10 years ago than it is today. With Subtitle D regulations, it is rare that landfills close without the proper care — and it is even more uncommon to find sites with no readily identifiable responsible party. These days, states are much better at keeping track of their active and inactive permitted landfills.

Still, with landfills opening and closing all the time, and with states allowed wide discretion in how they maintain their landfill databases, it is difficult to determine how many closed landfills exist. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that untold numbers of abandoned, pre-Subtitle D landfills may have fallen off the books — becoming “orphan” landfills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., does not keep a database of closed landfills, and efforts to nail down the states on their numbers have been only moderately successful.

So, what's happening at these sites, and who's minding the store?

Crunching the Numbers

In 1991, the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), part of the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C., conducted a survey on landfill capacity that attempted to determine the number of municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills that had closed in the previous five years. At that time, solid waste officials were not able to provide consistent, comprehensive data about the number of landfills in existence and the number that had closed. Inconsistent databases, landfill definitions and survey periods largely were to blame.

In fact, responses were so divergent that NSWMA compared its findings with those of five other similar surveys and published both the highest and lowest numbers in each state, so that readers could figure a mean. By doing so, NSWMA concluded that a reasonable estimate of the number of landfills in existence at that time was around 6,600. EPA official Dwight Hlustick estimates that figure to have been closer to 10,000 landfills a decade ago.

Today, Hlustick says only about 2,600 are thought to be in operation.

It stands to reason, then, that the number of known landfills that have closed in the past 10 years is about 4,000 (if you follow NSWMA), and maybe as high as 7,400 (if you use EPA's numbers). But this figure may even be higher, considering that new landfills have been constructed since that time.

Today, the process of gathering information about closed landfills is so daunting that no comprehensive survey exists to update the work NSWMA started 10 years ago. Still, an informal glance at several states shows that many have closed a significant number of landfills in the past decade — many cutting the number of active landfills by at least half.

In California, for example, the NSWMA survey shows that the Golden State had about 340 landfills in 1991. Last year, the state placed that number around 176. Florida, which reported about 170 in 1991, now maintains about 95 active Class 1, 2 and 3 landfills, according to the state website. In South Dakota, which had a widely divergent report in 1991 — varying from 36 to 270 landfills, depending on the surveying organization — reports only 15 active landfills today.

In Virginia, which in recent years has weathered a firestorm of debate over its acceptance of out-of-state waste, more landfills actually have been closed than have opened. “There's a misconception among some people that landfills are proliferating in Virginia,” Tim Hayes, a representative of the Virginia Waste Industries Association, Richmond, said in 1998, while advocating for a surcharge on tipping fees to fund the closure of substandard landfills. “The truth is that the construction of Subtitle D facilities has made possible the closure of hundreds of substandard landfills throughout the state. In the late 1980s, there were approximately 400 landfills operating in Virginia. Today, there are less than 100.”

Texas reports that it has closed more than 700 landfills since 1986 and now is operating 176 active sites, including just under 90 Subtitle D landfills. In 1993, when concerns about landfill gas migration and groundwater contamination spurred state and federal legislation such as Subtitle D, the Texas legislature required that the state maintain an inventory of its closed landfills, according to Jeff Davis, team leader in MSW permits for the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, Austin.

The process to build the inventory was wide-ranging. “They went through county correspondence files — any source of information about these old landfills — including the guy saying that when he grew up, there was a dump at the end of the street,” Davis says.

Even if states are more cognizant of their closed sites than ever, many landfills still face complications when their post-closure care periods begin.

Paying for Post-Closure

To get a permit to operate a landfill under Subtitle D regulations, landfill owners and operators must have a plan for the site's closure and ongoing care for at least 30 years after closure. The first step is containment, which includes appropriate caps, covers and liners to prevent infiltration and subsurface drainage. Usually, landfill gas extraction systems or leachate recirculation systems are installed as well.

Operators also need to show that they have adequate funding sources for post-closure care and may be asked to identify possible end uses for the landfill site once it closes. Generally speaking, cover systems can cost up to tens of thousands — even reaching six figures — per acre. To properly cap and close a landfill easily can run in the millions of dollars.

As a result of such regulations, there is not much wiggle room for shady operators to duck and run once a landfill has reached the end of its useful life. “With Subtitle D you can't abandon a landfill,” says Edward Repa, director of environmental programs for NSWMA. “Now you have to start with a closure and post-closure plan that lasts for 30 years and come up with the money to pay for all that. So we don't really have orphan sites anymore.”

Still, most states have set aside funds to help pick up the tab for post-closure care if the money is not available, for whatever reason. Some facilities have set up an escrow fund where money goes in on a per ton, weekly or monthly basis to take care of post-closure. In other cases, part of the tipping fee is set aside for this purpose.

“I think the states have forced the companies to put substantial amounts of money aside to fund the closure and the post-closure care period,” says Chris Campman, chair of the landfill division for the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md., and manager for solid waste for Gannett Fleming Inc., Valley Forge, Pa. “Then you have to maintain it for a minimum 30 years, and that's been a big financial issue at many of the sites. [Some operators] put enough money aside for the closure, but not for the post-closure care.” Sometimes, facility operators even intentionally underestimate the costs to pay less now and worry about tomorrow's costs later, Campman says.

The most responsible waste companies, such as Waste Management Inc., Houston, are taking a proactive approach to landfill closure now. Although the company will not divulge the number of closed landfills it manages, it has created an entire department that is devoted solely to landfill closure issues. The company has area managers across the country that are knowledgeable about the applicable laws and regulations in their regions.

“Closed landfills follow the same internal guidance, the same procedures and policies [as active sites],” says Dee Brncich, Waste Management's vice president for closed site management. “Compliance at closed landfills is the same as it is with active landfills. There's no difference in their long-term care.”

Still, orphaned landfills do exist. In some cases, today's complex solid waste and environmental quality departments may be inadvertent barriers to keeping tabs on orphan sites. “We have a separate solid waste program to monitor operating landfills, but for landfills that were already closed before our program started, there's nobody there to take care of the land,” says Kevin Dana, natural resource specialist for Oregon's orphan sites program, which monitors and cleans up abandoned landfills and industrial sites [see “A Home for Oregon Orphans” at left]. “It's a jurisdictional thing.”

Furthermore, when viewed against heavily contaminated industrial sites, the problems facing landfills may pale in comparison or be difficult to discern — leaving closed or orphaned landfills to languish while urban Brownfields are redeveloped.

Planning for the Future

Nevertheless, landfills increasingly are being redeveloped as parks, soccer fields, golf courses and even landing strips for model airplanes. In many cases, the only problem faced by site managers is a little settlement of the waste. The state of Massachusetts, for example, has been particularly proactive when it comes redeveloping its landfills. The municipalities of Boston, Yarmouth and Cambridge all have redeveloped landfills into parks — with other towns siting businesses atop closed landfills.

According to, a clearinghouse of information about landfill redevelopment, nearly 70 golf courses have been built on landfills in the past four decades. In New Jersey, for example, a new plan will replace about 1,000 acres of landfill with 72 holes worth of golf courses and a resort. EnCap Golf Holdings, Tampa, plans to build the courses on one active and five orphaned landfills south of the Meadowlands Sports Complex. Once the land is leased to EnCap by the local development commission, the company will pay to cap the site, which some have estimated to cost as high as $50 million.

Although Subtitle D has rendered closed landfills safer to redevelop, these sites are not without their problems. They tend to be larger, higher above grade and have steeper slopes than “virgin” sites, which can make the design of a park or golf course more challenging. Also, because developers cannot cut into the cap, oftentimes more dirt needs to be filled in over the site, adding to construction costs.

State regulatory agencies may require operators to come up with an end-use for a facility once it closes, but Campman estimates that less than 10 to 15 percent of closed landfills wind up as anything more than big green mounds. “Of the sites that we were involved in, or that I was involved in over the years, I know of only two or three [out of about 20 that were further developed],” Campman says. “The golf courses on landfills that I've played on have been really nice. But it's still a challenge getting a developer to take the risk of building on a landfill.”

Of course, the answer to this challenge is education. If more states work to maintain accurate databases of their closed landfills and make sure that remediation is adequately funded, and as increasing numbers of regulated Subtitle D landfills close, then maybe one day in the future, that dump at the end of the street will no longer be forgotten. It may even be a thriving place to take the kids, to tell them about the days when no one wanted a closed landfill in their backyard.

Kim A. O'Connell is a contributing editor based in Arlington, Va. For more information about landfills, visit

A Home for Oregon Orphans

At least one state has made the decision to not let its orphan landfills be forgotten. The state of Oregon has implemented an orphan site program to monitor and remediate landfills, Brownfields and other industrial sites that have been left for dead.

In some cases, these are landfills that closed prior to the implementation of Subtitle D regulations and may be causing soil or groundwater contamination. In other cases, owners may have gone out of business or are unable to afford cleanup.

Often, the state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Portland, can determine the cause of hazardous contamination and can make those legally responsible pay to clean up the site. But it is sometimes impossible to determine the source of the pollution, and the state would rather proceed with remediation than wait months or years to force a responsible party to pay up. In some cases, it cleans up the site first and then looks to recoup the costs later.

To pay for the cleanups, the Oregon dips into two funds set up in 1991 by the state legislature. Landfill cleanups are paid for through a solid waste orphan site account that is funded by a special assessment on tipping fees. The cleanup of industrial sites is funded through the sale of long-term bonds. So far, more than $25 million has been issued in bond money.

“We had a few sites that were high priority but didn't have any responsible party,” says Kevin Dana, natural resource specialist for DEQ's orphan sites program. “In 1991, when the legislature started our orphan site program, it gave us the authority to sell bonds, from which we get money to clean the sites up. … There was a separate fee set up for landfills, either abandoned or closed. It's only recently that we tapped into that.”

The landfill in question was the Killingsworth Fast Disposal site in Portland, which accepted construction, industrial and non-putrescible municipal waste until it reached capacity in 1990. At that point, the site's owners capped the site with a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) liner and several feet of soil, and even installed a landfill gas extraction program. Several years later, however, the company had long since gone bankrupt and the extraction system had begun to fail, so the state stepped in. Today, the city of Portland has offered to buy the site, take over post-closure care and turn the site into a park.

Dana points out that the state is not responsible for ensuring that these sites get developed, only that they are properly remediated and monitored. With the orphan site database, the state has the information about contamination that developers are looking for when they get involved with one of these sites.

“Some of the really old [landfills] don't even have the liners or caps, or they aren't anywhere near what we would require now,” Dana says. “In the future, we'll explain to [developers] what the problems were out there and if there was anything that would affect how they would redevelop the site.”

For more information about Oregon's orphan site program, visit
Kim A. O'Connell