Reclaiming Eden

AMERICANS OFTEN THINK of Beirut as a dangerous place — where 260 U.S. Marines died when a truck filled with explosives crashed into a military compound. That happened in 1983, eight years into a civil war that lasted until 1990 and devastated the city. Today, Beirut is striving to overcome the vestiges of war and to recapture its proud heritage — in part with a landfill.

With 1.2 million people, Beirut is the capital and heart of Lebanon, a country once called the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” thanks to its political stability, financial strength and progressive arts community. One of the foundations for the program to rebuild the city is the reclamation of an old-fashioned dump in front of the historic downtown business district.

During the civil war, the West Side of the city couldn't move waste to the processing plant in East Beirut, so people threw their garbage into the Mediterranean Sea, explains Amine Bouonk, a project manager with the San Francisco-based URS Corp., which has been retained to reclaim the dump. “The landfill wasn't built, it evolved,” he says. Random dumping began in 1975 and continued until 1993. Refuse included day-to-day trash in plastic bags, medical wastes, animal carcasses, unexploded munitions found after battles and construction debris from buildings destroyed during the conflict. One of those buildings, the Normandy Hotel, gave the dump its name: the Normandy Landfill.

Throughout the years, 6.5 million cubic yards of refuse compounded in the Normandy Landfill, creating a 55-acre peninsula jutting out from the rubble in downtown. In 1994, the Lebanese government commissioned a private company to rebuild and renovate Beirut's Central District. Referred to as Solidere, the company's formal name is The Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District.

Solidere, among its many tasks, plans to develop the Normandy Landfill with high-rise buildings and a park. Before that can be done, however, the landfill must be reclaimed. Solidere retained URS, a consulting and engineering firm, to assist with reclamation work, which is expected to last until spring 2004. The total cost is estimated at $58 million.

URS began work in 1997 and, over the years, has dealt with countless excavation challenges. Heavy machine operators, for example, must keep their eyes peeled for unexploded munitions — the rockets, mines and grenades that made their way into the dump with building debris. To protect operators from explosives, the cabs of heavy equipment have been surrounded with blast-resistant shields. So far, nothing has exploded. “We have been very lucky,” Bouonk says.

Excavators and other workers also survey for biohazards such as animal carcasses and medical wastes. URS follows biohazard safety procedures recommended by the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). A specially trained team deals with these problems while wearing protective suits and face respirators. “When we find carcasses, we take tissue samples and send them to the U.K. to be tested for anthrax and other hazards,” Bouonk says.

At the beginning of the reclamation, methane gas created concerns. Given the age of the landfill, much of the methane had dissipated, but some pockets remained. Consequently, URS designed mobile flare systems that traveled ahead of excavators, located pockets and flared them safely.

In addition to addressing methane gas issues, workers have had to excavate approximately 65 percent of the dump, which was built up underwater. The material has been dried in huge windrows. After excavation, all materials go to presorting stations where screens separate large objects such as tires, rocks, building stones, tree trunks and steel beams.

After the debris is sorted, some materials are composted. But given the age of the landfill, URS has found little un-decomposed waste. Nevertheless, all materials undergo tests that search for metals, volatile organics and other hazardous materials. The tests are conducted in a lab built onsite.

Another reclamation obstacle has been an abundance of plastic film, mainly in the form of plastic bags. According to Bouonk, plastic film comprised approximately 10 percent of the landfill volume. URS originally planned to bale the film and use it for fill in the park, but the quantity of plastic was so high it “would have created another landfill,” Bouonk says. Thus, the company turned to pelletizing technology, developed by Salzhausen, Germany-based Salmatec, to reduce every 10 cubic yards of plastic to 1 cubic yard.

Although the challenges in reclaiming the Normandy Landfill have been extraordinary, the fruit of their labor, project leaders say, will be worth the sweat and the cost: A historic city will arise not just from trash but also from the spoils of war.