Once known for their putrid odors, the former Fountain and Pennsylvania landfills are being transformed into a lush greenery with birds and butterflies fluttering on bluffs overlooking Jamaica Bay.
And last week, a host of nature-loving citizens, earth science instructors, city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) workers and National Park Rangers toured the former landfills to see the work in progress.
The 400-acre sites in total, just off the Belt Parkway near Spring Creek Towers, served as city garbage landfills for over 30 years.
“The landfills were permanently closed in 1985 and then the DEP took over around 1991 and were forced to do something because the city was being sued by the feds to the tune of $25,000 per day,” said Lee Shelley, chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue Restoration.
Shelley explained that the federal government declared the landfills a Superfund site around 1990, meaning they were among the top environmentally hazardous sites nationally.
The federal government then allocated $220 million toward cleaning it up, he said.
Thus the DEP contracted the engineering services of URS Corporation, which studied the situation in the 1990s before putting a liner over the landfill to stop any leeching, followed by a series of soils and plantings, with the idea of returning it to its natural coastal forestland.
Queens College Earth Science Professor Peter Schmidt said whereas Prospect Park was designed to keep its already existing natural habitat, the landfills are an example of a completely man-made return to natural habitat.
Indeed, on the tour of the site last week, several bird and butterfly species were spotted fluttering amongst young saplings and native grassland.
The only odor emanating on top of the former landfill was that of sweet wildflowers coupled with the smell of salt marshes from Jamaica Bay on a sticky hot summer day.
Other birds already spotted in the new habitat include owls, egrets, swans and herons.
The site will continue to be maintained and monitored for weed control, said George Leahy, the URS chief engineer for the project.
The design also includes gently sloping plains, with the highest one in the Fountain Avenue landfill reaching 300 feet, or 125 feet above sea level, offering scenic views in every direction.
The plan calls for additional DEP monitoring as well as construction of a 350-500 vehicle parking facility, refreshment courts and comfort stations, and making both Penn and Fountain Park disability accessible.
In 2012, both former landfills will be turned over to the National Park Service where the sites will become part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.
In the meantime, Shelley said the advisory committee will continue its advocacy role in the redevelopment.
This includes raising money for a Jamaica Bay fishing pier, boat launching facilities, bicycle path, band shell/amphitheater and education program.
“We’re overjoyed with it. I was born here in East New York and I can remember spending my childhood sleeping many a night with that stench,” said Shelley. “Now when I walk there I feel so happy that the project is almost all done.”