Turning Jamaica Bay landfills into park space

Turning a toxic landfill into a family friendly park is significantly more complicated than it sounds.

That was the message Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Director of Ecological Services John McLaughlin delivered at a comprehensive and technical lecture on restoring Brooklyn’s Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue landfills.

Held at the Metropolitan Exchange (33 Flatbush Ave.) on January 26 in downtown Brooklyn, the lecture was co-sponsored by the Exchange and the New York City Parks Department, to expose community activist, graduate student planners, and landscape architects to a long-term restoration process that could revitalize Jamaica Bay.

“This isn’t an aesthetic project, this is a long-term ecological project,” said McLaughlin.

The Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue landfills, which together consist of over 400 acres of land on the eastern coast of Brooklyn, are currently being remediated by the DEP in a $200 million program. The sites operated as working landfills in the 1950s and 1960s, though oil contaminated with PCBs and metals leached into Jamaica Bay and the landfills were closed in 1980.

Now, native grasses, flowers and saplings have spiked through the plowed-over land that has undergone a restoration effort since 2004. McLaughlin, who designed and oversees restored the landfill for the DEP, spoke to a crowd of 50 about the multitude of steps it took to remove contamination and work with contractors to add soils and plants to remake one of the most toxic environments in Brooklyn.

“Ask for references from your contractors. One contractor said he would plant carrots to prevent soil erosion,” said McLaughlin, adding that this contractor was not chosen for the project.

The impetus for this talk came from Fresh Kills Parks advocates’ interest in presenting lectures on topics that relate to landfills and ecological restoration, particularly those that use new sustainable technologies.

“It exposed lots of people who may or may not do this for a living just how complex it is to restore sites that may be compromised in some way. The city is filled with sites that have been dumped on, filled with other things. This was a presentation that demonstrated really clearly what is involved in making something that is very badly damaged into something that’s beautiful,” said Eloise Hirsch, a Parks Department administrator with the Fresh Kills Park in Staten Island, who moderated the lecture.

Converting a landfill into a park is far from unusual. From Flushing Meadow to Pelham Bay, hundreds of acres of parkland in the city were landfills at one time. The Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue landfills, while not open to the public yet, are on their way to becoming parks.

“People cannot get out and walk around this thing. Not yet. No one from the Parks Department that has been assigned to this site yet, but they hope to one day. Definitely in the future,” said Hirsch.

The vision for the park is a prairie-like landscape rather than a flat green space with ball fields. There is still contamination which has not been removed nor is easy to remove, including chemicals such as benzene and thymine, which the DEP chose to encapsulate.

“What do you do in 80 to 100 years? If I were still around in 90 to 100 years, we hopefully figure this out. Right now it is an immediate environmental threat,” said McLaughlin.

For now, McLaughlin is focusing on the present problems of how to dispatch a frustrating vole problem, which are chewing through the roots and stems of new saplings, and balancing the ecological need for predatory birds with the concerns of the nearby Port Authority.

“Creating a wildlife refuge which is a habitat for birds is bothersome to the Port Authority. The fact that the airport is sitting on a wildlife refuge is lost on some people,” said McLaughlin.