Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Former Linden Landfill Now a Wildlife Refuge

When some people think of NJ, they think of dank, sad, industrialized places like Linden. And, then, you hear about something like this and remember that even places like this can be put back in their proper state.

Courtesy NJ.com

LINDEN — Along the trail, you walk under the forest canopy and then out onto a bridge over a tidal wetland. The briny smell stings your nostrils.
Small chirping birds zip by, flies buzz in your face and the wind rustles grasses coating a tall hill to the east. For many parts of the Garden State, this is not a remarkable sight.
But that hill, 100 feet tall and stretching for dozens of acres, is actually a tomb filled with decades of trash from surrounding communities — places that are not so far away that they can’t be heard in the distance.
The Linden Landfill, once one of the most problematic — and fined — in the state, has now been converted into a natural setting in the midst of one of the most historically industrialized parts of New Jersey: the Tremley Point section of Linden.
Five years of planning and work culminated with the opening last week of Hawk Rise Sanctuary.
The 95-acre preserve and wetland complex in Union County is carved right around the former landfill, which is now capped. The preserved forests and wetlands now host a variety of wildlife, including more than 120 species of birds, according to environmentalists.
linden-wildlife-preserve2.JPGView full sizeThe Linden Landfill, once one of the most problematic in the state, has now been converted into a natural setting in the midst of one of the most historically industrialized parts of New Jersey: the Tremley Point section of Linden.
The place is an estuary location, where the currents of the freshwater Rahway River mingle and tug back and forth with the tides of the salty Arthur Kill. For centuries it’s been a bird habitat, no matter what humans have done to the land and the water. But now it’s a natural oasis set aside for people to enjoy, too.
"This is a pretty area," said David Couto, a junior at Raritan Valley Community College as he walked the trail to train for an internship with the New Jersey Audubon Society. "Right in the middle of Linden — I had no idea."
For years, the 55-acre landfill had been a point of contention between the state and city. Originally slated to close in 1982, the city-owned landfill continued accepting waste until 2000, Mayor Richard Gerbounka said. In the meantime, Linden racked up nearly $1 million in fines from the state Department of Environmental Protection for various violations. Eventually, Gerbounka said, the city closed and capped the landfill, at cost of $13.5 million.
As part of a 2007 settlement over the outstanding fines, the city agreed to invest the $1 million and develop the nature preserve. Linden invested an additional $1 million to develop 1½ miles of trails and other improvements, the mayor said.
linden-wildlife-preserve.JPGView full sizeThe former Linden Landfill is now a wildlife refuge. Kelly Wenzel, left, project coordinator of the Urban Education program at N.J. Audobon, conducts a tour of the refuge for RVCC students Michael Hennessey, middle, of Basking Ridge, and David Couto, right, of Bridgewater.
At the same time, the DEP committed $1 million in state Green Acres funding, including funds from a separate settlement with Merck & Co. over groundwater contamination in the area.
Before the landfill closed, Linden Historical Society president Beatrice Bernzott was instrumental in getting an adjacent piece of land preserved. That tract, consisting of several dozen acres the city wanted to use for a recycling center and golf course, instead became part of the Hawk Rise.
"It was Cancer Alley for years," said Bernzott, 83. "But Hawk Rise is the future for Linden."
Plans call for harvesting methane from the landfill for energy, as well as installing solar panels and windmills to produce clean energy, Gerbounka said.
Though the process of closing the landfill was sometimes "frustrating," he said, the DEP had good intentions and he’s now happy with the results.
"I’m not an environmentalist," Gerbounka said, "but I’m excited."
Tucked between the red maple, pin oak and sweetgum trees, groundwater testing wells still stick out of the ground along the trail, but aquatic and plant life are flourishing, said Kelly Wenzel, New Jersey Audubon’s project coordinator for the site.
linden-wildlife-preserve4.JPGView full sizeThe former Linden Landfill is now a wildlife refuge. Raritan Valley Community College student Emily Willoughby, of Belle Mead, uses her binoculars to scope out the wildlife refuge.
A herd of deer has even taken up residence in the relatively small preserve, which sits just east of Routes 1&9 and is surrounded by industry, the municipal animal shelter and a gun range. Wenzel said birds in particular look to the preserve on their migratory flights.
"When birds are flying by, this is the one (undeveloped) dark spot in the area," she said, adding that the Linden school system plans to bring students there for science field trips.
Wolf Skacel, the DEP’s assistant commissioner for compliance and enforcement, said the nature of his job doesn’t normally get him warm welcomes. But it’s been different as his office and Linden have worked together.
"It takes an urban environment and allows people within a few minutes to get into a wild place," Skacel said of the preserve. "What they’ve done is take an inaccessible piece of property and turn it into a park that is for everybody."

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