Gas up the tank, drop the top, and set the GPS for the Fresno Sanitary Landfill. You’re going on a road trip to see where the modern sanitary landfill was born. You’re in for a real treat. Not only is this defunct, oblong hay-colored mound in the California desert a National Historic Landmark, but it’s also a Superfund site.
First, behold its 145 acres that stretch across the sunny California horizon. Then Google the Guide to Historic Architecture in Fresno, California to read up on its contribution to the modern world. Finally, become indignant at the fact that no one has yet placed a historical marker at the site.
This American monument is a mecca to hipster sanitation experts in the know. It is also the brainchild of public works impresario Jean Vincenz (1894-1989), who designed it in 1937. Like nerds everywhere, Vincenz was a master of his domain, his domain being the garbage dump. After studying the latest developments in dump technology in Seattle, New Orleans, and even Great Britain, he was determined to incorporate upgrades into the new Fresno site, then called the City Sewer Farm.
The first thing Vincenz did was a little PR hocus pocus. With a wave of a steam shovel, Ye Olde Town Dump became the sanitary landfill. (Never underestimate the power of semantics.) But his changes were more than smoke and mirrors. They were structural.
Here’s what he did:
- Planned the landfill as a series of compartmentalized trenches.
- Dug each trench and filled it before moving on to the next one.
- Each day, garbage was covered with dirt and compacted. This increased space and decreased pest activity.
Vincenz’s unique and lasting contribution to landfill design was to compact the garbage in trenches. No one had ever done this before, and yet it seems so simple. At the time, most of Fresno’s garbage was incinerated. Energy intense and not particularly sanitary.
Despite this new way of doing things, it took many years for the sanitary landfill to catch on in the rest of the country. But eventually Vincenz’s reputation grew and the Army Corps of Engineers came sniffing around and hired him away from sunny California. But he had started a trend: The oblong mound that looks just like the one in Anywhere, USA, today.
For 50 years, until it closed in 1987, the Fresno Sanitary Landfill welcomed the tired, the poor, the huddled refuse from local neighborhoods, devouring a total of 8 million cubic yards of trash. By that time it had become the nation’s oldest operating landfill, and ironically, a victim of its own success. The landfill had set in motion a chain of events that spelled its own demise.
Government officials, having seen that engineering and garbage go together like flotsam and jetsam, had tightened landfill regulations nationally as technology advanced. In particular, CERCLA—i.e., the Superfund program—responded to growing awareness of how trash can have a long-term detrimental impact on the environment.
Consequently, when the suits from the EPA came nosing around Fresno in the early 1980s, they smelled methane and vinyl chloride coming from decades of trapped and decaying garbage. Tests concluded that nasty stuff was leaking into water wells nearby. Onto the National Priorities List the landfill went.
New technology was added to old: The trenches were retrofitted with gas migration barriers that stopped methane from seeping into nearby homes. Volatile organic compounds were vacuumed out of the gas migration barriers. Wells were dug to monitor groundwater. Someone built a storm water management system and a landfill cap. Excess gas was flared off.
Meanwhile, the city delivered bottled water to the neighbors so they wouldn’t have to drink what came out of their tap. And so it goes—old garbage never dies, it simply fades to gases and pollution that must be monitored ad infinitum. The devil is in the details, and if you want to have a look, here they are.
One wonders how Vincenz took the news of his landfill’s obsolescence. His baby—from wunderkind to has-been within his own lifetime. He had long since moved on from Fresno, however. By 1960 he had worked his way up to becoming the president of the American Public Works Association, an organization that is now on the cutting edge of community sustainability and environmental stewardship.
The issue of garbage is more exciting than you might think. Looking for more literature? Try Martin Melosi’s book Garbage in the Cities: Refuse Reform and the Environment or Heather Rogers’ Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. You might end up with a few more road trips on your itinerary.