“Land is just too precious:” The landfill will become a huge natural park in 60 years

A view of the landscape at the new Hanover County Landfill. The bottom left tanks are filled with the effluent water from the cells, which is then treated as waste water. The park is set to become a 300-acre wildlife park in just a few generations. (Carl Blankenship/Port City Daily)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY – There is a constant whirlwind of birds circling the active cells of the New Hanover County Landfill.

County Environmental Management Director Joe Suleyman estimates it is 6,000 strong and composed entirely of three seabird species.

READ MORE: As Landfills Grow, New Hanover County Composting Program Needs Food

Viewing the site from a mound at the northern end of the landfill is a dramatic sight. There’s heavy machinery, an endless plume of flares of methane burning in a shack, impoundment pools constantly filling and curing a liquid Suleyman affectionately calls “junk juice.”

But the site is also nice. Covered in greenery, a wooded stretch of creek runs alongside it, and there’s surprisingly little smell. On the northern edge there are flower beds reserved for rare species.

It’s a preview of what the landfill should look like in 60 years.

In a few generations the site – located at 5210 US Hwy. 421 – will grow into the largest natural park the county could create. And it will stay that way forever because of what’s buried there rather than in spite of it.

Suleyman said it works like this: The county has about 30 years left to ingest trash at the site before it’s full. At that point the mounds, which begin to look like nightmarish Mesoamerican pyramids of garbage, will be covered in layers of material specially created to prevent what lies beneath from appearing. The root ball is then planted on top of that material.

Then the site sits empty for a minimum of 30 years while the county monitors it as mandated by federal law. The federal regulation also means that the site will have no use beyond becoming a park after landfill operations stop.

County spokesman Alex Riley said the landfill was one of the few types of properties where permanent structures, such as homes or commercial spaces, could never be built because they would puncture the membrane materials. The park will pose no threat to that barrier. Any shelters and picnic tables will be aboveground and the on-site restrooms will be converted from existing office buildings.

“At the end of those 30 years, you have to prove that the landfill is no longer settling; no more gas is created; it does not generate wastewater, nor does it erode side slopes,” Suleyman said.

That adjustment process is happening right now.

One pyramid was closed five years ago and has already shrunk by 5 feet since then. The reason for the decrease is the same phenomenon that generates all the methane and garbage juice. Bacteria and fungi take possession of the garbage to promote disintegration. What’s left is soil, along with durable waste like plastics and metals.

The goal is to leave stable, rolling green hills covering 270 acres of parkland.

There are 18 other landfills in New Hanover that have been sealed off and many are now parks. However, those sites were managed before current regulations raised the standard for waste disposal above “throwing the trash in a big hole,” according to Suleyman.

New Hanover County has 18 former landfills, the most in the state, and one has been transformed into a successful project. Cape Fear Regional Soccer Park, a few minutes south of the current landfill, was built on a garbage heap that closed in the 1970s. The City of Wilmington, which owns the site, added 70 acres to it in 2019.

Another site is the Blue Clay Bike Park, near the county juvenile detention center on Detention Center Road. Suleyman said trash was buried at the site decades ago, and inspection of some of the ruts the tires have cut reveal layers of vintage mid-century trash.

He said best practices have been implemented for the current landfill to make the green park a success, namely pressing the waste into extremely dense blocks and covering them with state-of-the-art material. Plus, its stunning location – flanked by a stream, wetlands to the east and a canopy of trees around the entire perimeter – makes it unique for a business that normally takes place in unwanted parcels, tucked away just five minutes from downtown.

Suleyman kayaks through the section of creek that hugs the north side of the current landfill. He said it’s one of his favorite places in the county.

“Land is just too precious,” Suleyman said.

The landfill opened in 1981 and was the first in the state with a special liner on the bottom to hold waste. Plans for the park were created in 2015, after the site received state approval for its final 90-acre landfill expansion.

Developed by county staff and floorplanned by SCS engineers, the park proposal includes creek fishing access along the north side, a viewing area for natural wetlands to the east, planted beds with rare plant species propagated by the UNCW and areas where people can enjoy the natural wonder of space..

There is also a 300-foot wooded pad around the entire site to be permanently preserved with a trail, the newest addition to the plan. Suleyman described it as a “freeway” of nature.

The county needed to install an access road around the perimeter, which will remain there for decades to become a major feature of the park.

The 90-acre expansion was the last the state would allow into the existing site because it is bordered by wetlands, a waterway and infrastructure on all sides.

The landfill is filling up faster than expected. It was projected to take the county through 2093, but now the estimate is closer to 2050 due to local population growth – more than 10 percent every 10 years – and debris from the storm.

The landfill represents the largest future park project the county has on its books.

“I like to call it a permanent liability,” he joked, noting that the county will be stuck with the site no matter what.

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