Problem or opportunity? How to deal with old landfills

Old landfills often seem to be a problem, with planners seeing only risks and difficulties. How can this be changed? European partners on the SufalNet project have developed a model strategy for examination, aftercare and redevelopment of landfills by René Beijnen and Mieke Kessels In March last year the European Commission decided to start legal action against 14 European Member States for inadequately transposing the EU’s legislation on the landfilling of waste into their national law. This followed a similar course of action initiated against seven Member States in December 2006. The action in question was a first ‘warning’. Whilst political warnings are likely to have an impact in the political world, the occurrence of natural warnings, arguably, has a broader and more immediate resonance. On 15 September 1979 in the Dutch city of Lekkerkerk, the main drinking water pipeline burst. ‘An enormous fountain sprouted metres high and lifted the pavement’ commented the Chairman of the residents’ association. ‘The pipeline had turned black and was blistered. It looked like prawn crackers.’ It turned out that the new housing estate had been built on an old landfill and the waste and pollution had damaged the plastic main pipeline. The local and national governments decided to sanitize this site completely. Almost 300 families were evacuated. Most of the landfill, 1600 barrels with chemical waste and the surrounding polluted soil were dug out. The houses had been built on piles, which made digging under them possible and allowed backfilling under and around the houses with clean soil. This was the first major environmental disaster in the Netherlands and it gave impetus to further and more rapid development and implementation of Dutch legislation on soil pollution. This occurrence highlights both a problem and a solution. There are numerous landfills across developed and developing nations. Some have high levels of control, exploiting the landfill gas produced and effectively managing the leachate. Others are more rudimentary. In many cases, scope exists for remediation and redevelopment. Click here to enlarge image Continuing the story from the burst water pipeline in Lekkerkerk, this article explores Dutch experience in this matter and integrates work undertaken within the European SufalNet project on landfill redevelopment. North Brabant With Lekkerkerk in mind, plans were made to prevent similar unpleasant surprises. The authorities of North Brabant needed to know where old landfills were located, and if there were any other disasters waiting to happen. In the late 1990s, a project was initiated to make an inventory of all landfills throughout the province. Over 1200 sites were investigated. Local people, including local administrations, were asked about the size, depth, height and kind of waste dumped, plus the period it was in use. All this information was gathered and a priority list was made. As a next step, all of the bigger landfills (600 landfills over 1000 m2) were visited once again and groundwater samples were taken. A monitoring system was set up. In a period of over 15 years, groundwater samples were taken at least three times. In 2007, all data on each landfill were evaluated and the risks assessed. In North Brabant all 600 old landfills have now been examined; and the wealth of information accumulated has provided a platform for redevelopment work. In North Brabant aftercare is primarily the responsibility of the owner of the landfill. The risk assessment done also provided owners with advice on aftercare measures. In about 70% of cases the cover layer was not sufficient to protect humans, animals or plants on the landfill from potential harm. The advice in most cases is to make the cover layer thicker. The province has also given the general advice not to use groundwater from shallow wells. Since 2004 about 30 landfills have been redeveloped in some way in North Brabant. Some of the smaller examples have been remodelled as parks and playgrounds in new housing estates. The Gulbergen estate is developed on one of the region’s biggest landfills and offers an interesting first case study. The Gulbergen Estate Halfway between the cities Eindhoven and Helmond lies a large regional landfill of about 50 hectares. The first waste was dumped here in 1958, the last in 2005. In total 10 million m2 of municipal and solid waste is dumped here, leaving the resulting mound at about 40 metres high above ground level. Twenty-one surrounding municipalities have formed a co-operative public organization known as SRE (Samenwerkingsverband Regio Eindhoven) which has purchased 450 ha land, around and including the old landfill site, to create the Gulbergen estate. On the landfill-site a golf course with 36 holes (20 ha), a hillside elevator, footpaths and bicycle routes and an outdoor centre for sports (climbing, skiing, bob-run) are constructed. Within a few years, the remainder of the site will be covered with a top liner. Meanwhile, on the surrounding estate there is a zoo, a recreational area (restaurants, hotel, congress centre, museum), an area for outdoor festivals, fairs, horse-jumping (40 ha) plus more footpaths and bicycle routes. The SRE spend E34 million to create Gulbergen estate, with E9 million spend by third parties. In the future, the estate will be financially independent the budgets for aftercare and redevelopment are strictly separate. Why make the effort? Old and abandoned landfills are a potential risk to the environment. It is vital that we understand the nature of this risk and take steps to protect the environment. An examination strategy developed within the European SufalNet project (SufalNet being an acronym for the ‘Sustainable use of former and abandoned landfills network’) helps us to do so. Due to the growth of cities and villages, old landfills are often surrounded by residential or industrial areas. The space taken by the landfill is usually not used in any way. It seems easier to plan around the landfill than to incorporate the landfill in any new development plans. SufalNet believes this is a missed chance. By redeveloping old landfill sites (and any other brownfield site), green fields are saved. On a local level this sometimes does not seem to be a big issue, but on a European scale things look different. The total space taken by old landfills is about 300,000 ha! Not using this space means using green fields for development of residential and industrial areas and losing 300,000 ha of nature. Can we afford that? Risks Old landfills can cause a risk in several ways. When rain or groundwater percolate through the waste material, the leachate often pollutes surrounding soil and groundwater. Landfill gas, produced by bacteria in the waste, can escape from the landfill. These gasses can cause fires or damage plants growing on the landfill. The waste material itself can cause a risk when the cover layer on the landfill is too thin, mixed with waste or polluted. Polluted soil is often used to cover landfills. These risks can be ecological or human risks depending on the current use of the site and the possibility and probability of contact with the waste, leachate or landfill gas. Figure 1. Possible pathways of pollution by landfills Click here to enlarge image null SufalNet’s examination strategy In the past three years, the SufalNet partners have exchanged their knowledge and experience. They developed a model strategy on the examination, aftercare and redevelopment of old landfills. The foundation of its model strategy on examination of a landfill is risk assessment. When old landfills are not equipped with special liners to protect the environment, they are a potential risk to the environment. Click here to enlarge image The examination strategy is based on a simple approach: the Source-Pathway-Receptor approach. In short, there are five stages in examination to obtain the data in a cost-effective and efficient manner: desk-study analysis of the site’s potential risks (contaminants, pathways and receptors) planning the investigation strategy (sampling and monitoring poles) field research at the landfill the risk assessment. Aftercare strategy After the examination, an aftercare plan can be made and implemented. The examination provides crucial information, which forms part of the aftercare strategy. The following aspects are also relevant: policies and legislation technical measures organization financing communication legal measures. All these aspects control the effectiveness of the aftercare, so each aspect has to be addressed adequately. Only then can the risks be managed. Redevelopment strategy When the risks are known and managed, one can start to think about the reuse of the space on and around the landfill. Every landfill has its special circumstances, such as the geotechnical stability, its total size, desired future use, and more. The model strategy on redevelopment does not give the one solution, but is meant as a guide to making decisions. Its method contains feasibility studies, technical, administrative and financial. It helps to formulate the redevelopment possibilities by assessing Environmental risk what is acceptable and how much does it cost? Social acceptance public acceptance is needed to redevelop successfully Financial aspects what is the return on the project and are there any liability or litigation risks? Case studies There are numerous examples of already planned or realized redevelopments of landfills the following is just a selection: The San Guiliano urban park, Venice, Italy San Guiliano landfill is part of the Porto Marghera. Between 1945 and 1990 industrial and municipal solid waste was dumped here. In 2004 it was officially opened as an urban park of 60 hectares with 10 km of pedestrian and cycle paths to improve the urban quality and to connect Mestre town and the lagoon of Venice. The San Guiliano park in Venice, Italy Click here to enlarge image null The San Guiliano park in Venice, Italy was a municipal waste site until 1990. Click here to enlarge image null In 2004 the new 60 ha park was officially opened Click here to enlarge image null The Normannenstraße landfill as city park in Emden, Germany This landfill first went into operation in 1949. The facility was the city’s main landfill for household waste until the 1980s and was later used as a disposal site for construction debris and earth. All filling operations ceased in May 2005. In September 2005 the local Health and Safety Board approved planning for the post-closure management and restoration of the landfill, and building began in 2005. The outline intends to extend the former landfill as a three-dimensionally experienceable and multifunctional utilizable parkland. Through the interplay of opening up play, relaxation and experience areas as well as some specific installations the former landfill becomes a three-dimensionally experienceable park. The North Foreshore landfill as an industrial area and nature park in Belfast, UK Landfilling of waste began in 1958 in the area now developed and known as Duncrue Estate. The demand for space for waste disposal led to releasing of 40 hectares (100 acres) in 1973, and a further 89 hectares (220 acres) in 1976. In 1981, landfill operations ceased on the southern part of the site and a programme of extensive temporary tree planting was undertaken along with structural landscaping. Tipping stopped in March 2007 in the northern part of the site and the final boundaries of the landfill operation have been set. The site was purchased by the city of Belfast in 2004. The North Foreshore site will be developed as an asset for Belfast and its citizens. The land could be developed for an Environmental Resource Recovery Park and public natural park named Giant’s Park. The name of the park originates from the nearby Cavehill, which was Jonathan Swift’s inspiration for the giant in Gulliver’s Travels. The Bellevue residential area, Maastricht, Netherlands The Bellevue residential area is a part of the 280-hectare Belvédère developed by the city of Maastricht and two investment companies. One of the first projects is to build about 400 houses and apartments in Bellevue. In this part, three old landfills are situated. The old landfills together take up 12.5 hectares. The realization of the total Belvédère project will take about 25 years. The urban development design will be sustainable and innovative. In the design process stakeholders will be involved and research will be done on waste mining, landfill gas, soil quality and foundation techniques. Securing a future for SufalNet After the final conference in November 2007 SufalNet has published its results on This was the end of the project. Because of its success and interest from all over the world, those involved in the project hope to see this work continue in SufalNet-EU. SufalNet-EU will be an Interreg IVc project. Project partners plan to present a project plan to Interreg secretariat in October 2008. The goal of SufalNet-EU will be to implement the results in regional action plans, plans that have to be funded and carried out. To do the project hopes to find at least 10 regional authorities from different European countries to join SufalNet-EU. Any regional government in the European Union can join SufalNet-EU. If interested please contact the author. Progress can be observed on the project website. René L. Beijnen is Senior Policy Advisor, Waste and Raw Materials management unit of the Department of Ecology, The Province of Noord Brabant, the Netherlands, and Project Co-ordinator for the SufalNet project.e-mail: Mieke Kessels is Communication and Policy Advisor, Waste and Raw Materials management unit of the Department of Ecology, The Province of Noord Brabant, the Netherlands This article is on-line. Please visit