EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — From up on a ridge overlooking the site, the landfill looks like a giant sandbox with backhoes and bulldozers and the Atlantic City skyline in the distance.
But a great deal of planning and science goes into properly disposing some 300,000 tons of waste per year. Construction on a new section of the Atlantic County Utilities Authority facility began this January and will be completed by September.
“We try to stay a little bit ahead,” said Tom Ganard, the ACUA’s deputy chief engineer. “We want to try to have a cell ready to go before we run out of capacity in the cell we’re using.”
The landfill, which opened in 1990, is built out in stages called cells. As one cell nears capacity, a new one is prepared with several plastic-lined layers at its base to contain trash and prevent groundwater contamination. Eventually, additional cells will be built out vertically as well as horizontally.
Ganard said the current cell being used has between four and six months left in its life span. On average, he said, each cell lasts about four or five years, although that fluctuates based on the amount of development in Atlantic County.
Solid waste brought to the landfill has steadily increased, up nearly 30 percent between 2009 and 2013, when the ACUA reported 322,061 tons of material.
In one sense, the ACUA is buying time with each new cell.
While the landfill isn’t expected to reach capacity until 2026, President Rick Dovey said the goal is to stretch each cell’s useful life as far as possible in order to avoid having to bury trash elsewhere.
“(This cell) gives us a safe place to dispose of our trash until we can recycle more or come up with a more modern technology that doesn’t require building a new landfill,” he said.
Historically, landfills were literal holes in the ground, a practice that’s left a legacy of toxic waste sites. Price’s Pit, located a short distance from the ACUA landfill, contaminated adjacent water supplies and has been blamed by neighbors for adverse health conditions. An estimated $70 million is now being spent to treat the water and cap the landfill to prevent further contamination.
The ACUA’s landfill was constructed to meet more stringent environmental standards, some of which came as a result of places like Price’s Pit. Dovey said the series of plastic liners and layers of sand and clay underneath each cell is like an inverse of the cap being installed at Price’s Pit — a proactive and not reactive measure.
Gene Petitt, the ACUA's chief engineer, said two impermeable liners underneath each cell protect the groundwater beneath.
“If the primary or upper liner is breached for any bizarre reason, there’s a whole other duplicate liner system below it,” he said. “It’s like a big bathtub.”
There are two layers of thick plastic and two layers of clay with a cloth liner and drainage system between them to carry away leachate, or liquid discharge. That leachate must be removed, Petitt said, in order to prevent pressure from building up in the system and potentially breaching the liners. Finally, those liners are covered in a layer of sand.
Once it’s built out, Dovey said, the landfill will resemble a sloped pyramid. And how quickly that pyramid is erected is determined by a number of external factors.
“At various times when the economy is doing well, we get more waste,” he said. “In recession, it wanes.”
Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 also had an impact on the landfill. Dovey said, the landfill saw about a 15 percent increase in use that November.
But as interesting as the science behind the landfill is, the ACUA would prefer not to use it.
“In the latest numbers that come out in a month or so, we’ll hopefully be over the 40 percent recycling level,” Dovey said, “which is great progress.”
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