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January 2003

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A Dump Reviled, Revered

The debris of 9/11 underlies a reviving ecosystem

The Fresh Kills landfill on New York's Staten Island had been closed for six months when, soon after September 11, 2001, a new stream of barges began delivering debris from the World Trade Center site. The 2,200-acre (900-hectare) dump had been the neighbor nobody wanted. When it closed in March 2001, the residents of Staten Island celebrated the arrival of what should have been the last barge of waste with water cannons and toasts. New York City councilman and Staten Island native Mike McMahon said he felt "relief, pride, and gratitude" when it looked as if Fresh Kills had finally closed.

But with the arrival of the first remains of the towers, the island's embarrassment suddenly became hallowed ground. Says McMahon, "After all, we lost more than 250 members of our community," including 78 firefighters. Workers sifted through 1.6 million tons (1.5 million metric tons) of debris that was deposited in a part of the landfill that hadn't yet been sealed. About 300 victims were identified through evidence found there, though DNA analysis may increase that tally. Eventually a memorial will rise on what became known simply as the Hill.

Could the tons of trash and tragic memories one day become a woodland refuge? Nearly ten years ago ecologist Steven Handel of Rutgers University began wondering if a coastal scrub habitat typical of the region could be restored on Fresh Kills. Today it seems as if his vision could turn the debris of New York's tragedy into a permanent living legacy.

Before Handel began his project to revive the area's native ecosystem, he says, "Engineers were just planting grass to prevent erosion. There was no biodiversity." Handel's team planted 700 trees and shrubs of seven species. Birds—the key to sustaining that diversity—flew from nearby forests to roost. The seeds the birds deposited took root, creating stands of new coastal scrub. "Now we have more than 20 plant species," he says.

It may take a decade or so, but a sea of refuse that had long stigmatized a community—and then united it in mourning—will be transformed into "a green island in an urban sea," as Handel puts it. That might be the best memorial of all.

—John L. Eliot

Web Links

Fresh Kills: Landfill to Landscape
This site provides an overview of the Fresh Kills landfill, including a map of Staten Island that indicates the locations of nearby watersheds, meadows, and residential areas. There is also a description of the competition that was held to determine how the site should be developed now that the landfill is closed.

National Museum of American History: Staten Island recovery site material
See pictures of the World Trade Center debris recovery effort that took place at Fresh Kills, including images of the workers' tools, the debris, and a map of the site.

Fresh Kills Landfill: A Photographic Tour
Created just as the landfill was closing in early 2001, this website offers pictures of various locations at Fresh Kills, including the compost facility, a landfill gas flare station where foul-smelling gases are still being burned off, and the marshy wetlands at the edge of the site.
Free World Map 

Johnson, Kirk. "Dumping Ends at Fresh Kills, Symbol of Throw-Away Era," New York Times, March 18, 2001.

Santora, Marc. "As a Grim Job Ends, Dust Returns to Dust," New York Times, July 16, 2002.


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