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Dump Made a Landmark, but Will It Pass Sniff Test?

Fresno: U.S. makes the declaration, then backpedals. The site is on Superfund list.

August 28, 2001|GEOFFREY MOHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a 60-foot mountain of buried trash that belches methane, has contaminated nearby wells and earned a listing as a federal Superfund toxic waste site.

Now, the Fresno Municipal Sanitary Landfill is also a national historic landmark. Or it was for most of Monday, until the designation was put on hold pending federal review.

Secretary of Interior Gale A. Norton on Monday granted landmark status to the 145-acre Superfund site, officially placing it alongside such historic locales as Monticello, Mt. Vernon and Alcatraz Island.

"These special sites underscore our heritage and tell stories of a period and events in our history," Norton said in a written statement announcing 15 newly designated sites.

But late Monday, the Interior Department released a memorandum from the National Park Service saying the Fresno site needs further review. "I was unaware that the landfill had been listed as a Superfund site," wrote Denis P. Galvin, deputy director of the Park Service, who recommended last month that the 15 sites be designated landmarks.

Galvin said he will consult with the Environmental Protection Agency and Fresno officials.

The story told by the landfill, at least in its waning days, is not pretty. In the early 1980s, state environmental regulators found that methane and volatile organic compounds had seeped into ground water in wells around the landfill.

The site quickly earned a Superfund national priority listing, and prompted a cleanup that cost the city about $38 million and is only now being completed.

"To be honest, I don't know who nominated it and why," said Beatriz Bofill, the federal Environmental Protection Agency official overseeing the court-mandated cleanup of the landfill.

"Are you kidding?" was the response of City Council member Brian Calhoun.

"This is a new one for me," said Assistant City Atty. David Hale, who has handled much of the legal wrangling over the landfill's pollution.

"For a stinking dump, huh?" said Martin McIntyre, the city's director of public utilities. "I can understand why folks might be shocked at that and wonder how something so mundane can be nominated.

"But that landfill is truly a landmark. It's the oldest sanitary landfill in the nation, which doesn't sound like much, but that design has been exported all over the country and the world and played a pivotal role in public health."

None of the city officials who could be contacted Monday knew for sure who nominated the site, which operated from 1935 to 1987.

But McIntyre and others touted the landfill as a monument to the innovation of Jean Vicenz, the late former public works commissioner, who in 1935 began dumping the city's garbage in trenches, compacting it, and covering it with dirt every day.

"At that time it was either burning it, feeding it to hogs, or letting it lie," said Jim Martin, former public works director.

Trash dumps were breeding grounds for vermin and disease at the time, Martin noted.

Unfortunately for Fresno, Vicenz didn't invent a liner to go beneath the trash. As a result, like most of the landfills around the country that followed his design, the Fresno dump began leaching out its noxious contents.

The city has capped the trash mound with vinyl and dirt, bored monitoring wells and built a methane-collection system and water-treatment plant for the polluted ground water, according to Bofill.

Landmark designation wouldn't change any of the remediation measures, she said.

The city also bought up adjacent land, and is building a 115-acre sports complex, with nine soccer fields, six softball diamonds, a pond, picnic area and children's playground, at the foot of the mammoth former trash heap.

In Washington, a spokeswoman for Norton said that as of late Monday, the Interior Department has not been able to determine exactly who nominated the Fresno site. Those nominations had been given to the National Park System Advisory Board, which picked 15 recommendations in 11 states, said the spokeswoman, Stephanie Hanna.

"It's likely that Secretary Norton will review this process of designating landmarks in the future," Hanna said.

Asked if any other Superfund site has achieved such status, Hanna said, "I certainly hope not."

*

Times staff writer Deborah Schoch contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Historic Landmarks in California

The Fresno Sanitary Landfill became the 129th California site named to the National Historic Landmarks list. Others include:

* Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park

* Balboa Park, San Diego

* Carmel Mission, Carmel

* Hearst San Simeon Estate, San Simeon

* Hotel del Coronado, San Diego

* Little Tokyo Historic District, Los Angeles

* Manzanar War Relocation Center, Independence

* John Muir House, Martinez

* Richard M. Nixon Birthplace, Yorba Linda

* Pony Express Terminal, Sacramento

* Rose Bowl, Pasadena

* San Francisco Cable Cars, San Francisco

* Well No. 4, Pico Canyon Oil Field, San Fernando

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