When it comes to living near a landfill, how close is too close? 

Dump Site

Some say the dirt has danger in it — that it isn't dirt at all but clay-capped mounds of who-knows-what. Hazardous waste, volatile as a volcano.

Reggie Malone is one of these people. On a recent afternoon between civic meetings, Malone, a member of the Richmond School Board, ignores a no-trespassing sign and treads an obstacle course of debris to reach a promontory.

Just inches from the edge, Malone points to the East Richmond Landfill as if it were a monster lurking in a cave.

"That's not a hill of dirt," he warns. Malone is convinced the landfill has a life of its own. "On a cold day you can see smoke coming from it; on hot days you can smell it."

If there's a beast below the surface, it's resting today. The city-owned landfill looks like any other 50-acre plot of earth, earth that poor people have lived around for nearly a century.

But plans to redevelop an apartment complex on the edge of the old dump have refueled questions about whether living near the landfill is truly safe.

A cadre of developers from Richmond and Virginia Beach plans to refurbish Hilltop South apartments, the 160-unit, dilapidated low-income apartment complex that has been abandoned for more than a decade.

Last week, Richmond City Council struck from its agenda a request by Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority to approve more than $5.2 million in bond funds to rehab Hilltop South Apartments. The apartment complex, which was vacated of residents in 1991 for building-code violations, abuts the East Richmond Landfill.

When Councilwoman Reva Trammell, 8th District, asked why the item was removed, Mayor Rudy McCollum explained that a "time lapse" had occurred. A city ordinance requires Council to consider RRHA proposals within 60 days.

Developers, city officials and environmental engineers maintain there's nothing to fear from the landfill. The landfill and the properties around it, they insist, are perfectly safe. Prime, in fact, for more residents.

But Malone, who lives near Hilltop South, and the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club contend the city hasn't done enough to ensure the apartment site is safe for redevelopment.

For instance, the Sierra Club notes, a 1993 report by SCS Engineers for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that methane gas at the minimum explosive level — 5 percent — was detected in 25 percent of the field readings at monitoring wells near Hilltop South Apartments.

Glen Besa, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, sent a letter and a full copy of the EPA report to environmental consultants hired by the developers. He urged them to conduct more field studies and to question how the city maintains its landfill gas-monitoring system. "What did [the city] do to mitigate the problem?" Besa asks. "Where's the data?"

The city's response: There's nothing to worry about.

"From our standpoint the landfill is a nonproblem," says Fred Hughes, deputy director of the city's Department of Public Works.

In 1983 the city-owned landfill stopped being used as a dumping ground. Today, it serves as a processing site for "leaves, brush and concrete — everything natural," says Hughes. In addition, the city has an environmental technician who inspects the landfill monthly, to measure levels of methane gas in the air and soil.

Since the landfill closed, the city has spent $1 million to cap most of the 50-acre site with 6 feet of clay and to install a landfill gas-control system that includes 39 extraction wells, 27 monitoring probes along with blowers, flares and venting trenches.

As one independent engineer puts it: "The city has gone beyond its call of duty."

In fact, the city is so sure the property around the landfill is safe that it converted an area along a ravine off Briel Street where municipal solid waste was disposed of into a city-owned playground. Among the things kids can climb over are 13 gas wells with padlocks on them.

Reggie Malone remembers when there were just two wells on that playground, when he used to bring his children here years ago.

Malone sees it like this: "Nobody should live near stuff that's decomposing — whether it's dead bodies or garbage." He'd prefer the city to sacrifice the landfill by digging up the earth there, putting it all on a barge and shipping it off. But that would cost millions, and Malone acknowledges that it is unlikely to happen.

Indeed, the current project is moving forward. Developers and RRHA plan to reintroduce their request to City Council for bond financing soon. And last week, developers worked on the second phase in a series of tests of the Hilltop site. A new clay barrier that works like a kind of impenetrable tarp has been inserted in the ground between the landfill and the apartment complex.

Meanwhile, time is lapsing for Malone. There's a difference, he says, between living close to a landfill and living right next to one. The move to put people back in Hilltop is just one more reminder, he says, that things are far different in his East End neighborhood than in places where people have money and power. As a member of the Richmond School Board, Malone's own influence only goes so far. He points again to the mass of colorless and lifeless earth encircled by small snug houses.

"Nobody should live near a landfill," he says for about the hundredth time this day. "It's poison ground."

It's a mild winter afternoon and school has just let out. Kids spill from buses into the Church Hill streets like gumballs from a candy dispenser. It is hard not to smile, seeing them bump one another and scatter for home.

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