WILLOUGHBY, Ohio (AP) — Who would have thought that 200 acres of rot could amount to anything good?
In this June 8, 2014 photo, Auddia Pringle and her mother Kim Stone look at an insect found during the Geauga Park's Wildlife of the Landfill event at the former Lake County Landfill in Willoughby, Ohio. The landfill was capped in 1993 and has been naturally reclaimed by a wide diversity of grassland animals and plants. (AP Photo/The News-Herald, Duncan Scott)
Taking a tour of the former Lake County Landfill, operated from 1929 to 1993 on the Kirtland-Chester Township border, will make you a believer.
The gargantuan garbage heap was covered with an 8-foot-deep vegetative cap — a combination of clay, topsoil and grass atop a high-density polyethylene seal — when it was closed 21 years ago.
The area has been returning to nature ever since, particularly after a partnership began between land owner Waste Management Inc. and local wildlife experts.
The company consulted Geauga Park District, which owns neighboring Orchard Hills Park, and Wildlife Habitat Council representatives on how to nurture nature along. The site received wildlife habitat certification in 2010, which is up for renewal this year.
"There are 500 acres of wildlife between the two properties," said park district naturalist Dottie Drockton, during a recent free tour on the old dump.
Though the weather wasn't ideal to see rare insects inhabiting the site — emerald dragonflies, damselflies and tiger beetles, to name a few — several of the birds attracted by the grassland habitat were spotted by the group.
"The main one is the bobolink," park district Naturalist Linda Gilbert said. "We just saw a male perched on a post down there with food in its beak, which means they're nesting here, which is a very cool thing."
Also seen and heard were a variety of uncommon sparrows, such as a grasshopper sparrow singing away from the top of a methane gas extraction well cap. The 43 ground-water monitoring wells, plunging 30 to 190 feet deep, also serve as potential perches, along with providing an environmental gauge.
"We have all kinds of data that tells what's going on under the landfill," said Timothy Haaf, construction/maintenance manager for Waste Management's closed Midwest sites.
The site also is home to a high-quality stream, Caves Creek, and a wide range of thriving vegetation. The view from the summit of the vegetative cap — emerging like a man-made mountain from the surrounding landscape — is stunning.
"You can see downtown Cleveland on a clear day," said Haaf, who clearly relishes his visits to the property.
There are about 100 closed Waste Management landfill sites in the United States. The Houston-based company operates 240 landfills in the nation.
"My responsibility is to maintain the site in compliance with post-closure care requirements as approved by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency," Haaf said. The company is required by EPA permit to maintain the site for 30 years after closure. "It doesn't mean we have no responsibility after that. We have to demonstrate that the site is non-polluting or doesn't have the potential to pollute."
He said it costs about $200,000 a year to manage the site. Maintenance challenges include power outages in the area and evolving regulations.
"You can imagine, since 1929, a lot of rules have changed," Haaf said.
"Eventually the landfill will dry up and you don't have any potential to contaminate any water sources," he said.