Former New Jersey Landfill Is a Haven for Migratory Birds (With One Fatal Feature)

Once written off as a polluted wasteland, the New Jersey Meadowlands have reemerged in recent years as a unlikely ecotourism destination and example of environmental remediation done right. . (Photo: Steven Reynolds/flickr)

Between glass-clad high-rises, guy wire-supported antenna towers and disorienting NFL stadiums, the built environment isn’t exactly hospitable to migratory birds.

And in the New Jersey Meadowlands — a major avian pit stop along the Atlantic Flyway — birds are also encountering another formidable pitfall on their epic journey from north to south and back again: an invisible landfill flame of death.

An extensive ecosystem of wetlands located in dense, heavily industrialized northeastern New Jersey, the New Jersey Meadowlands is perhaps why individuals and corporations alike have bestowed the entire Garden State with the unflattering moniker of “Armpit of America.” And to be fair, parts of the Meadowlands can indeed be kind of armpit-y: dank, swampy and historically a bit pungent due to multitude of oil refineries that have long called the surrounding area home.

Yet despite the Meadowland’s ages-old reputation as being a bleak industrial wasteland-cum-dumping ground for run-of-the-mill refuse, unregulated pollutants and the victims of mafia hit jobs, much of the area has undergone a dramatic transformation as of late, having been carefully restored and reverted back to its picturesque natural state with much needed human intervention in the form of environmental remediation and conservation.

Located on the western banks of the Hackensack River just south of MetLife Stadium, Richard W. DeKorte Park serves as the epicenter of the Meadowlands’ impressive environmental rebirth. A sprawling wonderland of mudflats and salt marshes, the trail-laden park and its more than 100 acres of protected wetlands is a veritable birders paradise that’s home to a staggering number of feathered residents, some of them seasonal, including egrets, ospreys, herons, sandpipers, American kestrels, Peregrine falcons and ducks galore. In total, more than 280 species of birds have been spotted in the Meadowlands including more than 30 species that are considered endangered, threatened or of special concern in New Jersey.

Yet because this is New Jersey, this particular stretch of the Meadowlands and its relationship with migratory birds is, well, a bit complicated.

Canadian geese at DeKorte Park, Lyndhurst, NJ
Migratory waterfowl like Canadian geese are just one of the many types of birds that call the former landfills of the New Jersey Meadowlands home on a full-time or seasonal basis. (Photo: Steven Reynolds/flickr)

An avian Eden with one cruel caveat

Not all that long ago, DeKorte Park and much of the surrounding wetlands that are now owned by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) was a dump — actually, multiple dumps that once comprised hundreds upon hundreds of acres. In fact, the NJSEA notes that according to a 1969 survey, 5,000 tons of waste were dumped in the Meadowlands six days a week, 300 days a year from 118 different New Jersey municipalities. Today, only one active landfill remains in this "environmental jewel."

The Meadowland's former life as a massive trash heap sometimes comes as a surprise to first-time visitors to the estuary park and its glorious network of trails and noted environmental education center. It shouldn’t, however, as DeKorte Park is bounded by Disposal Road, a street name that says it all.

Downriver from the main area of the park is the old Kingsland Landfill, which was closed in 1988 and underwent extensive remediation throughout the 1990s. The 150-acre covered landfill now functions as passive open space while six acres of the site is located within the confines of DeKorte Park. Laced by a quarter-mile trail that provides stunning views from its man-made hills, this section of the park, Kingsland Overlook, was one of the first landfill-to-park conversions in the country. It's also a hugely inviting spot for migratory birds looking to stop over for a quick nosh.

Yet there’s one vestige of the old landfill that has yet to fade away; a particularly cruel relic considering the area’s popularity with birds: a nearly invisible, incredibly hot flame that’s continuously burning off methane gas created by decomposing organic waste buried deep beneath the site’s remediated trash mounds.

It’s this eternal garbage flame that recreational birders and wildlife activists alike believe is burning, sometimes fatally, migratory birds. If not incinerated instantly, birds that come in contact with the nearly 20-foot-tall flare are severely singed. More often that not, they never recover from their injuries and, in turn, are unable to fend for themselves or complete their journeys.

“You hold your breath when you stand out here,” Don Torino, the president of the Bergen County Audubon Society, recently told the New York Times.

Like many others who have taken notice of the flame’s impact on migratory birds, Torino believes that something has to be done — the sooner the better. Bird mortality aside, the presence of a perpetual gas flame is a blight on an area that has otherwise enjoyed dramatic improvements in recent years. “It was the butt of jokes,” Torino tells the Times. “Not many things in nature in New Jersey get better. This is one of the places where we could say it got better.”

He adds: “Unfortunately, you have a bird killer in the middle of it.”

The Meadowlands, New Jersey
Efforts to restore the New Jersey Meadowlands, a wetland region just outside of New York City traditionally associated with environmental degradation, have attracted nature lovers en masse to the area. (Photo: Steven Reynolds/flickr)

Taming the flame

As reported by the Times, the NJSEA, which is headquartered at DeKorte Park and oversees planning and zoning in the 30-some-square-mile Meadowlands District while also operating the MetLife Sports Complex, has been at work for several years trying to find an effective solution, even bringing in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to offer guidance. “The health of the birds and wildlife is paramount to us,” says NJSEA spokesman Brian Aberback. “We’re all looking to do the same thing and remedy this.”

Gas flames like the one scorching birds at the old Kingsland Landfill aren’t uncommon at decommissioned dumps. However, an increasing number of landfill sites have opted to capture methane instead of burning the greenhouse gas off. Unfortunately, as Aberback explains to the Times, harvesting methane is “not currently a viable option for the Kingsland Landfill flare.”

Halting the release of methane altogether is not a feasible option in this newly minted ecotourism destination, but other tactics have been explored or carried out to reduce instances of bird scorchings.

While unclear exactly how many birds have been directly impacted by the flame, wildlife officials believe the situation to be quite dire. In March, Torino explained to The Record that the flare poses the most danger during the height of migration season when smaller birds take up residence in the grassy former landfill. Unlike larger birds of prey that might have a chance of being rescued and rehabilitated after coming in contact with the flame, small birds are generally instant fatalities.

Following suggestions by the USFWS, NSJEA officials have removed raptor-friendly perching spots such as trees that are in close proximity to the flame. They're also exploring the possibility of installing bird-deterring equipment on the flame stack itself, which presents itself as an ideal spot for birds of prey to scan the landscape for potential meals.

Meanwhile, an electric company plans to remove or retrofit power lines running through the area to give migrating birds fewer perching options. However, as Torino tells The Record, “there are so many poles, posts and power lines in that area that cutting trees is just a Band-Aid.”

Map of wetlands, New Jersey Meadowlands
Map of the New Jersey Meadowlands with DeKorte Park and the old Kingsland Landfill site. The cities of Lyndhurst, Rutherford, Arlington and Kearny are to the west of I-95 while Secaucus, Weehawken and Hoboken are located to the east. (Photo: Google Maps)

Partial map of the New Jersey Meadowlands. The cities of Lyndhurst, Rutherford, North Arlington and Kearny are to the west of I-95 while Secaucus, Weehawken and Hoboken are located to the east. (Screenshot: Google Maps)

Officials are also looking into using an additive that makes the flame itself more visible in hopes that birds will navigate around it, instead of through or directly over it. Some experts believe that an intermittently burning flame, in lieu of a continuously burning one, would also pose less of a threat to birds.

Whatever the case, there’s no reversing the old landfill’s current status as a bona fide bird buffet teeming with a variety of tasty treats for winged visitors: insects, snakes, mice and other critters that call this undulating, grass- and wildflower-covered landscape home. “You can see the food chain at work,” Gabrielle Bennett-Meany, a natural resource specialist for the NJSEA, tells the Times. “You have quite a dynamic little ecosystem on a landfill.”

Torino, for one, doesn’t fault the NJSEA, for the bird-maiming flame and the drawn-out effort to render it less deadly. Rather, he places blame on the lack of a national standard on how to protect birds from landfill methane flares.

“It’s just sad. It frustrates the heck out of me,” he laments to The Record. “Nobody is giving the sports authority answers. It’s not like they’re not trying. This is a national problem that should be worked on at the national level. Letting the authority fend for itself to solve this is crazy.”