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The City of Tonawanda's landfill today became the site of an experiment in land reclamation funded by a state agency.

The 35-acre Wales Avenue landfill, closed in 1985, is being "mined" using conventional technology under a $93,000 contract funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which sees the project as a potential energy-saver.

"Not only can we reclaim metals and construction materials, like concrete, that can be recyled, but there are combustibles here that can be burned to make electricity," said project manager James Reis. Reis is overseeing five similar test projects across the state.

In Tonawanda, 10 pits are being dug, and the material is being screened to recover metals and plastics, paper, wood and brush (which can be burned) and concrete, which can be crushed and reused for road fill."

Conventional landfills simply "entomb whatever is buried there," said agency Chairman Francis J. Murray Jr. "Rather than sealing off landfills and hoping for the best, this process could restore the environmental quality of the site; it allows for some energy recovery and may save municipalities money."

That can be a considerable saving because -- under the Department of Environmental Conservation landfill rules -- it costs about $100,000 per acre to cap and seal a landfill and far more over the next 30 years to monitor the site to make sure there is no seepage.

Tonawanda has five monitoring wells and spends as much as $30,000 per year in testing to see that there is no leaching from the site.

"This is a win-win situation" said Tonawanda Mayor Alice Roth. If the project proves feasible, "it can open up additional land within the industrial park. In a built-outcommunity like Tonawanda, this is an exciting approach for abandoned landfills."

The only fly in the ointment may be the burning, environmental watchdogs say. Trash-to-energy incinerators do have fly ash problems and often the ash contains residues that need to be stored forever in secure landfills.

Representatives of three area environmental groups were not available to comment on the plan today.

This project, and the others currently under way, could extend to up to 350 landfills across the state that may be candidates for reclamation.

Once reclaimed, there may be other benefits too, Reis said.

"For one thing, it would allow older landfills to remain open, should they be upgraded to current standards; for another, it also could provide dirt cover needed to operate new landfills. If that soil tests out all right, it could even be used as topsoil, and surely as fill for new roads or other construction projects."

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