Mixed views on redevelopment of landfills

Posted on August 16, 2011. Filed under: Waste |

-The Star-

Old landfills have found new uses as development sites but not everyone agrees to that.

THE old Kelana Jaya garbage dump in Selangor will soon cease to exist. The last tract of the landfill, the dumping ground for trash thrown out by folks in Petaling Jaya, Subang Jaya and Shah Alam from 1990 and 1996, is being dug up to make way for a commercial-residential project.

Since 2002, the once-sprawling refuse tip located off the road leading to the Subang airport in Selangor (an area which is now part of Ara Damansara) has been slowly paved over with link houses, apartments, low-cost flats and shops.

Soon, Pacific Place, a project comprising a mall, shops and 15-storey apartments, will come up on what is left of the dumpsite.

Last tract of old landfill: A commercial-residential project called Pacific Place is coming up on what was once the Kelana Jaya dump in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. The adjacent Dana 1 commercial centre was also built atop the dump. Much of the old rubbish has been excavated but a thick layer of buried waste can still be seen at the construction site.

Earthworks has commenced, with a huge pit carved out of the old open dump for piling works. Mounds of black, excavated landfill waste can be seen on the site; these are full of plastic bags buried at least 15 years ago (yes, they do not decay) and tyres.

As urban sprawl closes in on city outskirts, rubbish tips which once sit on remote corners far from human settlements have suddenly become sought-after prime land. But is it all right to put up major infrastructure on dumpsites? The Department of National Solid Waste Management thinks not.

“We don’t allow redevelopment of landfills. They should only be for light development such as recreation parks, green lungs or a small sport centre. That’s all we allow under our guidelines,” asserts director-general Datuk Dr Nadzri Yahaya.

The department has received several proposals for development on dumpsites and even offers to buy over the land but it has turned them all down.

The risks of allowing buildings and human habitation on dumping grounds are high: these dumps can leak foul leachate as well as combustible and explosive gases for years as waste slowly decays. And as decomposition gradually shrinks the waste volume, the land will sink.

“If you build houses on landfills, it might be all right the first three to four years but after that, the land will start to sink and you get methane releases,” says Nadzri.

Even for sanitary landfills, which are engineered with anti-pollution features, post-closure plans have to be carefully thought out. “Their future uses are decided right from the design and construction stages,” says Zamri Abdul Rahman, head of environment division at Worldwide Holdings which operates two sanitary landfills in Selangor.

“Most sanitary landfills in Malaysia are planned for green lungs following closure. In the initial years after the landfill closes, it can be used as a park. Twenty years after closure, and depending on its design and layout, we can do a study to see if it is possible to put low-rise buildings such as stadiums and two-storey homes,” says Zamri.

Decaying rubbish, excavated from the old Kelana Jaya dump, is disposed of in shallow pits at this illegal dump in Kota Warisan, Sepang. Nearby are link houses, oil palm estates and mining ponds.

He, too, asserts that landfills are not suitable for high-rises. “Piling work might damage landfill pipes and release trapped gases, and the piles might be corroded by leachate and gases.”

Sitting on a dump

In the past, the absence of laws forbidding structures on disused open dumps has led to residential estates, commercial sites and factories coming up on such lands. And there are examples that demonstrate the foolishness of building atop garbage dumps. Cracks have developed in homes at one such site in Ipoh and in Taman Kota Laksamana in Malacca as well as in low-cost flats in Bukit Kecil in Kuala Terengganu. Land subsidence of up to 2m caused the watchtower of the Fire Services Department in Setapak, Kuala Lumpur, to collapse in the late 1990s and left huge gaps between the ground and the foundation of the firemen’s apartments.

Nadzri says it might be possible to build over a landfill if all the buried waste was removed. But this rarely happens as excavating huge mountains of old rubbish and properly disposing it, will incur high costs.

A 2004 filepix of the Kelana Idaman housing project which sits on the Kelana Jaya dump. Buried waste was not totally removed. When Star2 checked the site in 2004, landfill waste was seen all over the project site.

This has been the bitter experience of home-owners at Kelana Idaman, a neighbourhood near the Pacific Place site which was built atop the Kelana Jaya dump. Only the upper layers of decaying garbage were removed for constructing link houses and shops on 4.8ha of the landfill between 2002 and 2004, eight years after the dump closed. So when residents dug their properties for gardens and home extensions, they unearthed decaying trash in the ground instead of soil.

“Their homes sank and metal fixtures developed green rust (attributed to reaction between hydrogen sulphide and copper),” says Nadzri of the complaints he received.

In 2006, a Universiti Malaya study commissioned by Petaling Jaya Municipal Council detected mercury and arsenic contamination in the soil in Kelana Idaman. As such, residents were advised against growing edible plants.

Waste management scientist Dr P. Agamuthu who led the study, found no immediate danger from gases at that time as levels were low – less than 1% of methane in the air and 1ppm of hydrogen sulphide. (If above 5%, methane is explosive).

Agamuthu, too, is against high-density projects such as high-rises and commercial centres on dumps. “Closed landfills are best used as parks and golf courses and in some countries, for low-rise industrial buildings.”

Waste that has been dug up from the old Kelana Jaya dump was seen in early July to be illegally dumped into this pond at Jalan SS7/4 in Kelana Jaya.

However, if the waste is dug up, he says construction will be possible. But there must be a detailed study on the residue, possible pollution and gas emissions.

He says that in that earlier study, he had recommended the removal of waste from the rest of the Kelana Jaya dump (the present site of Pacific Place) since other buildings were already crowding in.

Leaving the dump as it is might pose more of a threat as gases might migrate to the surrounding homes and shops, he says.

He adds that a geologist in the study had concluded that it was possible to excavate the dump as the waste layer was not deep and it would be safe for construction.

Agamuthu stresses that the excavated waste must go to a sanitary landfill as it is likely to be contaminated since hazardous stuff like fluorescent lights, batteries, expired medicines, electronic waste and chemical-laced containers (for chemicals, pesticides and paints) often end up in refuse tips.

He estimates that 3% of the 30,000 tonnes that Malaysians discard each day is hazardous.

Which raises the question: Where is all the old rubbish excavated from the Kelana Jaya dump going? Certainly not to any of the three sanitary landfills found in Selangor.

Zamri, who is also general manager of Worldwide Landfills which operates the Jeram landfill in Kuala Selangor and Tanjung 12 landfill in Kuala Langat, says neither facility has received old landfill waste from the Kelana Jaya dump. Nadzri says the same of Bukit Tagar landfill in Hulu Selangor.

Star2 tailed lorries from the Pacific Place site on July 6 and Aug 2. On the first occasion, the lorry dumped the landfill dirt into a pond behind SJK (Tamil) Seaport and bungalows in Jalan SS7/4, Kelana Jaya. On the second occasion, the lorry tipped the waste into huge pits near link houses in Kota Warisan, Sepang.

These are not the first wanton disposal of waste from the Kelana Jaya dump. In 2004, when the landfill was dug up for Dana 1, a commercial centre beside Pacific Place, lorry-loads of excavated waste were heaped near homes in Subang new village.

Non-existent landfills

With general sentiments being against buildings on old landfills, how did projects on the Kelana Jaya dumpsite get approved? How did a garbage dump get carved up and the soiled land, sold to different developers?

Nadzri says the development applications did not reach his department as that landfill is out of his purview. Pending enforcement of the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Act 2007 (scheduled for September after numerous postponements), old landfills still come under local authorities.

Furthermore, the Kelana Jaya dump was never gazetted as a landfill. So on land-use planning maps, it is not necessarily declared as tapak pelupusan sampah or “garbage disposal site”. And since it is not legally a landfill, the approving authorities might not treat it as one when weighing development proposals and when dishing out approval conditions.

Nadzri admits that many old, ungazetted landfills face the same issue. “If the local authority allows development, there is not much we can do.”

And in yet another oversight in our anti-pollution laws, environmental impact assessments are required only for construction of new sanitary landfills and not when old dumps are reused for development – although logically the latter should pose even more hazards.

But Nadzri is hopeful that his department will have a say on matters once the Act is in place. It will have some 12 supporting regulations covering landfill design, operations and closure, as well as licensing of waste contractors.

While these might spell better management of our trash, there is one setback – the laws will not apply to the Opposition-held states of Selangor and Penang, which have opted out of the Federal Government’s waste management scheme.

So will both state governments enact trash rules that are comparable with the Federal’s? Will local authorities ensure that impact studies are done before old landfills are redeveloped and the excavated waste, totally removed and properly disposed? Will they scrutinise the development to ensure that rules are not flouted, and public and environmental safety are upheld?

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