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Landfill Grass Project Keeps Dust Level Down

SUNLAND PARK, N.M. - As enormous earthmoving equipment pushes trash into piles at Camino Real Landfill in Sunland Park, N.M., strong winds do their best to kick up disturbed soil and create clouds of dust. This scenario prompted landfill officials to work with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to rebuild the topsoil on the land and cover it with green grass.

To date, landfill workers have established ryegrass on four acres, said Joe King, Camino Real Landfill president and general manager. "We felt that if we could grow grass on a test area of the landfill, it would give us a good idea of how much water we needed, how we needed to prepare the soil, and how we could deliver water to the seeds and support the growth," King said.

Getting anything to grow on the 480 acres of highly exposed, sandy land that overlooks the outskirts of El Paso, Texas, was a challenge, said Patrick Peck, NMSU Extension research assistant.

"It was really poor soil, basically sugar sand," Peck said. "I knew right off the bat that because it didn't have a lot of nutrients and good properties, it was going to need a lot of work."

Peck contacted the NRCSI Rudy Garcia for advice on which plant would be most effective in preventing wind erosion.

"We gathered soil samples and tested the compost piles to provide recommendations as to how to develop a strong soil structure that would hold water for the plants and have a certain fertility level," Garcia said. "Our main goal was to establish a soil condition that would stay in place indefinitely and be able to go back to the native vegetation that once existed on this mountain."

Peck and Garcia then met with Mary Gaughan, Camino Real Landfill environmental engineer, to determine the best way to rebuild the soil. Gaughan said the nearby Sunland Park Race Track provided the answer in the form of straw and horse manure.

"We saw a large amount of that material coming into the landfill, and we thought about what else we could do with it," Gaughan said. "Because we needed to establish vegetation, that seemed to us to be a good nutrient fertilizer to supplement the soil here."

Together, the team selected ryegrass as the plant to establish on trash-filled areas. They dropped the supplemented topsoil over the test area, then carved contours into the surface. After regular waterings, green blades of grass began to poke through and the dust level diminished.

"We have now worked out the quirks," King said. "It is a time intensive project, it's not inexpensive, but it does solve the problem."

Another 10 acres are being prepared for seeding in the pilot project that could someday serve as a template for similar re-vegetation projects at other landfills.