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The County Landfill: Visiting Prince William’s “Greenest” Attraction

Discarded objects find new life at the Prince William County Landfill. Some, such as batteries and paper, are recycled, while the methane released from trash is captured and used to power the plant and 5,000 surrounding homes.

Discarded objects find new life at the Prince William County Landfill. Some, such as batteries and paper, are recycled, while the methane released from trash is captured and used to power the plant and 5,000 surrounding homes.

By Amanda Causey 

Visit the second highest point in Prince William County for a day of education and enlightenment, and you will find yourself at the Prince William County Landfill. While it may seem like an unlikely day trip, this family destination is eye- opening, and even fun.

The landfill, located at 14811 Dumfries Road in Manassas, conducts free one-hour public tours of the facility Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The tours let people “see what happens to their trash and how they can keep our facility going and increase the longevity of its life,” stated Deborah Campbell, public information specialist for the Solid Waste Division of the county Department of Public Works, which oversees the landfill and is responsible for community trash and recycled materials.

Tours begin in the landfill’s Citizens’ Convenience Area, which is in a constant flurry of activity. Tour guides Edgar Jones and Ed Preston have a passion for teaching area residents about the importance of recycling, and how each person can make a difference. “I thank the people on our tours for their diligence,” stated Jones. “They are the reason we are able to reduce our wastes here and ultimately increase the life of the landfill.”

The tours don’t just attract Prince William residents. “Last year we had a large group from China come tour our facility as well as a couple from Portugal and a mayor from Germany. We are a destination for people all over the world,” said Jones.

The Citizens’ Convenience Area is self-service, with designated sections to dispose of household trash and to recycle aluminum cans, newspapers, glass, batteries, motor oil and scrap metal. “I have saved so much money by being able to drop my items here. My wife said we should use the money saved on a trip to Hawaii,” said Dumfries resident Bill Segger, who was there with his recyclables.

Also within the area is “The Donation Place,” where residents can drop off items in good condition for donation to local Goodwill stores. Formerly “Too Good to Waste,” it is now for drop off only.

The tour’s next stop is the refrigerator pile. Jones explained that Prince William County, which mandates recycling, prohibits landfilling (burying) these appliances, which also contain hazardous chemicals and components. Federal environmental regulations call for refrigerants, such as Freon, and most other hazardous waste to be removed from discarded appliances for disposal based on Environmental Protection Agency specifications.

At the county landfill, licensed contractors remove the Freon, which is then sold to a vendor. Once the refrigerators are safe to break down, they are crushed and sold as scrap, Jones said.

Nearby is the rubble pile, a large hill of crushed rocks, bricks and cinder blocks. “When a road needs to be rebuilt, the parts that are dug up come here to be used later on,” stated Jones. “We reuse everything that we can here. This pile is used as a base for repairing roads throughout the county.”

Next, the scrap metal area, which is open to residents, has really paid off for the landfill. Jones explained that in past years, the operation has received and sold enough scrap metal to cover the cost of purchasing a piece of heavy equipment.

Throughout the landfill are numerous black pipes, part of the facility’s power plant. The county partnered with renewable energy company Fortistar in 1997 to install two engines to generate electricity from methane gas produced by the decomposing trash. Last December, the county added three new engines, which more than doubled the facility’s electric output, according to Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC). The plant now provides 48 million kilowatt-hours to the NOVEC grid. The county animal shelter and vehicle maintenance center, along with roughly 5,000 homes, are powered by this renewable energy source.

Turning methane gas into energy comes with an added olfactory benefit. “I don’t know if you have noticed, but there is no smell,” Jones said of the landfill. “You will have some odor near the power plant and up on the top where the household wastes are dumped.”

The landfill’s yard waste area, nearly last on the tour, collects building materials and pallets along with debris from trees and shrubbery. Most of the waste is turned into mulch, which is available for sale to the public. The rest is converted into ground cover throughout the landfill to reduce wear and tear and prevent damage from muddy roads, Jones said.

At the landfill’s highest point, you can see Bull Run Mountain, as well as the Shenandoah range in the distance. Also, about 38 to 43 American Bald eagles reside at the landfill, a dramatic increase from the two present when Jones started working at the facility in 1995. Wildlife refuge as well as energy resource and safe disposal of harmful wastes—the landfill does it all.

When he’s not guiding tours, Jones works in quality control, conducting water sample testing and citizen load inspections and overseeing household hazardous waste processing. Since he started at the facility, he has witnessed the landfill undergo changes for the better, he said.

Providing county landfill tours to students on school field trips gives Jones the opportunity to continue that growth. “We are changing the culture and minds of people about trash at an early age … as young as 3,” he said. “The next generation will have a new way of thinking about trash because by the time they are 18 they will have been out here about five times.”

The Solid Waste Division also holds events regularly to share its renewable message. Upcoming programs include “Compost Awareness Day” April 26 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Ball’s Ford Road Compost Facility, located at 13000 Balls Ford Road in Manassas. The county landfill will hold paper shredding May 10 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The landfill office is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and can be reached at 703-792-5750 to schedule a tour. For more information about the landfill and items accepted for disposal and recycling, visit www.pwcgov.org.

Amanda Causey is Prince William Living’s marketing director. She is also a photographer, home cook and avid “DIYer,” posting her handiwork on her blog, greenowlcrafts.com. She can be reached at acausey@princewilliamliving.com. 

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